The importance of public art

Ann Sumner pictured with The Dreamer, by Quentin Bell, at the University of Leeds. (Picture: Scott Merrylees).
Ann Sumner pictured with The Dreamer, by Quentin Bell, at the University of Leeds. (Picture: Scott Merrylees).
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The University of Leeds is launching a new public art trail to encourage more visitors to its campus. Chris Bond looks at whether public art is important.

IN all the years I’ve been coming to the main University of Leeds campus I can’t remember paying much attention to its artworks.

To be honest, I didn’t even realise they were there and I suspect many of you reading this probably didn’t either. There might have been the odd cursory glance but nothing more. Which is a shame, because there is more to our universities than mere bricks and mortar.

The same goes for our cities. If you cast your eyes skywards in Leeds you find yourself looking at a different world, and if it’s not always a marriage of architectural styles then it is at least a fascinating patchwork that says something about the city and how it has evolved.

It’s hard not to talk about public art in Leeds without bringing up the infamous Brick Man. I say “infamous” because this was the Brick Man that never was. He would have stood looming next to the railway line near the station like a giant man-made sentinel. But his would-be creator Antony Gormley was sent away with a flea in his ear, amid rumblings about the cost to the public purse.

Instead, a decade or so later he unveiled The Angel of the North – which has become as much a symbol of the North East as the Tyne Bridge and Bamburgh Castle.

It’s fair to say that if Gormley approached the city council today with plans for a public sculpture they would bite his hand off.

Ann Sumner was working in Leeds at the time and remembers all the fuss surrounding the Brick Man. “This was before The Angel of the North so it was difficult for people to conceive how iconic it would become,” she says.

But attitudes towards public art have changed dramatically during the past 30 years, highlighted by the fact that around five million people went to see Paul Cummins’s deeply moving ceramic poppy installation at the Tower of London last year.

This interest is something that Sumner, who recently became the University of Leeds’s first Public Art Project Officer, hopes to tap into. In June, the university is launching a public art programme which coincides with the unveiling of a new sculpture called A Spire, by rising star Simon Fujiwara, that will take pride of place in front of the Laidlaw Library.

It’s a feather in the university’s cap and ties in with a series of planned open days, lectures and lunch time talks aimed at getting more people to come and take a look at its public art collection.

At the heart of this is a new public art trail that starts from the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery and winds its way across the sprawling campus. Sumner has chosen 10 works that will feature in the trail - there will be tours and visitors will be able to pick up a leaflet and download an app that will explain the stories behind the sculptures.

“We hope it will be a great way of engaging with diverse groups of people and getting them to engage with and think about public art,” she says.

Among the pieces chosen are Quentin Bell’s levitating figure, known as The Dreamer, and Keith Wilson’s five metre tall sculpture Sign for Art, nicknamed “the wiggle” by students, which was unveiled last autumn.

So, too, is Eric Gill’s Christ driving the Moneychangers from the Temple, which caused controversy when it was unveiled in 1923 for suggesting that some people had profited from the Great War.

American sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe, who designed the famous Bafta trophy, is another artist whose work can be seen on the campus, if you lift your head up. Her Man-Made Fibres piece was unveiled in 1956 by the Duke of Edinburgh when he opened the new building, opposite the students’ union, at the top of which it sits.

“Leeds was at the forefront of the textiles industry and this is really quite powerful when you see it, these two hands with threads between them,” says Sumner.

“Mitzi Cunliffe was very much a renaissance woman and quite a pioneer for female sculptors, and yet not many people have probably heard of her and I think she deserves wider recognition.”

As well as putting the spotlight on the sculptors Sumner wants to tell the stories behind some of the works, like William Chattaway’s flying bronze figure Hermes/The Spirit of Enterprise.

“This was in the City of London for many years on the corner of the old Midland Bank international building. So from the 1950s right the way through to the 80s it was seen by all these city workers and when that building was under threat Stanley Burton stepped in and secured it for the university here and it’s now mounted on a building on the campus.

“It’s so prominent here but in a completely different way. Today you have students sitting underneath sipping coffees next to the fountain and it’s become an integral part of the building here. But that’s not how it was seen by many people for more than 30 years, and I’m fascinated by the response to public art in different settings.”

Yorkshire is home to the so-called Sculpture triangle, which revolves around Yorkshire Sculpture Park, The Hepworth Wakefield and Henry Moore Institute, and the university is keen to tap into this with Sumner looking at the possibility of setting up the first public art institute in the UK.

Sumner, who was executive director of the Brontë Society before stepping down last year, believes there is a growing appetite for public art. “I think art in this country has become increasingly important. You’ve only got to look at the response to the poppy installation at the Tower of London to see how it’s transformed the way people see public art.

“It really was at the centre of our national commemorations of the First World War in a way that was probably inconceivable some years ago because there wasn’t perhaps the understanding of the power of public art.

“I saw it on November 11 and then again the next day and one of the most extraordinary things was the speed with which it came down and how many volunteers were involved, and you realise that this is public art in the widest possible sense.”

She believes one of the reasons for this growing interest is the fact art has become more accessible. “If you look at the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square that now seems so much part of our cultural calendar, people are interested in it and you forget how controversial it first was. People respond to it differently, but the important thing is they do respond to it.

“Mitzi Cunliffe said back in the fifties that sculpture was stuck in galleries being commented on by art critics when it should be out there being walked passed and seen by ordinary people. We’ve had that chief transformation and I like to think she’d be pleased that we’re concentrating on public art.”