Friday, 9 November 2012

Henry Moore Sculpture to be Sold

This is Henry Moore's 1957 bronze sculpture 'Draped Seated Woman'.

Its rather leafy rural setting is the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where it's been for the last 15 years.  

However, it was never meant to be there.  Here it is in its intended setting, the rather more urban and less leafy Tower Hamlets in London.

The sculpture is in the news because Tower Hamlets Council, who own the statue, are going to sell it to help plug the gap in their budget cuts.  The sculpture is said to be worth up to £20 million.

Henry Moore sold the statue at well below market value (£6000) to Tower Hamlets in the 1960s, on the condition that it was sited actually in the borough of Tower Hamlets.  He wanted top quality art to be accessible to everyone, even the most socially deprived, and had a number of his works sited on bomb-damaged estates and new towns following WW2.

However, as you can see, for the last decade and a half, the sculpture has been on holiday in the country, nowhere near London's east end.  (There hasn't been much of an outcry about that.)

The decision to sell has had a number of top names, including Olympic opening ceremony designer Danny Boyle, up in arms.  An online petition has attracted 1500 names, who have all of a sudden realised the statue has been missing. There are accusations that its sale is a betrayal of 'working class heritage', that local people haven't been consulted, and that alternatives have been ignored. Several alternative sites had been discussed, including Canary Wharf and Victoria Park, but none were deemed suitable.  The Museum of London had also offered to display the sculpture, and siting it in London's east end Olympic Park has also been mooted. 

However, the council says that insurance, vandalism, and the possibility of being stolen make keeping the work impossible.  I would question that public statues are actually insured, and although thefts do happen (a Hepworth sculpture was stolen from Dulwich Park in 2011, for example)  Draped Woman weighs a tonne and a half.  However, I take their point that with ownership of a work of art comes responsibilities for its upkeep.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park aren't too chuffed with having 'their' statue removed either.  They seem to manage to have lots of multi-million pound artwork strewn around the landscape without any thefts or vandalism, and have sorted out the insurance issues.

Henry Moore sculpture at Yorkshire Sculpture Park - image by Jonty Wilde

 Barbara Hepworth's Family of Man at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Still, these are depressing arguments.  Is that to say there should be no public art whatsoever?  Are we all to be so frightened of vandals and thieves that we should hide away all art that gives us pleasure?  In a financial crisis, is art the first thing to go as being both excess to requirements, and a source of easy money?  Is it right to exploit the generosity of artists? Should public areas be brutalist, functional zones devoid of all ornament?  

Perhaps we should be taking a leaf out of Damien Hirst's book - flying in the face of possible vandalism, metal thieves and public outcry,  he has fearlessly sited his 66 foot tall, 25 ton bronze statue Verity right where every can see it,  outside his restaurant in Ilfracombe.  Read the article here.

There are plenty of Henry Moore sculptures in London already, so obviously not all councils are persuaded by these concerns.  See a map with Henry Moore's other works in London here.  (Blue flags are for outdoor works, red are for indoor.)

Also, it's all very well to say that the work is worth millions (and the council are keen for Christie's to handle the sale as soon as possible), but is it?  Provenance, in the art world, is everything, and here we have a controversial statue with a backstory of being sold against the artist's wishes amidst public outcry.  That would be a just fabulous provenance to have with the work, wouldn't it?  I'm sure the proud new owners who are expected to form out £20 million (plus auction fees) would be delighted.

But the bottom line is, it's Tower Hamlet's asset, and they can do with it as they like, no matter what some dead artist with socialist principles intended.  Probably the 22,000 on the housing waiting list there would agree that a home is preferable to a wonky old statue. It's just a bit sad they can't have both.

It will be interesting to see how the story pans out.  Presumably Tower Hamlets Council will have to splash out a fair bit to get the sculpture back from Yorkshire first....

Read about the latest developments in the new argument about ownership of the statue here.