Home Page It's just not good enough to hide a unique artwork away 25/04/14

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Matthew Hancock
Your Local MP

Hart of the Matter

Well, now we’ve all calmed down a bit, what can we say about the ‘Haverhill Head’ public art project?

The first thing is that the project had considerable value as an educational programme and a chance for local youngsters to show their creativity. On that count no one can deny they have done an amazing job coming up with the innovative idea in the first place and seeing it through to design and then to construction.

I haven’t seen the finished product yet, but I saw it at an earlier stage and it is very impressive, which makes the current situation all the more frustrating.

If you have missed out so far, the head cannot be put on display in the town centre as was planned ‘for health and safety reasons’. Apparently it cannot obtain the necessary public liability insurance because it cannot be given the required certificate of structural integrity.

Structural engineers say that because it is a unique and bespoke structure, ever single individual piece of it (and there are hundreds) would have to be tested, which would mean taking it apart to its constituent bits of metal.

Basically this is because someone might climb on it and fall off if a bit broke, or might be hit by a falling piece as they walked past. They might be injured and if the structure was on council land, as planned, the council would be liable for some astronomical claim.

Much as individual councillors see the issue as their responsibility for the safety – or even the life – of a child, you can be sure that the council as a whole will be viewing this in terms of the potential financial risk.

That’s not to say it isn’t perfectly safe and sound – it’s just that no one is prepared to write out a certificate to say that.

It’s just as well such regulations did not exist in Renaissance Italy or Michaelangelo’s David might have had to be ground down to test each individual grain of marble and check there were no flaws in the block and that it could withstand the occasional earthquake.

I looked at the arrows sticking out of St Edmund on the Parkway roundabout in Bury the other day and they appear eminently climbable. No doubt a structural engineer was involved from the very beginning of that project to ensure that the design was such that everything had been tested to the required level.

The same is true of the Queen Street gates, the previous project put together by the same team. These were placed on Suffolk County Council land and their structural engineer was involved in all stages of that project, we are told.

It is a delicate balance when it comes to public art and installations, between ensuring safety and constraining artistic creativity. And not only safety considerations but, in this technological age, money can be a serious constraint as well.

Whereas a block of marble is a block of marble, and that is the cost, once you start making art out of bits of metal, there are all sorts of new difficulties.

The original design, again done by local school students, for the Spirit of Enterprise on the Gateway roundabout, was a lot more fluid and flowing than the final result -  much as I like and defend it. Manufacturing such a design in metal, although not impossible, of course, proved far too costly for the available budget, so compromises had to be made.

It seems that the more technology is available, the less we can create exactly what we want to create. Michaelangelo never had that problem because it was just him and a block of stone. Assuming he chose the right block – and that was a serious skill in itself – everything else was under his control.

The most disappointing thing about the Haverhill Head fiasco is that the whole point of the design was its very public nature. It was public art, of which there has been a laudable determination to raise the profile in Haverhill, even allocating thousands of pounds from our council tax towards it.

It was also very topical, forward-looking art because it involved media, broadcasting to the public. That was the central genius of the idea. Whatever anyone says in a desperate attempt to paper over the disaster, this is now not going to be in a public place.

It is to stand in the grounds of Samuel Ward Academy, where it will be under ‘greater supervision’, and secure at night. Of course, students and visitors will see it, which is good, but that is a school project, like the inspiring carving of Sophocles at the entrance to the academy, and a different matter altogether.

The public in the town centre – visitors, tourists even, just happening to be passing – will not see it, and will not take away the stunning impression that it would have made to encourage others to make the effort to see it. The benefit to the town as a brand, which is a major justification for the spending of public money, will be negligible – leaving aside the crushing disappointment for its creators.

Therefore it should be a matter of the highest priority not to remain satisfied with the status quo, but to find a way of getting it on display in the town centre as soon as possible. It cannot be beyond the wit of man, and money spent on it would be beneficial to all of us.

Whether it goes behind a security screen, inside a transparent globe, or high up out of reach of mischievous mountaineers, there has to be a more satisfactory solution to this.

Just accepting that that’s it and it’s too bad, never mind, would be yet another typical example of the way Haverhill’s issues have always been dealt with by our local authorities. It wouldn’t happen elsewhere in the borough or the county and I don’t see why it should happen here. Not this time, when we have something unique and rather more imaginative than any other town would be likely to come up with. We want people to see it.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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