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Michael Condron emailed today with details of his latest sculptures.

Interested readers, and particularly those in the Basildon Arts Collective, may recall that at the height of the furore surrounding The Woodsman I blogged on several occasions about Condron’s works of public art, bemoaning the treatment meted out to Progression.

I’ve extracted the photographs from his email and placed them in the gallery below.

Enjoy them, admire them and appreciate a quite extraordinary local talent. And then question why it is that Basildon’s Conservative administration have consistently demonstrated such hostility to public art, including Condron’s own Progression.

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On December 15 2008 Nick Clegg delivered a speech to the think tank Demos entitled “Why I am a Liberal”. It was both passionate and philosophical, a very personal evocation of liberalism that captures the essence of political empowerment:

“A Liberal believes in the raucous, unpredictable capacity of people to take decisions about their own lives… A Liberal believes a progressive society is distinguished by aspiration, creativity and non-conformity.”

Today, Don Foster MP, the Liberal Democrats Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, launched “The Power of Creativity” – a vision document for the arts that translates Liberal ideals into political commitments, policies and aspirations.

As the document highlights, the first Chairman of the Arts Council was John Maynard Keynes, the noted economist and lifelong member of the Liberal Party. He set out a clear mission for the Arts Council:

“The purpose of the Arts Council of Great Britain is to create an environment, to breed a spirit, to cultivate an opinion, to offer a stimulus to such purpose that the artist and the public can each sustain and live on the other in that union which has occasionally existed in the past at the great ages of a communal civilised life.”

In the current political and economic climate, funding, innovation, local support and creative risk-taking are all in jeopardy.  Our own experience in Basildon, with “The Woodsman”, “Progression” and The Wat Tyler Sculpture Trail are testimony to the low priority that the arts receive in terms of support from local government, particularly where politicans are obsessed with enormous capital projects to cement their political legacy. Foster’s paper seeks to sustain Keyne’s original and Liberal vision for the arts in these more uncertain times.

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Following my post on “Progression” and “The Woodsman” I made contact with the artist Michael Condron, the sculptor commissioned by Basildon Council to make “Progression”. I thought it courteous to draw his attention to the fact I was blogging about his work. His response – which he is happy for me to share – is an extraordinary and depressing indictment of the lack of courtesy and general ignorance of Basildon Council (and by extension its Conservative administration) in its dealings with artists and issues of public art:

“The attitude Basildon DC has shown towards it’s public art is pretty extraordinary, and fortunately not the kind of behaviour I’ve come across elsewhere.

The relocation of my Progression sculpture was not something I was consulted on.  Whilst I’m not entirely happy with the new situation, it is better than the artwork rotting in a storage yard somewhere.

You mentioned NYC’s percent for art programme in the blog, and I wonder if you’re aware that Essex County Council also has a percent for art policy.  Many commissions have been funded by developers through “section 106” planning requirements, including my recent Life Cycle installation at Hanningfield reservoir.

Generally speaking public art is vibrant in Essex!”

What is particularly depressing is that, whilst Basildon’s Conservatives neglect and rip out our public art, the record of Essex County Council, another Conservative administration, is a national leader when it comes to supporting public art. As Condron notes, Essex does indeed operate a percent policy for art. Art in the Open singles out Essex as its case study for best practice in “embedding public art within Council-led capital projects”. The page on commissioning guidance states:

“Essex County Council (ECC) has been commissioning art in the public realm as part of its Capital Development Programme and Essex Design Initiative for many years.  It was the first County Council to develop and adopt the principle of a public art policy in the late 1980s.  In 2002 it adopted a Percent for Art policy and, more recently, has developed a central budgeting process to create a new fund, the Public Art Common Fund, that draws money directly from ECC’s capital programmes budget, enabling the public arts team to plan longer term.  This has lead to the development of a three-year programme of more substantial commissions under the banner of ‘Genius Loci’ (‘Spirit of Place’).  These commissions are predominantly permanent but also include some temporary work to help highlight and pave the way for the permanent.”

What’s more, Essex demonstrates that it truly understands the purpose of public art:

“ECC seeks to commission art in the public realm to:

  • Improve the aesthetics of the built environment
  • Enhance a sense of community and place
  • Foster community pride and ownership
  • Celebrate artistic achievement
  • Reflect a ‘spirit of place’”

To demonstrate how serious Essex is about supporting public art, Art in the Open explains how the County Council organises the staff that support public art:

“ECC believes in an embedded and informed approach to commissioning art in the public realm.  It runs workshops and organises study trips to support internal development and understanding; the public art team sits within the built environment department, ensuring a close working relationship across planning and development teams; a Public Art Strategy Group, chaired by a cabinet member and including officers from across the council, helps keep an informed overview; occasionally, external organisations are brought in to provide additional commissioning support.”

And the big question in local government is always the money:

“Funding streams:

  • Percent for Art: up to 1 per cent of almost all capital builds across the council. This has been consolidated for 2007-2010 as the Public Art Common Fund where 0.74 per cent, £2.14 million, has been designate for Genius Loci. The continuation of the Common Fund beyond 2010 is subject to approval by the Council and is depended on a successful bid from the Public Art Team.
  • Money can also be brought in through section 106 (however, this mechanism is dependent on the policy of the local planning authority not the County Council).”

To be honest, it is a pretty extraordinary commitment from a local authority and I applaud Essex’s seriousness in making public art accessible and relevant – not shoved away in corners as museum pieces to be visited.

So why is it, with such a leading example so politically and geographically close to home, that Basildon’s Conservative Party acts like a Neanderthal collective when it comes to  public art? I can’t answer that. However, I can only think that the “pretty extraordinary” attitude identified by Condron was a principal contributing factor to the appalling ruin of “The Woodsman”.

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"Progression" - Michael Condron

“Progression” – Michael Condron

It is sobering to realise how quickly things fade from the memory.

The controversy surrounding “The Woodsman” and an emailed comment from a friend in Basildon Choral Society has reminded me of the fate of “Progression”, the sculpture created by another exciting Essex artist. Ten years ago, Rochford-born sculptor Michael Condron was commissioned by the Council to create a piece of work to celebrate Basildon’s journey into the new Millennium. The general nature of Condron’s work  is summarised well on the website of Chelmsford Borough Council:

“Michael Condron is a sculptor whose principal aim is to make artwork that belongs to its place. A common theme running throughout his work is a sense of fun and discovery. His sculptures can be interactive, responding to the viewer’s presence with sound, movement, light and even bubbles!”

From even that brief description it is clear that his creations are intended to be touched not just looked at. His installations are almost performance pieces, challenging young and old to explore their physicality as well as admire their lines and designs. That this was intended for “Progression” is borne out by the detailed design information that is available on Condron’s website:

“The sculpture will require little maintenance beyond routine inspection, being robust enough to withstand vandalism, people climbing, etc. Any dirt/graffiti can easily be cleaned by Basildon District Council’s normal maintenance contractors. As the sculptures are set at ground level, the surrounding grass will need to be cut with care. A nylon cord strimmer should be used close to the sculpture to prevent damage.”

Interestingly, the issue of health and safety, the reason so often cited for its removal, was addressed throughout:

“The Artist liaised with Basildon District Council to ensure that any Health and Safety concerns over the design were addressed, including edges, projecting parts, trip and slip hazards.”

The biggest controversy surrounding “Progression” centred on its cost. The Conservative opposition said that spending £25,000 of public money on public art was a waste of money. Instead, Cllr Tony Ball said that the money should be spent on Wickford Citizen’s Advice Bureau and Billericay Citizen’s Advice Bureau who, at the time, faced a cash funding crisis.

Thankfully, they are both still there doing a very important job.

“Progression” is not.

In the story linked above, Cllr Ball makes the following comment:

“We are not against the art – but the cash should be from private sponsorship.”

Personally, I disagree. I believe that public art fulfils an important purpose, in the same way other facilities do. Public art makes the places we live in less severe, breaking up their harsh anonymous lines. It helps create a unique sense of identity.

Other places have been far more welcoming of publicly-commissioned art installed in public spaces. Sticking with Condron, in Woking, his “Martian” has been hailed by visitors as a masterpiece and draws on the local heritage of H. G. Wells. In Slough, he worked with Beechwood School to mark its relocation, creating “Moving On” from pieces of steel cut according to outline drawings of pupils’ feet.

Elsewhere in Essex, his “Timeline” was the result of a commission from the Essex Records Office. The Colchester and Tendering Hospital Arts Project commissioned him to create “Tube Figures”, a series of sculpted figures installed around their hospital sites.  Even the County Council commissioned Condron – after “Progression” was installed.

Elsewhere, the importance of public art is recognised in law. In New York, that bastion of socialism, there is a 1% rule:

“In 1982, the Percent for Art law was initiated by Mayor Edward I. Koch and passed by the Council of the City of New York requiring that one percent of the budget for eligible City-funded construction projects be spent on artwork for City facilities.”

In Norway, which also has statutory funding requirements in respect of public buildings, the government has a professional body for public art (KORO) with a clear statement of purpose:

“Art expresses human creativity and originality. Through art, reality is adapted in order to convey new experiences, new understandings and new insights. Producing art for public spaces is a way of expressing a democratic idea that upholds the right of every person to experience art.”

In the course of my professional work I have had reason to visit Norway and have held discussions with senior public figures regarding the role of public art in promoting health and well-being. I had the good fortune to be shown around a new hospital being built, in which each room was carefully decorated and the communal spaces were filled with beautiful works of public art. The feeling of peaceful recuperation was palpable. (There was even a piano, regularly tuned and maintained, for patients, visitors or staff to play.)

In its own small way, “The Woodsman” did just that. It broke up the harsh lines of the commercial space around it and reminded us of softer, greener and older places – and reminded us that we each have the right to experience art. Experience is an important word, too. It is not about ‘liking’, though many of us loved “The Woodsman”. ‘Dislike’ is important in creating a discussion, getting us engaged in the debate about how our environment should look.

Where is that discussion in Basildon?

Ten years’ on from “Progression”, public art produced in Basildon, for Basildon, by a Basildon artist, is now rotting in an anonymous yard.

£38 million can be spent furthering the sporting interests of the district, but the Council is not even prepared to spend the few thousand necessary to restore “The Woodsman” to the space it was made for (and made in).

And whilst “The Woodsman” lies open to the elements, but closed to the public, what of Condron’s “Progression”? This piece, a work that was designed to “withstand climbing, swinging, vandalism or the elements”, is also in Wat Tyler Country Park, fenced off from the public like some museum piece.

This tale of two sculptures is also the story of the diminution of Wat Tyler Country Park. Wat Tyler has its own identity, its own story to tell of struggles ancient and modern.  It shouldn’t become the repository of Basildon District Council’s public art – where you have to make a visit to see it and admire it from afar.

The more I think about it, the more Friday’s symbolic funeral wreath, which could have been mocked for its mawkishness and sentimentality, captures a vital idea – the sad passing away of public art in Basildon.

I would challenge those who are “not against the art” to say otherwise.

For those who are interested in Condron’s work, I have pulled together a gallery on Flickr from publicly available pictures. It is predominantly made up of shots of his three-piece “War of the Worlds” installation in Woking – you can find examples of his other work on the links above.

If you want to find out more about public art in general, Wikipedia has a very good entry which should serve as a useful starting point. Public art online is a leading UK website which covers information from across the country as well as internationally. Artquest has a very interesting section entitled Government Policies and the Arts which looks at the statutory framework regarding public art in different countries. It also contains a free library of legal information for artists on its Artlaw subsite. There is also a directory of public art which contains news of new installations as well as a growing collection of public art from around the globe.

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