Cultural Stewardship: Public Art and the Case of Henry Moore’s Outdoor Sculpture

Figure 1. Moore’s Draped Seated Woman. From The Guardian. 

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper has raised questions regarding the democratization of art and institutional responsibilities in the stewardship of public cultural patrimony. In regards to public art, it is often difficult to determine who is responsible for its care and maintenance. In light of the global economic recession, it is clear that the cultural sector is in desperate need of funding. Difficult decisions have been made to maintain budgets such as a London council’s proposal to sell a statue by Henry Moore. What must be determined is how far cultural institutions’ responsibilities extend as stewards of public art, and furthermore, who in the public has the right to lay claim.

In the case of a Henry Moore sculpture, which is located outdoors for public access, many problems have surfaced regarding the future of its care. Arguments have ensued from the council and members of the public over maintaining the statue’s current location and the artist’s original intent. This case—while not directly involving a museum—still pertains to museums’ and other cultural institutions’ responsibilities to their public regarding the ownership and care of art, and also demonstrates elitism within the cultural sector. Therefore, I will present the case as follows to serve as a precedent for future dilemmas over selling a piece of long-standing material culture for shortsighted revenue and determine how future cases can be mediated through the multi-vocality of stakeholders.

In summary, this case pertains to an article detailing the potential sale of Henry Moore’s Draped Seated Woman[1], located outdoors within a “socially deprived” area of East London[2]. East London Council has proposed the sale of the sculpture after a £100 million cut to their budget. The £20 million estimate for the statue’s worth in consideration with additional savings in maintenance and insurance costs has propelled the council to take such actions. Additionally, the council maintains that the sculpture’s current location makes it susceptible to graffiti and other damage.

However, members of the “cultural elite,”[3] such as film director Danny Boyle and Tate Gallery Director Sir Nicholas Serota have made arguments in a letter to the council for the sculpture’s retention with the support of the artist’s daughter, Mary Moore. Boyle and Serota argue that the £20 million estimate is inflated, as the price would be an all-time high for a Moore sculpture. They appraise the sculpture at £5 million, which would not significantly improve the council’s budget. Furthermore, Serota and Boyle contend that the sale of the sculpture contradicts the artist’s original intent, using Mary Moore’s testimony to corroborate such claims. The article describes Moore as a “life-long socialist”[4] who accepted a much lower price for his work than collectors would have offered under the agreement that the sculpture would remain in an area of low socio-economic status for the residents’ own enrichment. Mary Moore purports that her father believed in the importance of art in everyday life and would want it to remain in a public space. Boyle proposes a solution for the statue to be moved to an outdoor Olympic Park facility in East London, where the sculpture would remain in sight, thus protecting it from potential damage, yet allowing the work to still be accessible to the public.

In order to mediate these arguments, several factors must be considered such as cultural institutions’ roles in proper stewardship. This involves a discourse on ethics: Is it ethical to sell objects of cultural patrimony for revenue? Furthermore, who has the right to make such decisions? The news article’s description of Boyle and Serota as “cultural elite” raises questions of authority as well as cultural paternalism. Lastly, in concern of ethics, how far do cultural institutions’ adherence to artists’ original intent extend?

Tristram Besterman’s article Museum Ethics provides a workable definition of ethics that can be used in this case study. Besterman states, “ethics is an expression of social responsibility” and explains that “ethics defines the relationship of the museum with people, not with things.”[5] Therefore, in this definition, the council’s ethical role is to identify the stakeholders of the sculpture and address each party’s opinions and requests. Obviously, the residents of East London are the primary stakeholders, as the sculpture is a part of their daily lives and is located within their tax-paying district. Secondly, the “cultural elite,” represented by Serota and Boyle, are stakeholders as well. Demonstrated by their public claims, they are concerned parties and have proposed counterarguments and solutions. Also, Mary Moore represents the artist as a stakeholder and upholds what she believes to be her father’s original intention for the sculpture. Lastly, the East London Council is also a stakeholder, as it is the present steward of the sculpture and has been charged with the sculpture’s maintenance and care.

Besterman goes on to explain that within museums, “collections are part of the public realm” and that it is the stewards’ role to ensure that the collections remain accessible to the public.[6]  While the Henry Moore sculpture does not exist within a museum, it is part of a collection of public art and monuments. Ian Leith of the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, a non-profit organization that raises awareness of the value of public art, believes that the Henry Moore sculpture in question belongs to “the greatest national gallery of all—which is outdoors—and it’s completely undefined.”[7] Consequently, these same questions of ethical stewardship within museums apply to the Henry Moore sculpture and should be treated in a similar way.

Clearly, the main issue in this argument is money, or the lack thereof, which is an issue that museums face today. Detailed in a more recent article pertaining to the Henry Moore sale, are other sales of public art in the United Kingdom such as the Bolton Council’s sale of several works of art by artists such as Picasso and John Everett Millais. Gloucester City Council, Newcastle City Council and Leicestershire County Council have also made similar sales of their public art collections.[8] Besterman explains how many museums in the United States “trade-up” or sell some of their objects as sources for revenue, but that this practice is frowned upon in the UK.[9] Therefore it is interesting to see that the stance on sales for public art differ from sales of museum assets.

I feel the underlying problem here is that public art is not valued in the same way as art within museums is, nor is there a clear steward to advocate for the collection of public art in consideration of the public’s interests. There seems to be a need for a museum-like institution to take charge of public art and manage the collection in an institutional manner. Vera Zolberg’s article An Elite Experience for Everyone explains how museums have to justify their purpose to the public and their need for public funding by providing statistics in attendance.[10] How can a collection of public art justify its purpose? By evaluating the stakeholders’ claims to Draped Seated Woman, perhaps the public’s claim to such works and the status of public art can be negotiated and serve in future cases.

Boyle and Serota seem to be arguing for the residents of East London, whose opinions have not been addressed in the articles surrounding this case. As their voices and opinions have not been heard, it is difficult to determine their stance on the sale of the sculpture. Is it ethical for Boyle and Serota, members of the “cultural elite,” to make assumptions for the voiceless residents of East London? Their arguments for the retention of the sculpture imply more than simple altruism. Their stance and positions of authority allude to issues of elitism in museums, a topic that has received much attention in the last 50 years. Stephen Weil explains how museums have portrayed their institutions as “philanthropic,” “charitable,” and “benevolent.” [11] These words imply that museums come from higher ground than that of their public and that their role is to extend their knowledge downwards to the masses through actions of “social enterprise”[12]. The inferred authority of the museum stems back to the origins of museums and digresses from our topic, yet it is important to keep in mind that museums and by extension museum professionals and other cultural sector leaders maintain a level of authority.

Nonetheless, Boyle and Serota’s arguments maintain the notion that members of the elite can determine what is appropriate for the public. This draws on Zolberg’s discourse on “cultural literacy,” or the summary of Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas that differing groups of people hold different levels of cultural capital. This capital is based on their habitus or cultural baggage, based on socio-political and economic status.[13] In short, peoples’ cultural knowledge or appreciation is determined by their social and economic backgrounds. As members of the elite typically hold more cultural capital, it is assumed to be their right and role to determine what is best for those of smaller cultural capital.

Returning to the case at hand, the Guardian article makes clear the site of the sculpture is in a “socially deprived” area.[14] Thus, Boyle and Serota argue that the retention of the sculpture’s location is crucial to the residents’ cultural enrichment and appreciation. Mary Moore supplements these claims with her testimony of her father’s agreement on the location as crucial to promoting the democratization of art. But is it the cultural elite or artist’s daughter’s place to make such determinations? The East London Council (ELC) would argue it is not. Speaking more for the residents than Serota and Boyle, the ELC seems to be making difficult decisions for the good of the residents. In identifying their shortage of money, the sale of the sculpture could be perceived as a way to lift the financial burden and perhaps maintain some benefits that would be otherwise cut if the statue stays in place. But the ELC is not just thinking of the money; the council obviously feels that for the residents, the Henry Moore holds no cultural capital, hence the vandalism and thefts of such public monuments. A recent article details the council’s final decision to ignore the advisement of Boyle and Serota and place the sculpture at auction.[15] As the fate of this sculpture seems decided, I feel responsible to provide alternative solutions for future propositions.

Returning to my previous thoughts on the perceived lack of value for public art, I feel that some form of a non-profit similar to the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association should take stewardship of the outdoor collection. In doing so, new acquisitions can be thoughtfully assessed with regards to expenses and the sales of public works could be avoided. A more defined budget would also be set in place for the maintenance and protection of the works. Also, a museum-like institution would assumedly adhere to a similar code of ethics, and thus decisions regarding stakeholders can be mediated properly. It is important that the public gets a say in the future of its patrimony, and as museums are shifting their missions more towards public needs, more voices are being heard. Therefore, a non-profit acting as stewards of public art would consider the public’s needs more effectively, and hopefully in the future, public art will be withheld from the budgetary chopping block.

[1] See Figure 1

[2] (Alberge 2012)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] (Besterman 2008)

[6] (Besterman 2008)

[7] (Alberge 2012)

[8] (Hill 2012)

[9] (Besterman 2008)

[10] (Zolberg 1994)

[11] (Weil 1999)

[12] Ibid.

[13] (Zolberg 1994)

[14] (Alberge 2012)

[15] (Hill 2012)

Works Cited

Alberge, Dayla. “Britain’s Cultural Elite Battles to Halt Sale of Henry Moore Sculpture.” Prod. The Guardian. London, November 3, 2012.

Besterman, Tristram. “Museum Ethics.” In A Companion to Museum Studies, by Sharon Macdonald, 431-441. Chichester: Wiley, 2008.

Hill, Amelia. “Henry Moore sculpture Decision Raises Fears for Public Art.” The Guardian. London, November 7, 2012.

Weil, Stephen. “From Being About Something to Being for Somebody.” In Reinventing the Museum, by Gail Anderson, 170-188. Lanham: AltaMira Press, 1999.

Zolberg, Vera. “An Elite Experience for Everyone.” In Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, by D. Sherman and I. Rogoff, 49-63. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.


46 thoughts on “Cultural Stewardship: Public Art and the Case of Henry Moore’s Outdoor Sculpture

  1. You are probably quite right when you say that public art is not valued in the same way as art within museums. I live in Fulham and delight in looking at the Henry Moore statue outside Charing Cross hospital. Hundreds of people must pass it daily, but I wonder how many of them even notice it, let alone know that Henry Moore had his studio just down the road.

  2. I don’t know how the system works there, but here the art establishment makes decisions on public art without considering public sentiment. We have a lot of bronze monuments in Richmond. One in particular on Monument Ave. was put up about 15 years ago with great outcry against it. I think the person in charge of the check book might have said, ” That gets moved over my dead body. ” So our only hope is that the next generation has better taste. But what are the odds ? And now the offending sculpture is ignored by people who drive past it every day, since public opinion doesn’t matter. I guess every town has public art that the people wish would go away, and also sculptures that we love to see on our way. Thanks for the info on the Moore sculpture.

  3. Taste is not a factor in this nor should it be. Myself, Moore’s work does not do much for me, but I understand his place in art history and some of the intricacies of public art. The artist’s intent is what should be honoured. Not so familiar with this Moore work, but if it is site specific then it should be considered worthless at any other site. See the legal proceedings over Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc for more on that. Very interested to hear the outcome. Who buys it and what is the buyer’s intention? Possibly the buyer opts to keep it at its present site. Would be interesting to see council’s reaction if an offer came to buy it at a low price, but with the promise to cover the cost of maintenance at the present site. The decision may also alter how artists deal with donating or selling their public works to municipalities. As mentioned, this is a money grab made by a city council who arguably do not always have their constituents best interests at heart. Selling it at auction is a one time payment and only a temporary fix to their budget.

  4. This is interesting. I’m an MA student, which mean I spend a fair amount of time debating what makes “good” art with my classmates, and what bearing such a conclusion might have on the value attributed to “good” art by our cultural elites. Arguably, public art is more political than privately held works or museum pieces, regardless of the content. Yet, the public is rarely included in purchasing decisions or location of display. Should they be included in the decision to sell? Is “selling” equal to “licensing” (insert tacky bronze plaque or inflatable waving-arms guy, here)? In what ways will the public, the technical owners of the piece, benefit from its sale – beyond the one-time budget line item? It seems like a zero-sum game to me. No one really wins.

  5. Your elite must be better educated, here they wouldn’t know Henry Moore from Homer Simpson. What you are proposing brings to mind William Morris’ efforts with the SPAB, the beginning of historic building preservation and precursor to the National Trust. Good luck.

  6. I am not certain any general public would have besotted eyes for Moore’s art piece. Mind you, this sculpture is more accessible than others…I’ve seen in Toronto outside the Art Gallery of Ontario.

    It is shocking that a piece of public art work bought with public funds would be sold off merely to deal with a budget shortfall. That would have not been the intent of the artist.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this. Maybe completely off-topic but I am wondering if Art people have to study the same principles as we do in Environmental Science. I always teach my students about the “Tragedy of the Commons.” It is basically that property open and free to everyone is misused, consumed or destroyed. I know it is off-topic from your main idea, but just curious if it is ever an issue with public art.

  8. Thank you all for your comments! To Office of Surrealist Investigations, I am glad you brought up Richard Serra’s case, which certainly is one of the more well-known cases surrounding public art. Tilted Arc was a commissioned piece, therefore, Serra’s rights would differ if in the present context and if he had or hadn’t waived his moral rights. However, Serra’s work was commissioned prior to the establishment of VARA (Visual Artists Rights Act, 1990) which is why it was so easy for the commissioners to remove it. Furthermore, in 2006 the 1st circuit Court of Appeals determined that location was not a protected component to site-specific work.
    This is the legal standing for public art in the US, where in the case of the Henry Moore being in the UK, is quite different.

    Certainly public art has different meaning to us all, but I would agree with you, Desi Valentine, that public art often has a political charge. I would encourage everyone to examine the public art in their communities. I can attest to one heated debate here in New York regarding a fountain called Civic Virtue, which depicts a man (virtue) standing atop several women who represent “vice.” The fountain is 90 years old, always has been generally unpopular and there has been discussion regarding its removal. Of course, the question is, do we destroy the piece of art altogether because it is outdated and sexist? Or do we remove it to a more discreet location (from City Hall Park in Manhattan to perhaps Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn) and respect its origins in acknowledgement to our society’s progression since then? When it comes to public art you either love it or hate it, but I would recommend that we still find respect for it.

    details on Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc can be found here:

    Civic Virtue:

  9. Italians and visitors of all nationalities enjoy the Henry Moore sculpture in San Marco Square, Prato. Let’s value art in public spaces in the same way in the UK.

  10. For Serota and the like, it is just another great occasion to highlight their positioning as the “cultural elite”, a deeply rotten and false concept. They don’t care of this piece of public art, nor do they care about the public. If they cared, their course of action should be more along the lines of what William Morris was doing more than a hundred years back, and what you suggest in this article. They have all the resources to do it.

  11. There is a wonderful Henry Moore sculpture a few blocks from my home in Vancouver.My children grew up caressing it’s smooth lines. Fitting it is called Knifes Edge, as public art is a double edged sword..
    I am so tired of the old guard art world., yet scrape my jaw off the ground at some of the public instillation’s the city spends money on. Case in point – $100,000.00 on a 7 foot high poodle sitting atop a pole outside a new condo development. Yikes. That said – who am I to say? Art is like music – you never know when it will speak to you. We have a responsibility to foster and make accessible as many perspectives as we can.
    Personally I like street art …

  12. Good post. I think art should be everywhere and removing something from a socially disadvantaged area (or however it was phrased) just ensures further decline IMO. And not all of the culturally elite have always been a part of that group.

    One of the prior commenters mentioned Richmond and Monument Avenue, which I remember thinking at the time to each their own. Some like the new statue, some only like the older ones (I personally ignore all of the statues except when I am dodging traffic). This is just down the road from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. We are very lucky to have this museum and its permanent collections free to anyone who visits (special exhibits cost extra when they come to town). It isn’t out in a field, but in that case at least they are trying to make art more accessible.

    I do wish more artists would take the opportunity to bring their work out “into the world” more often, but I certainly understand the time and cost involved. One step at a time.

  13. I found this article very interesting. The points you bring up are correct. There is a lack of appreciation for public art, though this type of art is something that is meant to be seen by everyone. I appreciate knowing that someone else understands the need for public art to be kept and maintained just as art in museums.

  14. The false economy underlying the sale of this Henry Moore masterpiece reflects the well known diamond-water paradox in economics. Diamonds are valuable because they are scarce, which is realized in private markets via higher willingness-to-pay by consumers (i.e. Revenue=price X quantity). Water is inherently more valuable than diamonds (i.e. value-in-use), but has a very low price due to its plentiful supply. Reconciling WTP with full value to society requires some consideration of “consumer surplus”, which is reflected as the area under the demand curve above the prevailing price in private markets. Economists have established practical “Contingent Valuation Methods” to impute values for consumer surplus (e.g. often used to for valuing environmental assets at risk due to dams, industry etc). These same CVM survey methods could be used to assess the value of A) selling versus B) not selling this Moore sculpture, from the perspective of East London residents and/or all London residents. Selling the sculpture for GBP 5 million would equate to about GBP 20 per capita for residents of Tower Hamlet (pop=254,000). Therefore, local residents’ consumer surplus per capita would have to be greater than GBP 20, otherwise it would make economic sense to sell the sculpture. However this calculation assumes that only local Tower Hamlet taxpayers’ preferences are relevant, and that “option values” from other London residents are effectively zero, which is likely not true. In other words, other UK residents may derive some added benefit (albeit non-monetary consuer surplus) from knowing that the Moore masterpiece is still freely accessible in public space.

    Chris Robinson
    economic consultant
    Ottawa ON Canada

  15. I think this is a very complicated issue and that the “graffiti and other damage” that you mentioned poses a very real threat to the future preservation of Henry Moore’s outdoor sculptures. Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure (stolen in 2005) and more recently Working Model for a Sundial (stolen in 2012) and the plinth for Upright Motive Number 7 have all been stolen and sold for their scrap metal value. While I believe that the artist’s intent should be the number one deciding factor in determining the future placement of an artists work, I hate to see these beautiful pieces lost to future generations. Great Post!

  16. To me, it is a real shame to see the graffiti and other damage to Henry Moore’s outdoor sculptures and it is best for them to be sold and appreciated!

  17. What if public art museums were forced to set aside a small portion of their huge indoor-art budgets for the development and maintenance of local artworks in freely-accessible public space? (This should address real art, not to be confused with dead-men-riding-horses and monuments to famous political figures or movie-stars).

  18. For me, the questions would be:

    Was the work commissioned?
    If so, it may be moved or sold by the owners.
    If it was completed with the written agreement that it stays where it is, then no sale.

    Did the artist donate the work?
    Then it shouldn’t be sold.
    Did the artist specify the area where the work was to be shown or stored?
    If so, it shouldn’t be moved.

    What about vandalism and\or graffiti?
    The artist was aware of those things. Let the work stay.

  19. I worked for an artist, to himself he was famous, but not necessarily “Main Stream”
    who did sculpt and sell his art to private and public arenas. I often wonder what will happen to the art after it has ‘run its course’ and the item is no longer hip…i watched a tv show once about who had to clean and maintain the classics statues. it was interesting but a very time consuming and tedious and took maticulous care. the maintenance person nearly has to be a sculptor also in order to keep lines and shadows original. Abstract art is harder to ‘understand’ and i just wonder if 50 years from now some of the larger pieces that we installed in municipalities will still be there.

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  21. As a fine artist, let me tell you, if i was commissioned to build a piece to donate for or to a specific place or reason, NO ONE has the right to sell it. I would even personally find offense if it was moved. If anything it should be returned to the artist’s family if not able to return it to the artist if there is no longer space or a place for some reason anymore.This is just what is happening to San Francisco as a whole. They are selling to the highest bidder to make quick personal profits without caring about the big picture beyond their personal crisis. They are not caring about the residents and their connection with the piece or place or the future generations ability to have something still precious to live, learn and love with. Who the fuck are all of these greedy bastards that are so poor with business that they go so low as to pawn their towns and artifacts (&souls!)?? How did these people ever make it into the position of being able to make this decision in the first place?? It is a sad day and age in our society right now. Culture and class are slipping away fast and that worries me greatly! Great thing you just made us ponder. Good article.

  22. Given that this statue has been on loan to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park since 1997, it seems that neither argument – that the statue should stay in a socially deprived area or that it will be subject to vandalism – is valid.

  23. I don’t think the public should pay for any art. It should come from private benefactors. The reason I say is this because the public don’t get any say on the matter, onsidering they’re paying for it, They should get to choose what is situated in theri area.

  24. Contentious and sad state of affairs – do update us with the progress on this. Fortunately my home town of Melbourne is passionate about public art within the city and there are significant measures in place to protect both the artists and the artworks themselves. Still there is always much often heated discussion whenever and wherever tight budgets and art collections exist and the public domain is no exception.

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  26. Very interesting post! Thanks for the information. I would not have discovered your blog if you are not on FP. As art is my interest, I will reblog this post as many of my fellow blogger friends like to discuss lots of related subjects with me. And I will follow your blog. In fact my primary blog uses the same theme as yours, even the color is the same!
    Back to the subject of public art, I agree with many readers here that the artist’s original intent should be respected. If that is an under-privileged area, there is more reason to keep the art work there. Advocacy should help. If there is a champion, like an elected official in that area, it will help!

  27. Reblogged this on My Notebook and commented:
    This is a very interesting post to me. I am reblogging this to my primary blog, which also has a similar theme, including the color and fonts! I hope my fellow blogger friends will participate in this interesting and important discussion of public art.

  28. I think this is a difficult and important debate. I’m inclined to defend Boyle and Serrota – they probably had their views canvassed. Also, we should not be too hasty to throw stones at the notion of a ‘cultural elite’ – although it might less provocatively be termed ‘a group of people whose professional lives have been devoted to the practice and study of art’. This might not imply that they always and automatically know best, but, like dedicated experts in any field, their views come with a certain weight (that of knowledge, experience, commitment).
    The matter of vandalism is of uncertain value in this argument (some idiot might vandalise my car but this does not mean that I and others hold my car to be of no value). The ELC, by the way, might no more speak for the local people than the “cultural elite”.

    The real issue is around the area of the undervaluing of art in British society..which is a knotted, long-standing and culturally complex problem.

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