Out There: Our Post-War Public Art tells the story of key public art created between 1945 and 1985 by pioneering artists including Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Geoffrey Clarke and William Mitchell.
When I agreed to curate this show I had absolutely no idea what a complex and intriguing detective trail it would be to trace the work – I had assumed it was mainly ‘out there’ just waiting to be listed. Realising how vulnerable so much of the work was, and still is (pieces are being lost every week), plus the total disregard for artists (moving or scrapping work without consulting them) came as a surprise. The stories that artists told us – often for the first time – were so infuriating that it spurred us on and confirmed how incredibly timely this exhibition was, and how vital the work of Historic England and role of listing truly is.
Sculptor Bill Pye’s tale about how a Birmingham councillor disliked a piece of his work so much that he threatened to take a hacksaw to it if it wasn’t removed, was even more poignant when Bill confessed that the experience made him cry. Bill and friends saved the work (ironically removing it on flat bed truck, vehicle of choice for metal thieves too!) and relocated it to a more appreciative location.
The goodwill of lenders and access to many private collections (and sheds) means that much of the original work in the exhibition has never been seen in public before. This includes maquettes and drawings by artist William Mitchell, who used concrete to create the most amazing abstract reliefs. During the pre-publicity for the show we were even approached by people offering more exhibits, including the grandson of Hungarian artist, Peter Lazlo Peri who lent a clay model of his grandfather’s huge sculpture for the Festival of Britain – which was destroyed after the Festival closed, and gives us a unique opportunity to gain a flavour of the original.
The show also contains some giant pieces in need of homes – we are hoping someone will have space for the 100ft plus fibreglass relief by Paul Mount, part of which is on display. It was dismissed as having no artistic merit when removed from the supermarket it graced– yet everyone who sees it can’t help exclaiming ‘wow!’
The story we tell is from an age where a vision of a world of equality, civility and quality for all was part of a national agenda – only the best was good enough for ordinary people and their environment. It is too easy to dismiss it all as ‘utopian’ – unattainable and idealistic –as the evidence is out there that this vision became a reality in the schools, homes and hospitals commissioned in the 50s and early 60s. The trouble is that these wonderful reminders of what can be achieved if we are ambitious enough are now at risk. Art is vulnerable to commercial pressures, vandalism in all its forms as well as a wanton disregard of a heritage that we could learn a lot from today. Bring on a new utopia for public art!
Out There: Our Post-War Public Art is open 10.00 – 18.00 daily, 3 February – 10 April 2016
Historic England’s first major exhibition and part of Somerset House’s UTOPIA 2016 season.
Out There is curated by Sarah Gaventa MA (RCA). She has worked as a public space and cultural curator for clients such as Somerset House, The Sorrell Foundation, New London Architecture, the V&A Museum and the Royal Academy of Arts. She is the founder of Made Public a public space and curation consultancy.
Top: Henry Moore, Draped Seated Woman, 1957–58. Taken when still at the Stifford Estate, East London. The piece, known as Old Flo, was the subject of much discussion and public campaign in 2012 when the then major of Tower Hamlets announced his intention to sell it. Old Flo itself will not be in the exhibition but the campaign to save it will be explored. The sculpture is currently on long term loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. © Historic England
Middle: Paul Mount Relief © Historic England