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7 November 2012updated 07 Sep 2021 11:36am

Tower Hamlets cashes in on Henry Moore, art world up in arms.

If the sale of Draped Seated Woman proves anything, it's that we can't have it all.

By Charlotte Simmonds

In an impassioned open letter in Sunday’s Observer, “Britain’s cultural elite” implored the Tower Hamlet Council to abandon their plans to sell the monumental Henry Moore sculpture Draped Seated Woman. Amongst the dignified signatories were Mary Moore, Henry’s daughter, Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, Danny Boyle, film director and Olympic opening ceremony auteur, and acclaimed artist Jeremy Deller.

The nature of the sale is complicated by Tower Hamlets’ own purchase of the work back in 1962, when Moore sold the sculpture to the council at a fraction of the price it would have earned at auction. The reason? Moore wanted his work to have a life outside the private collections. He sold it to the council on the premise that it would be displayed publicly, enriching the lives of those in a socially deprived section of London. The sculpture sat on the Stifford housing estate in Stepney until 1997 when, following an act of vandalism, it was loaned for its own protection to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Now, the cash-strapped council faces hefty budget cuts to the tune of £100 million over the next three years.  Profits from the sale of this valuable asset – an estimated £20 million – would be a helpful cash injection for the borough’s draining funds. Moore, Serota and Boyle, however, say the move “goes against the spirit of Henry Moore’s original sale” and his “demonstration of the postwar belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to work of art of the highest quality.”

Many others have backed that position over the weekend as plans for sale seem set to proceed. Rowan Moore argued, also in the Observer, that the act would set a dangerous precedent, devaluing the role of art within a community. “Taken to its extreme,” he writes, “it could be used to cut off all cultural funding whatsoever. The Whitechapel Gallery could be sold to Tesco, to raise money for deserving causes, houses could be built on parks and various council-funded embellishments to the streets of the borough should never have happened.”

So, a beautiful piece of art bequeathed by one of Britain’s most valued sculptors and active socialists is being sold in the imploding wake of austerity cuts and public apathy towards the arts. It’s a juicy, red meat issue leaking strong opinions. Does the public, for whom this work was indented, no longer give a bloody blister about art? Are the “cultural elite” are a bunch of toffs for presuming they know what’s better for a community than their own council? Has money grubbing trumped social idyll once again? It’s all makes for much hair pulling, can’t quite decide what side of the fence I stand on see-sawing. Quick assumptions and even quicker conclusions are terrifyingly tempting. But is it really fair to generalize on behalf of large groups of people, be it “the cultural elite” or the “deprived” of Tower Hamlets? Shouldn’t we just ask them what they think?

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Luckily for us, the BBC have already done that – to a degree . The results are still polarizing. In a video report last month, Alice Bhandukravi spoke to Tower Hamlets councilor Shahed Ali, who said:

“We’re not selling the piece out of choice. It’s just that it’s uninsurable. Obviously the piece is very much valued, and we’d love to keep it in the borough if we felt it was a sustainable option. Unfortunately, that’s very hard to do.”

Local council Peter Golds countered, with indignation:

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“Well I suppose we could sell the Tower of London, which is within the borough. There would be all sorts of people who would pay a great deal of money… but nobody would suggest anything as crazy as that. Culture is part of our history.”

Bhandukravi puts the question to several passersby. Based on this micro-survey (of the three people interviewed, two were in favor of the sell, one against) we can (very) loosely speculate that perhaps two-thirds of the boroughs inhabitants would be in favor of “putting the money to better use”.

New Local Government director Simon Parker puts is bluntly:

“I think Tower Hamlets is in a really tough position. Finding a Henry Moore is like finding £20 million quid down the back of a sofa. You’ve got to decide, do we want it to enhance the public realm, or do we want to use that money to get kids into jobs, to support urban regeneration?” 

Twenty million pounds! That is, indeed, a lot of money. The strange reality is that twenty million, an astronomical sum, is really but a small fraction of the council’s yearly budget. A quick look through Tower Hamlets’ annual spending plan (made public on their website) reveals that twenty million pounds (already a generous estimate, others put the sale price at closer to five million) is a mere 1/15th of the yearly school budget, 1/9th of the amount spent annually on benefits, and a quarter of the yearly social housing bill. It’s not even enough to cover a year of waste removal – which rumbles in at over thirty million pounds a year. It’s clear the sale is more a temporary band-aid than a long-term solution. Not surprising, then, when Nicholas Serota equates the move to “selling the family silver”.

Perhaps it was Draped Seated Woman’s sabbatical in Yorkshire that led to her undoing. Fifteen years of listless efforts to re-instate the work in the borough is sufficiently long enough for a generation to grow up without it, for its meaning to cease, its shape to disappear from common memory. Fifteen years on, and the work resembles an out-moded antique in the back of the wardrobe, prime for the pawn shop.

Again, the fast conclusions are tempting. It’s easy to say that no one cares about art any more. Not the government, not the council, not the public. Surly the vandalism which led to the sculpture’s relocation fifteen years ago is proof enough that no one really loved the draped woman. Then again, if a thousand walk by and admire her, there’s little physical evidence left behind. The opinion of the one with the spray can speak the loudest. Seems unfair, then, to condemn an entire social enterprise on the basis of defacement alone. 

Ultimately, the decision feels sad. Why must we choose in the first place? Art in the public space, urban regeneration, jobs for kids – can’t we have it all? Of course we can’t. The grim reality is that art, as always, falls into the realm of the frivolous. It becomes the expendable. So it’s out with Moore’s lovely little utopian dreams – in times of austerity, there simply isn’t space.

Does the debate end there? Do we accept the terms and resign? Probably not. But even as a former resident of Tower Hamlets, I feel genuinely unqualified to judge what the borough needs most. What I can say, though, is that great art can bring with it great dignity. Works of beauty and significance have the power to instil within a place a sense of value, and to make its residents proud. However, good schools, new jobs, and social support also bring dignity to a community. The question, this time around, is whether the sculpture can achieve greater dignity in its original stage, or remoulded as a blank cheque.

Confliction abounds. Perhaps history will repeat itself in the form of a wealthy collector who purchases the piece, only to donate it back to the Hamlet. Perhaps the council will peruse one of the many suggested sites for safe relocation (Queen Mary University, or an Olympic venue). Perhaps we’ll see the “Henry Moore Library” opened up in Stepney next year on the sale’s proceeds. Perhaps we’ll only see the rubbish getting taken out quicker. The only guarantee is that we won’t have it all. It’s a real shame.