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, located outdoors within a “socially deprived” area of East London. 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,” 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” 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.” 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. 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.” 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. 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. 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. 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.”  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”. 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. 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. 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. 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.
 (Besterman 2008)
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 (Alberge 2012)
 (Hill 2012)
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 (Zolberg 1994)
 (Weil 1999)
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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.