Tower Hamlets is facing difficult times in the years ahead, like many places around the country. A combination of the Tory-led government’s spending cuts and mis-handling of the budget by the local Mayor of Tower Hamlets has left a funding hole in the Council’s budget that is set to grow. In that context and in a borough that has the highest rate of child poverty in London and one of the highest levels of unemployment in the country, why should we try to stop the Mayor of Tower Hamlets from selling Henry Moore’s Draped Seated Woman.
“Old Flo”, as the bronze sculpture has been nicknamed, and other similar works of public art are important precisely because the progressive impact that such work can have is often undervalued and overlooked. The significance of open-air displays in enriching the life of a community in a socially deprived borough should not be underestimated.
The campaign to save “Old Flo” has attracted support from the artist’s daughter, Mary, as well as leading arts figures such as Danny Boyle, creator of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony and Tate Gallery director, Sir Nicholas Serota. They believe, as I do, that the sale of the sculpture “goes against the spirit” of Henry Moore, who sold it to London County Council at a bargain for £6000 in 1960 – well below market value for the artist’s work.
Henry Moore was a miner’s son with working class roots, and believed that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality. It was particularly fitting that the sculpture was the centrepiece of the Stifford housing estate in Stepney. “Old Flo” sat there until 1997, when the estate was demolished and the sculpture was loaned to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Moore sold it on the understanding that “Old Flo” would be sited directly in the community, accessible and available to all and for the enjoyment of working class people in the East End.
At a time of deep cuts in public spending and in a deprived area such as Tower Hamlets, the appeal of auctioning a valuable asset to raise money is understandable. And therein lies the risk. That we open Pandora’s box and pave the way to cutting all cultural and arts funding. This goes precisely against Moore’s intentions and would be a sad reflection on our society.
Worse still, Tower Hamlets Council says it estimates “Old Flo” is worth anything from £4m-£17m, however, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets has not made it clear where the proceeds of the auctioned sculpture would go and if they would benefit Tower Hamlets’ most vulnerable residents. A one-off sale will not solve the borough’s revenue funding difficulties. It would only make a small contribution to the Council’s overall budget and an iconic feature of the local area would be lost forever.
Four public institutions including Queen Mary University, the Museum of London Docklands, Morpeth School and Christ Church Spitalfieds have volunteered to house and display the sculpture. Tower Hamlets’ Mayor must be true Henry Moore’s original vision and return Old Flo to Tower Hamlets, where residents and visitors alike can enjoy this wonderful piece of artwork.
Dan Jarvis is MP for Barnsley Central and Shadow Minister for the Arts