Save Old Flo

November 7, 2012 8:00 pm

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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  

  • AlanGiles

    A rather bizarre Henry Moore sculpture, which has, in any case, spent the last several years in Yorkshire, due to vandalism caused to it when it was sited in London, or the chance of a very impoverished borough to receive several million pounds to improve the local residents.

    Well, speaking for myself (and with apologies to BBC2) I should say – “Flog It”

    • Quiet_Sceptic

      Is it, morally speaking, the councils to sell though?

      When an benefactor gives or in this case sells at very low price something to the benefit of the towns-people or area, sure legal ownership ends up with the council but I’d suggest the council is really only the guardian acting on behalf of the local people.

      The benefactor isn’t giving the council a lump sum of cash to do with as they please but some item or property for the enjoyment of the people in the given form – a country estate as a park,  an item of art to be enjoyed, a public building or facility for a specific purpose. There’s an implicit restriction or condition on the gift.

      It’s unfortunate that benefactors weren’t more prescriptive in attaching legal conditions to stop councils flogging off the borough’s silver when it suits them.

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas

        It has been interesting to hear of this.  I knew nothing of Henry Moore so looked him up, and it appears that he was indeed a socialist and intended the piece to be placed into a poor borough of London, but he did not not specifically mention Tower Hamlets.  The purchase was made by the London Corporation (LCC), which I assume is the nearest equivalent of the modern London Assembly.

        So perhaps there is some other (poor) borough of London that can fulfil the artist’s wish, if Tower Hamlets do not want it?  This could be a challenge for Boris.  There is however a slightly depressing realisation that wherever it goes, there will be costs for insurance and anti-vandalism measures, which would only be paid by the local residents.

        Why do people vandalise things?

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas

        It has been interesting to hear of this.  I knew nothing of Henry Moore so looked him up, and it appears that he was indeed a socialist and intended the piece to be placed into a poor borough of London, but he did not not specifically mention Tower Hamlets.  The purchase was made by the London Corporation (LCC), which I assume is the nearest equivalent of the modern London Assembly.

        So perhaps there is some other (poor) borough of London that can fulfil the artist’s wish, if Tower Hamlets do not want it?  This could be a challenge for Boris.  There is however a slightly depressing realisation that wherever it goes, there will be costs for insurance and anti-vandalism measures, which would only be paid by the local residents. In the article I looked at on Henry Moore, it is mentioned that a few of his pieces were stolen with diggers and flat-bed trucks, and probably sold for the scrap bronze content (£5,000, instead of the value of the art which could be in the millions).

        Why do people vandalise things?

        • AlanGiles

          The LCC, Jaime was the London County Council, which was disbanded in 1965 becoming the GLC.

          To answer QS I don’t think morally the council of 2012 has any obligation to keep an item given in a very different era, pre 1965, and in this age of austerity the monies raised from the sale of this sculpture could be of practical help to the residents of this very poor borough, by keeping open a day centre or a library or someting similar.

          With all due respect to Henry Moore, I don’t see how a piece of art is of much comfort to the homeless, for example, and other London councils (and doubtless elsewhere) often dispose of items donated to them – for example, a bench in a shopping precinct  donated in memory of a person is often removed when the council demolish the site to allow the building of yet another batch of “luxury apartments”. It might sound philistine to compare a sculpture to a bench but the principle is the same.

          “Why do people vandalise things”?. Because, perhaps they are jealous that they can’t create anything themselves, and so take out their frustration by destroying something instead. Or because they are just so aggresive and stupid they think it is in some way “clever”.

          • Quiet_Sceptic

            I agree council should not be required to keep the statue but I don’t believe it has the right to sell it and retain the money particularly when other groups have stepped in and offered to allow the gift to continue to be enjoyed by those originally intended.

            A work of art is not comfort to the homeless but who are you or I to overrule to decision of the original benefactor, if he wanted to do something about homelessness he should have, he didn’t, he wanted people to enjoy a piece of art and other groups are ready to allow that to continue, the council however just wants the money.

          • AlanGiles

            I think this needs the judgement of Solomon!. I sort of take your point, but when Mr Moore made his gesture we were living in very different times. Strictly speaking, East London has been deprived of this piece for 15 years while it has been sited in Yorkshire, so it has been of no benefit to Tower Hamlets for years.

            I would look at it pragmatically: what would benefit the people of T.H more; a sculpture, or the chance to keep open a day centre or a library, an advice centre,  or whatever those millions could be used for?.

          • Quiet_Sceptic

            When he made the gesture things were a lot worse, we still had the slums, we were materially far worse off than now.

            If they keep the sculpture people could be enjoying for the next 50 years or more. If they sell it and the money goes into the general budget, it will be spent by the end of the accounting year and forgotten with little or nothing to show for it.

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