Like so many Londoners I was dismayed and truly saddened at last week's decision by Tower Hamlets Council to sell Draped Seated Woman, the 1957 Henry Moore sculpture, known locally - and with great affection - as Old Flo.
The first time I sat in the committee room at Tower Hamlets Council during the deliberations I was really struck by the expressions of support from just about everyone in that room. These were Londoners from all kinds of different backgrounds. They included local residents, representatives of religious communities including a pastor, a representative of the Muslim community, a school governor, smart young women councillors, business people, opposition politicians alike. They know that if Old Flo is sold to a wealthy collector, then it's likely to leave London - and possibly the UK. It will probably never be seen again by the likes of you and me.
Even Tower Hamlets' Mayor, Lutfur Rahman, has described Old Flo as "iconic". And on this point he's absolutely right. But he's opted to sell the family silver and that's plainly wrong.
His council may be cash-strapped - this is a tough time for all of us - but with an annual turnover well in excess of £1billion, the sale of Old Flo is unlikely to bring a turnaround in its fortunes. Nobody knows the real value of the sculpture. So, keeping it in Tower Hamlets is not only the best decision in the public interest, it's also the most viable option for the sculpture.
I am London born, but spent a lot of my childhood in Liverpool. As a child from a working class family, my eyes were opened to the world of art and culture through the opportunity to see art in public spaces, for free. The many hours spent at the Liverpool City Museum, the Walker Art Gallery and the Picton Library fuelled my passion for museums and led me along the career path to my current role at the Museum of London.
That's why I feel so passionately about offering a safe and secure home for Old Flo back in Tower Hamlets, outside the Museum of London Docklands, on the dockside at West India Quay. Originally sited in the Stepney's now demolished Stifford Housing Estate, Old Flo has spent the past 15 years at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. But it's now time to get her back home to London...and where better than the museum, which tells the story of the area from Roman times to the present day. It's part of the fabric of the local community and it's in the heart of the East End.
My team has done the work we know that we can keep Old Flo safe, secure and what's more accessible to the public. We already care for the sculpture of Robert Milligan, merchant and plantation owner, the quayside outside the museum is subject to 24-hour security, covered by state-of-the-art CCTV and in an area where vehicles can't access. We have completed our risk assessments and we've addressed all the insurance issues raised.
We've made the offer to the Mayor but, so far, we've had no reply to our letter. We would just like Tower Hamlets Council to at least consider the option of displaying old Flo at the Museum of London Docklands. As far as I know, they haven't even visited the site. They owe it to local people to work through all options before rushing this decision. This is vital if they want to show they value local opinion and believe that East Enders are worthy of great art.
As the leading museum for London, we also have a highly experienced team of professional conservators. They would preserve and care for this artwork to ensure it could be enjoyed by future generations. Old Flo would become the centrepiece of the museum and we would programme events, exhibition and displays around it. It would be at the heart of our learning programme, which welcomes 4,000 local schoolchildren every year.
We could guarantee that thousands of Londoners and people from across the globe could see Old Flo for free. Other institutions in Tower Hamlets, including Queen Mary and Westfield College, have offered Flo an East End home because they too want her be enjoyed by local people for years to come.
Henry Moore intended his work of art to be enjoyed by all East Enders and people from across the capital. While the artist - Britain's leading sculptor of day - was in his prime, he sold this incredible piece for a knockdown price and waived all of his fees to bring Old Flo to her new home at the Stifford Estate. In truth of course, Tower Hamlets Council doesn't own it all. The sculpture was sold to the London County Council and transferred later to the GLC. Tower Hamlets Council holds it in trust for the people of the borough. It's not simply a chattel to dispose of to make ends meet.
Henry Moore wanted ordinary people - possibly those who didn't perhaps get to visit museums and galleries - to derive meaning, beauty and enjoyment from this wonderful and unique object. His donation came out of a post-war expression that art should be for all - not just the cultural elite that Tower Hamlets Council has been very keen to place the spotlight on.
What has become apparent during the past few weeks is that the cause of Old Flo is resonating with people across the spectrum. For many she is a direct part of their childhood, for others she is a legacy for future generations, for some of us she is a symbol of artistic value. But in the end what she is proving to be is more belligerent, more tenacious and more enduring than any knee-jerk reaction which views a quick sale as a way to generate cash. She is proving to have some of the qualities that her originator may have intended as a powerful representation of the resilience of London and Londoners.
What does this mean long term? We fear that if this sale goes through unchallenged then it sets a precedent for other councils to follow suit, leaving our public spaces bereft of art. If this decision is confirmed then artists will think twice about donating their work for public display without getting the lawyers involved making sure that their wishes, and the artistic integrity of their work, lives on after they've gone.
We ask the Mayor of Tower Hamlets to think again. This decision is plain wrong. It goes against both the wishes of local people and the intentions of the artist. We are now part of a large public campaign opposed to the sale. Rushanara Ali, the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow describes the sale as 'a betrayal of the East End's working class heritage'.
The campaign has united people from across the political and social spectrum. We estimate that over 357,927 people have read about the campaign on Twitter alone. Leading the fight are local councillors, including Tim Archer (Conservative) and Joshua Peck (Labour). Mayor Boris Johnson, film director Danny Boyle and the artist's daughter, Mary Moore, have also heralded calls to re-think this decision. Watch this space.
Finally Old Flo for me is about respect; respecting the original intent of the artist, respecting the role that art and culture plays in our lives, but more importantly respecting the people of Tower Hamlets who deserve the right to have art of unparalleled quality to enjoy.
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