Who owns public art?

As a result of the continuing question marks over Tower Hamlets Council’s ownership of Henry Moore’s iconic Old Flo, a case which is being contested by Bromley Council, the question “who owns public art” has been rearing its head in recent weeks.

As the Daily Telegraph’s Sarah Crompton says in her piece this week, selling off public art to raise funds is a very bad idea. Stephen Carr, leader of Bromley Council, says the answer to local authorities’ funding challenges doesn’t lie in selling off the UK’s heritage: “Local authorities need to face financial reality and look at the longer-term challenges. The monies raised would not protect frontline services for very long and would stop future generations appreciating this national treasure.”

Despite Mayor Rahman insisting the £20 million raised would make a real difference to the £100 million funding cut that Tower Hamlets Council faces over the next three years, several independent experts have advised that the sculpture is probably worth nearer £4-5 million – amounting to less than 0.3% of Tower Hamlet’s annual expenditure of £1.53 billion.

With central government cutting funds to local authorities, and local authorities responsible for front line services to its people, councils are slashing funds to lines that aren’t deemed ‘essential’. Culture is one of those lines. And though cutting funding is one thing, actively raiding a local area’s heritage is many steps too far.

But aside from selling off the family silver approach, there are so many other vital aspects to this already murky situation.

Establishing ownership is paramount. No council should be able even to contemplate selling something it can’t prove it owns. And the likely owner, Bromley Council, has a very different view of the importance of heritage.

Remembering the initial reason for the sale is a must. Mayor Rahman says that costs of insuring and displaying the work are prohibitive, which is why it looked into its sale. But the Museum of London, which sits within the borough, has offered to house, insure and maintain the work at its Docklands site, thus keeping it cared for and on public view. It seems Mayor Rahman never even considered that offer seriously.

As his daughter confirms, Henry Moore was delighted that his work was placed in Stepney as a demonstration of the post-war belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality. That sentiment still resonates today and shouldn’t be disregarded because of one council’s short-sighted wish for a quick sticking plaster remedy to its present financial challenges.

Heritage matters. Moore’s iconic emblem reminds us all of the struggles, defeats, triumphs and hope in people and their communities. Its apparent daily significance may of course ebb and flow – just as communities, boundaries, politics and preferences also change with the years. But once lost, it will be lost forever. Were all decisions based on the whims of those in the present only thinking in the present, the world would be a poorer and more selfish place.

Art was never meant to finance public services; it is there to nurture souls. Old Flo has had a rich and meaningful life, and surely it’s time to bring her home and put her back at the heart of a community where she can reignite a flame of hope.

Back to top