Does public art deserve to be protected?

As a new exhibition opens at Somerset House, the chief executive of Historic England looks at our changing attitude to art for the people


Much of the architecture from the brave and brutalist period following the end of the Second World War has been reassessed and rediscovered by a new generation. But the art that was created as part of these new urban utopias, and was frequently commissioned alongside the buildings, often remains neglected and overlooked. The best public art enhances buildings and places, and should also be cherished and protected.

Although the spirit of generosity in which much public art is commissioned has remained unchanged since many of our public squares, parks and streets were created in the 19th century, the role of the artist is somewhat different. No longer is it enough to commemorate some establishment figure, heroically sculpted in bronze. Nowadays the role of the artist is much more in the foreground, with sculptures and other art installations designed to provoke a reaction. Nowhere is this more obvious than the contrast between the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square and the other three.

Arguably this change has its roots in the post-war public art boom from the late 1940s which focused on the Festival of Britain on the south bank of the Thames. Hugh Casson, the festival’s director of architecture, was keen to ensure that sculpture should be fully integrated in the urban landscape, related to the pavilions and in close harmony with the architecture. Extraordinary installations such as the now lost Skylon, a modernist “space age” tower of 30 metres, pointed the way to a brave new world.

Public sculpture was used to influence behaviour and in the 1950s ‘family’ and ‘mother and child’ were subject matter for sculptures for many new housing estates, reflecting a social policy of encouraging women to return to pre-war roles of homemaker and mother.

In Harlow, one of the first New Towns, art was central to the vision of chief architect Frederick Gibberd who declared that: “The Civic Centre should be home to the finest works of art, as it is in Florence and other splendid cities.” Despite this, Gibberd only once commissioned a sculptor to create a work of art especially for a building. Solo Flight by Antanas Brazdy was designed for the central atrium of the Harvey Centre, where it stayed until new owners replaced it with a glass lift.

This can often be the fate of public art when new owners fail to appreciate what they have. Barbara Hepworth’s Contrapuntual Forms fared better in Harlow. When the town’s Art Trust tried to relocate it from a housing development, the residents objected and it has remained there ever since.

Developing a sense of community was an important starting point for new and redeveloped post-war estates in London. The London County Council undertook social studies to help architects create environments that would be visually and sociologically balanced. Designers collaborated with architects and artworks were often made on site in direct response to the environment.

Some of the earliest bodies to commission and buy artworks were education authorities. The intention was to improve the school environment and encourage creativity. In Leicestershire in the late 1940s, no new building was without a sculpture or mural as a focal point. In Hertfordshire during that time, one third of one per cent of the budget for each new school was set aside for the purchase of works of art, for example, Henry Moore’s Family Group was acquired for Barclay Secondary School in Stevenage.

Despite this initially optimistic vision, much post-war sculpture today is threatened. Many works have been lost, stolen, moved, sold or destroyed.

That is where Historic England has a role. We have to see past the whirling trends of fashion and popularity. We can stand up for unloved heritage in the hour of its greatest need. Sometimes that can be through statutory protection in the face of a development threat. But it can also be by raising public awareness, which is what we are trying to do with our exhibition, Out There: Our-Post War Public Art. People who pass a valued piece of public art in the street everyday are its best custodians.

Antony Gormley once said: “A well-sited work is when you cannot think about the place without the object or the object without the place.” The best public art makes people stop and think about the place and the buildings around them. We should encourage that, and value what has been handed down to us.

We are, of course, selective. Not every piece of public art deserves to last. Indeed some is made to be temporary, and that is part of the creative concept. We always welcome a debate about what we should protect – and to have that debate we need to get people talking about it. We hope that is what our exhibition will do.


Duncan Wilson is chief executive of Historic England

Out There: Our Post-War Public Art opens tomorrow in the East Wing Galleries at Somerset House, London. It runs until April 10.


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