Public art, like everything else, comes under scrutiny as the purse strings are tightened
Chester-le-Street's Civic Heart Arch has suffered severe structural damage, and after consultation it has been decided it is more cost-effective to demolish it, than to repair and maintain it.
The work by artist Jo Fairfax was commissioned by Durham County Council, and was designed to give the town centre a focal point or “Civic Heart”. It was intended as a public space for all to enjoy, and it is a beautiful structure which was designed to celebrate the history of the local area. The arch echoes the form of a large viaduct located at the end of the market place, and features thousands of terracotta tiles, site-specific poems are etched on to the exterior and interior surface, below it there is a ‘carpet’ made up of 5000 hand made bricks, featuring a pattern of St Cuthbert's Cross which is the local emblem. The perimeter has dark granite seats, referencing a coal seam to remind visitors that this was a coal mining area.
The design was nominated for 'Most Innovative use of Brick' Award, 'Best Regeneration' Award, 'Best Landscaping Project' Award.
However when residents were asked whether it should be repaired or removed more than 94% voted for it to be pulled down. Jo Fairfax stated that he would have liked more time to find a solution. He said “I’ve spoken to Boyesen the builders and they were happy to repair for no fee except materials so the figures would have been substantially less than the figures quoted in the consultation.”
This seems divisive to me. If local people had been informed of possible options that were less costly, they may have made other choices. It seems the Councillors have an agenda and are ‘spinning’ the situation to fit their desired outcome. This raises questions of the motives of people in public office.
Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman is choosing to argue that the Moore bronze Draped Seated Woman, AKA Old Flo, belongs to the council and not the people, therefore they are free to sell it to pay for other council services. However there is some argument as to who owns it, after the LCC was disbanded in 1963. Bromley Council now claim it belongs to them. The Moore Estate argue that it was intended for the local people and in that spirit Henry Moore personally funded the delivery of the work – a substantial contribution to the cost of installing the 1.6 tonne bronze sculpture. This bickering over who owns, and who benefits from, public art is the same sort of power struggle that is going on over the Civic Heart Arch.
Chester-le-Street’s councillors have decided they do not want the upkeep of the Civic Heart Arch, so they have cordoned it off (the result being it looks unsightly and inaccessible) and have ‘consulted’ with the public in a very narrow way by providing figures that are not necessarily accurate. Council leader Simon Henig said: "The feedback we have received from the consultation gives the clear message that residents and businesses in Chester-le-Street believe the best option for the future of the town centre is the demolition of the arch. . . we will waste no time in taking action to remove the arch and make good the Market Place." The official line of the council is that they wish the arch had never been built.
Jo Fairfax said in an interview on Radio 4 yesterday that the arch had suffered an accident which had damaged the structure and allowed water ingress and frost damage. Current reports online claim it has been 'damaged by weather', which is only true because it was first damaged, and not repaired to make it weatherproof. Presumably the decision to not repair it was made by the same local council who now want to demolish it.
In the artists own words “It’s clearly an issue of maintenance. I think in the change over to a unitary authority the maintenance responsibility got a little bit lost unfortunately. I hope this doesn’t make people feel more conservative about public realm design in the future.”
Decisions by local councils based on the bias of an individual are to be avoided at all costs, otherwise we will never get (or retain) our much-loved civic art.
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