Seeking to enrich the lives of their citizens, British cities and towns once embraced art for art’s sake, scooping up masterworks for display in squares, train stations, schools and museums. But as Europe scrimps and saves amid a historic push to slash public debt, the motto here now is art for cash’s sake.
A fire sale of landmark works owned by British municipalities is generating a national debate over the true value of public art. Though the parade of sales is echoing a trend across Europe that has seen cash-strapped Greece move to sell off islands and Italy peddle a 17th-century palazzo, the outcry here is from those who worry that a push for short-term gains is outweighing the blow to cultural life.
But at a time when the national government’s austerity crusade is slashing local spending, a host of mayors say they have no choice. In an effort to combat $160 million in cuts, for instance, the downtrodden East London borough of Tower Hamlets is selling “Draped Seated Woman,” a 1957 bronze by British abstract sculptor Henry Moore. Moore sold the sculpture to the London County Council in 1962 at the generous price of $11,800, under the stipulation that it remain in a visible public space for everyone to enjoy. “Old Flo,” as the work has been nicknamed, is expected to bring in anywhere from $8 million to $32 million when it goes up for auction at Christie’s in February.
“Henry Moore said he wanted his sculpture to benefit the residents of the borough and through the sale the council can achieve this in a tangible and practical way,” council member Rania Khan, cabinet member for culture and regeneration in Tower Hamlets, said in a statement. “We are not the first council to do this in order to benefit our residents and I am sure we will not be the last.”
Moore’s sculpture is one of many public artworks that have recently been slapped with a price tag. The council of Northampton, a large town north of London, plans to sell an Egyptian statue dating to 2400 B.C. and estimated to be worth $3 million. Last year, Bolton Council in Greater Manchester, which faces budget cuts of more than $95 million, cashed in on 36 pieces of art from its collection, including works by Picasso and the 19th-century English painter John Everett Millais. Meanwhile, Leicestershire County Council in the Midlands raised more than $270,000 last year by selling off art originally purchased for display in schools, and Newcastle City Council offered portions of a public sculpture worth $430,000 on eBay.
The sales have caused an uproar. Filmmaker Danny Boyle, who staged the opening ceremony at the London Olympics, and Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries, joined others from the British art world to denounce the sale in Tower Hamlets. In an open letter published in Britain’s Observer newspaper last month they wrote, “while we understand the financial pressures that Tower Hamlets faces, we feel that the mayor’s proposal goes against the spirit of Henry Moore’s original sale to London County Council.”
“The value of public art is diminished by being monetarized,” Boyle said in a statement last month. “The Moore sculpture defies all prejudice in people’s minds about one of London’s poorest boroughs. That alone makes it priceless to every resident.”
Yet, in several cases, supporters of the sales note that many of the works being offered had been in storage or were not on local display. For instance, the Moore statue in Tower Hamlets — once adorning the Stifford Estate, a low-income housing association in East London — was moved 15 years ago after the compound was demolished and the sculpture was vandalized. It now rests 200 miles north of East London, in the rural rolling hills of 500-acre Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Yorkshire.
In 2010, conservative council member Tim Archer started a campaign to bring Old Flo back to the borough, but the Tower Hamlets Council shot down the effort because of the exorbitant cost of insuring the sculpture.
Andrew Shoben, professor of public art at Goldsmiths, University of London, sympathizes with Tower Hamlets. He said the sale could offer an opportunity for commissioning new works by up-and-coming artists.
Members of the Tower Hamlets Council say most of the revenue will be used to fund public housing. Although they say a portion will also go toward a local art fund, Rushanara Ali, a member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow, a ward in Tower Hamlets, calls that “wishful thinking.”
“The rationale that has been given by the mayor of Tower Hamlets is that the sale is to delay a gap in terms of costs that the council faces on services,” said Ali, who opposes the decision to sell the sculpture. “The issue is that there has been poor management of public finance.
“There’s a wider question that this whole affair raises, which is, where does it stop? Where do you draw the line in terms of selling off public art?” Ali said.
Ian Leith, founder and deputy chairman of the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, said he worries that selling national treasures such as “Draped Seated Woman” is becoming a trend.
“We are worried about the precedents for further public removals in order to realize assets,” Leith said. “A whole host of further pieces are potentially at risk.”