As it emerges that the controversial B of the Bang sculpture in east Manchester may have to be entirely dismantled and rebuilt due to ongoing safety problems, Debbie Johnson examines the role of public art in regeneration.
This particular war has been waging for years now. Extreme examples of 'art' – pickled cows, lights switching on and off in an empty gallery, unmade beds and the like – seem guaranteed to provoke irate reactions from 'Angry of Tonbridge Wells' and 'Outraged of Harrogate'. If one were prone to conspiracy theories, it would be easy to make a case that such controversial pieces were directly commissioned by the letter page editors and radio talk shows hosts of the nation, looking for juicy content.
There is always huge outcry when something is perceived as wasting cash donated by good citizens through their taxes, which they would presumably rather see used staving off MMR infections in hospitals or buying chairs for schoolkids to sit on.
And let's face it, most art that we have contact with – unless frequenting private galleries – is likely in some way or another to be funded by the people; be it through taxes, TV licence fees or buying Lottery tickets.
Recent decades, though, have seen a huge upsurge in what is known as public art – a category that can range from spending hundreds of thousands on 'Panopticons' in East Lancashire, through to a few grand funding murals in a playground.
Art, and particularly its use in open spaces, is now seen as key to regeneration.
The Northern Way has invested £4.4m in its Welcome to the North programme; the North West Development Agency has ploughed massive sums into art projects such as Manchester's The Peeps (hidden artworks behind unmarked walls around the city), and the Arts Council England has levered new investment for the arts of at least £1m over three years.
Housing Market Renewal areas are particularly targeted; NewHeartlands in Merseyside, working with Arts Council NW and the Liverpool Biennial, will soon have its own dedicated public art worker in place.
But does art regenerate? When Tracey Emin's Roman Standard was unveiled in Liverpool, someone commented in the local paper that you could 'buy a better bird in the Pound Shop'. Yoko Ono's breast posters in the same city's 2004 Biennial (pictured left) caused quite a stir; as does the iconic Turning The Place Over (the segment of revolving façade in the old Yates' Wine Lodge). But is any of it likely to stop anti-social behaviour; stop the depopulation of failed housing markets, or contribute to improved economic wellbeing?
Yes, says Laurie Peak, public art co-ordinator at the Biennial – but with reservations.
She says: "People always say why should we spend money on art, why not on health or education or such like? Well I would never argue that art was more important than those services, that would be stupid. But so would saying that all art is a waste. It might be harder to quantify, but public art that involves communities can without a doubt inspire people, bring them together. We are working with Gross Max, the architects, to create a hanging garden in a really run down part of the city – it is art, but it will be used, and will help the area to flourish again. Art, developed in conjunction with the people, can give a sense of place and pride.
"And look at the Gormley statues in Crosby. Since they went up, the area has new toilets; extra cleaning patrols, the beach is used and thought of fondly, and people travel from the city centre to an area they might well never have known existed."
Public art, says Peak, gets a bad reputation: "Sometimes it is fair enough to criticise it. It all comes down to how you use the money – either through a proper and fair commissioning process that takes into account what people want, or through an old boys' network that wastes the money on something nobody wants."
Study after study – from all across the world – has shown that public art, when done well, can lead to economic improvements and raised levels of aspiration.
Private developers also recognise its value. Keepmoat is the developer working on housing market renewal in Sefton and Liverpool.
Project manager Louise Shankster says: "It is not just about building houses. You can't just go in, build some houses, and hope it works. These areas are in failure – something has gone badly wrong. It is about responding to what the people want; helping build the kind of community they want to see. We have found they have quite simple desires – a nice house, a garden, a quiet street, and an attractive environment. That could mean parks – and open spaces are essential – and it could mean an element of art. Whatever they want, they should be listened to – they're the ones who will be living there.
"And public art can be all kinds of things – why can't it be a climbing frame, a piece of art that doubles as a plaything for the children?"
Large-scale projects costing large scale cash are always likely to be controversial. But many public art projects are smaller in scale, cost little, and make a huge difference to the way neighbourhoods develop and are perceived. And in reality, money for them often comes from budgets – government, agency, council, private sector, charitable trusts – that would never be used for more 'sensible' purposes.
And who can now imagine Gateshead without the Angel of the North, or Liverpool without its SuperLambBanana? Today's laughing stocks can be tomorrow's iconic regional symbols.
Art legacies from around the region
Liverpool Housing Action Trust
The HAT was set up in 1993 to help regenerate the high-rise neighbourhoods across the city. By 2005, when it closed, around £1m had been invested in arts projects; part of a total of £300m. Arts schemes included Tenantspin, an interactive community TV station, and Light Signatures, projecting signatures of key figures over Sefton Park.
One of the biggest pubic art projects around, Panopticons is a series of four unique (and yes, controversial) landmarks erected around East Lancashire. The fourth – Halo, an 18m diameter steel structure lit up after dark – was recently unveiled in Haslingden. It is claimed that it will "illuminate Pennine Lancashire in the eyes of the outside world", according to Nick Hunt, director of Mid Pennine Arts
Seen as a key part of the regeneration programme of this deprived area of Cumbria. Work ranges from young people renovating a vandalised bus shelter to architectural commissions. Part of a £3m investment into the area, the project received a £120,000 grant from Arts Council England.
Another Place by Antony Gormley
Consisting of 100 cast-iron life-size figures along Crosby beach, hidden and revealed as the ride ebbs and flows. Gormley says they provide a still point of reference in busy lives, and that in his work, human life is tested against planetary time. Rod Yeoman, director of South Sefton Partnership, says they provide around £6m for the local economy. A campaign to keep the figures permanently raised more than £2m.
B of the Bang
A giant, spikey sculpture commissioned by New East Manchester and erected near the City of Manchester Stadium. It takes its title from Linford Christie's quote that he starts the race on the 'B of the Bang' of the starting gun. Cots £1.4m. Dubbed by locals as KerPlunk. After being closed due to safety fears it may be dismantled and rebuilt.