Plans by Tower Hamlets Council to sell a Henry Moore sculpture worth as much as £20 million have been vehemently opposed in an open letter by figures including Danny Boyle, artists Rachel Whiteread and Jeremy Deller and Moore’s daughter, Mary.
© Jonty Wilde, reproduced by permission of The Henry Moore Foundation
Writing to the Observer, the creator of the Olympic Opening Ceremony said the work, Draped Seated Woman, was “priceless to every resident”, and suggested it should move to the Olympic Park alongside the huge bell used by champion cyclist Bradley Wiggins to ring in the Games.
“The value of art is diminished by being monetarised,” warned Boyle.
“The Opening Ceremony, which I was proud to direct as a Tower Hamlets resident, featured Antony Gormley's Field for the British Isles in a frontispiece to the programme.
“His idea was to create a piece of art that no one could own. The Moore sculpture defies all prejudice in people's minds about one of London's poorest boroughs.
“The presence of the sculpture in Stepney was a demonstration of the post-war belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality.
“That is why Moore was so delighted to see the work sited as the centrepiece of a housing estate in London's East End.
“We appreciate that times have changed and that the costs of protecting the sculpture are demanding, but we believe that there are a number of sites in the borough where the work could be safely sited for the benefit of the community towards whom Henry Moore made such a generous gesture.”
He added that Whiteread’s House, a recreation of a Victorian abode which won the artist the 1993 Turner Prize before being controversially demolished by the Council the following January, was “another fine example of what could have been in Tower Hamlets”. Nicholas Serota, the Director of Tate, is a fellow signatory of the letter.
The Council bought the sculpture, known locally as Old Flo, for the new Stifford housing estate in 1960. It was loaned to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, where it still stands, after the estate was demolished in 1997.
Leaders have encountered significant criticism since announcing their decision to investigate selling the 1.5-ton bronzework last month.
Lutfur Rahman, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets, spoke of his “great regret” at a “stark choice” forced by the economic recession.
“If returning the sculpture to this borough is not a realistic value for money option, we need to give serious consideration to selling the artwork,” he explained, pledging to invest in local heritage projects, affordable housing and community safety with the proceeds.
“The money raised will be ring-fenced to benefit the borough as a whole. This additional resource will have a positive impact across the cross section of ages, needs and interests within the borough."
Insurance costs and the threat of vandalism and metal theft – three of the key reasons why the sculpture originally moved to Yorkshire – prohibit the work being returned to the borough, according to the Council.
In a letter to the Mayor, the Museum of London offered to put the sculpture on long-term display for free.
“We believe that displaying Draped Seated Woman at the Museum of London or Museum of London Docklands, where visitors can enjoy the artwork freely and easily, will bring great public good for Londoners and visitors to the capital,” said Sharon Ament, the Director of the Museum, who argued the move would be “the most viable option”.
“As Mary Moore said in her letter to the Observer, this artwork was created with the belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality.
“Our team of professional conservators would look after the preservation of this artwork to ensure its longevity and enjoyment by future generations.”
The sculpture is expected to go to auction in February 2013 if the sale plans go ahead.
The Henry Moore Foundation issued a statement inviting the public to give their views on its Facebook page.
"We are familiar with the challenges of displaying Moore's work outdoors,” said the charity.
“We therefore have sympathy with Tower Hamlets' position, although we think it is very sad that this sculpture may be lost to public display."