Art world shivers at sale of Henry Moore statue

Monday - 3/25/2013, 10:12am EDT

Associated Press

LONDON (AP) -- The massive bronze sculpture is formally known as "Draped Seated Woman," a Henry Moore creation that evoked Londoners huddled in air raid shelters during the Blitz.

To the East Enders who lived nearby, the artwork was known as "Old Flo," a stalwart symbol of people facing oppression with dignity and grace.

But now, Old Flo may have to go.

The cash-strapped London borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest communities in Britain, plans to sell the statue -- estimated to be worth as much as 20 million pounds ($30 million).

Art lovers fear the sale of such a famous sculpture would set a worrisome precedent, triggering the sell-off of hundreds of lesser works housed in parks, public buildings and little local museums as communities throughout Britain struggle to balance their budgets amid the longest and deepest economic slowdown since the Great Depression.

"If the sale of Old Flo goes through, it can open the flood gates," said Sally Wrampling, head of policy at the Art Fund, the national fundraising charity for art and one of the groups campaigning to block the sale.

The proposal embodies a dilemma faced by many struggling households: Do you sell the family silver to get through tough times?

Tower Hamlets, where a recent study found that 42 percent of children live in poverty, is 100 million pounds in the red.

The sculpture hasn't even been in the borough for 15 years. It was moved to a sculpture park in the north of England when authorities tore down the housing project where it had been placed. The council says just the insurance alone for the massive bronze would be a burden to taxpayers.

"We make this decision with a heavy heart," said Rania Khan, a local councilor who focuses on culture issues. "We have to make tough decisions."

Local authorities throughout the country are being hit by funding cuts as the central government seeks to balance the budget and reduce borrowing. Funding for local government will fall 33 percent in real terms between April 2011 and March 2015, according to the Local Government Association. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says the cuts tend to hit poor, urban areas like Tower Hamlets hardest, because their spending was higher to begin with.

Some 2,000 museums in Britain are local affairs. Bury Council sold a painting by L.S. Lowry in 2006, and Southampton City Council backed down from plans to sell an Auguste Rodin bronze in the face of public protest. The Museums Association has advised the Northampton council to hold off on the sale of an Egyptian funerary monument estimated to be worth 2 million pounds until more consultation can be done.

The depth of the recession and the lack of hope that things will improve soon are fueling the debate.

The latest figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent agency created in 2010 to advise the government, show the economy is growing more slowly than previously forecast, reducing tax revenue and prolonging the government's austerity program.

One thing is certain: Tower Hamlets, a community of 254,000 people, desperately needs the money.

Khan says she believes Moore, the son of a coal miner and lifelong socialist who died in 1986, would be moved by the plight of her constituents. She knows women who will be hard hit by proposed limits on benefit payments -- people for whom as little as five pounds can make a huge difference -- and families living in housing with mold growing on the walls.

"If he thought the sale of the sculpture would benefit the lives of thousands in Tower Hamlets ... I think he would be in favor," Khan said.

Moore attended art school on a scholarship for ex-servicemen. He became fascinated with the human form, creating works with undulating curves that reflect rolling hills and other features of nature. His most beloved motif was the reclining female figure, like that of Old Flo.

The statue features the graceful draping that Moore traced to his observation of people huddled in the Underground during the Blitz. In a 1966 interview with the BBC, Moore talked about the fear and exhilaration of Londoners sheltering against the Nazi barrage. He had concern for those he was drawing: He never sat sketching but waited until the following day and drew from memory -- rather than capturing people in their makeshift bedrooms.

Alan Wilkinson, one of the foremost Moore scholars, said the artist would have been sympathetic about the hard times in Tower Hamlets, but would want his sculptures seen the way they were intended to be seen -- in public spaces.