The demolition of a ’300,000 public art project should refocus policymakers' minds on what public art can and can't achieve.
A £300,000 public art project built in 2007 is to be demolished, after 94 per cent of residents polled voted for its demolition. The Civic Heart Arch in Chester-Le-Street faced repair costs of £282,000, as well as annual maintenance fees of £5000. It is little wonder that most residents would rather pay the one-off sum of £48,000 to have the artwork removed.
I recently wrote about the ‘Bilbao effect’, and whether public art projects and galleries have the power to regenerate failing local economies and tackle social exclusion. My conclusion was that while art is definitely A Good Thing, policymakers need to be careful about ascribing too many magic powers to art.
There are two main considerations. Firstly, any public art project or gallery involves local investment, so will boost the local economy to some extent. That said, if the council’s real concern is with creating local jobs or tackling social exclusion, the £300,000 spent on this brick arch, for instance, would have been much better spent on more direct interventions.
Secondly, if you see art as something with instrumental value, if you expect it to achieve certain social, economic or political goals, you risk cheapening art. A great art gallery should be valued for what it is, as should sub-standard public art. The title of the Chester-le-Street project probably went down well with local policy wonks seeking a monument to reflect their political and economic goals, but the name ‘Civic Heart Arch’ makes me want to vomit a little bit. It’s obvious, unimaginative, saccharine.
The Civic Heart Arch in Chester-Le-Street
Thankfully, I doubt that today a local council would consider spending £300,000 on such a project, or that they would do so without considering long term maintenance and repair costs.
That’s not because I don’t value art. It’s exactly because I do value art so highly that I’d rather money was spent on fostering high-quality, creative, innovative projects that are valued for their own sake, rather than public art projects that tick all the right political boxes. On top of that, unemployment, exclusion and deprivation are huge problems. They won’t be solved by building statues.
Read more by Sophie McBain