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‘White, middle class’ critics of River Cam public art that could cost £150,000 should consider views of working classes, says Cambridge city councillor

Critics of a ‘golden wave’ public art sculpture on the banks of the River Cam are predominantly “white, middle class people‘ who should consider the opinions of the working classes more, a councillor has suggested.

Cllr Mairéad Healy (Lab, Romsey) was speaking at a meeting at which councillors approved spending between £80,000 and £150,000 in developer contributions on the controversial artwork, in addition to £120,000 already allocated for the artist residency focused on the river.

Cllr Healy shared her own experiences of the positive impact public art had on her growing up in poverty during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The ‘Selvedge’ artwork design for the RIver Cam, created by Caroline Wright as part of the To The River artist residency
The ‘Selvedge’ artwork design for the RIver Cam, created by Caroline Wright as part of the To The River artist residency

Green and Liberal Democrat councillors urged fellow committee members to await the results of a public consultation on the artwork before committing the funds, but the idea was voted down.

Designed by artist Caroline Wright, the concept design is for a permanent piece, coloured gold and called ‘Selvedge’, for the riverbank at Sheep’s Green. The aim is to “celebrate and promote” the story of the Cam in Cambridge as part of the artist residency known as To The River.

The initial design draws on the textile industry in the city in the 17th century - specifically the Cambridge weave, which is still used in graduation gowns produced today.

It would be made up of 50m of sheet metal, and would also help address erosion of the bank, the city council has said.

A public consultation on the concept idea was held earlier this month, with the results awaited.

Cllr Healy, chairing the environment and community scrutiny committee meeting on Thursday evening (Thursday, March 24), said: “A lot of the things I have seen in the media and a lot of the criticism is predominantly coming from white, middle class people.

“It upsets me a bit because I know that a lot of the people who have been involved with the consultations have been people from working class backgrounds.

“There is a huge theme running through this artwork that the artist has designed around the working classes and it just feels to me a bit that we are not taking their opinions into account. Do we not like their type of art? It just feels to me a bit uncomfortable.

She said she was “speaking as someone who was raised in extreme poverty during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in an environment which was not very pleasant”.

“There were often petrol bombs and all sorts of riots - the area was not very nice, but we were very lucky,” she continued. “We had wonderful street art from the Bogside Artists in my local area.

“This brought great joy to me growing up in this background, in this environment in these very depressing times.

“As someone from a poor background, I would never have been able to contemplate paying for galleries and I think art should be accessible to everybody.

“Public art offers that opportunity. It offers that opportunity for those without the means to be able to enjoy art, even if they are living in difficult times without many resources or empowerment.

“I often think many who criticise come from a place of privilege and I really ask them to reflect on their own considerable privilege.”

The ‘Selvedge’ artwork design for the RIver Cam, created by Caroline Wright as part of the To The River artist residency
The ‘Selvedge’ artwork design for the RIver Cam, created by Caroline Wright as part of the To The River artist residency

Council leader Cllr Anna Smith (Lab, Coleridge) stressed that councillors were not making a decision on the actual design of the sculpture.

She said approving the additional funding of between £80,000 to £150,000 would allow the project to continue, either in its current form, or with changes after the responses to the public consultation were considered.

The project is being funded through Section 106 developer contributions – money paid to the city council by developers.

Cllr Smith said she wanted to clarify that the money had to be used for public art and if it was not used then it would have to be returned to the developers.

A council report explained that the River Cam artist residency was allocated £120,000 of Section 106 public art funding in January 2018. Since 2019, public engagement events have “focused on understanding the influence that the River Cam has on Cambridge and its residents and visitors, with a view to providing a permanent work of public art on the River Cam”.

Remaining funds from this project would be used along with the additional £80,000-£150,000 funding approved last Thursday to pay for the artwork.

Cllr Mairéad Healy (Lab, Romsey)
Cllr Mairéad Healy (Lab, Romsey)

Council officers noted: “Whilst it is hoped that the extra funding required for production may be at the lower end of this range, delivery costs for the final artwork are still to be confirmed, due to fluctuating market prices for materials.“

An amendment was presented by Cllr Hannah Copley (Green, Abbey), and seconded by Cllr Katie Porrer (Lib Dem, Market), requesting that a decision on the funding was not made until the outcome of the public consultation had been considered.

Cllr Copley raised concerns over the amount of money proposed to be allocated to one project, as councillors were being asked to sign up up to £150,000 of the remaining £290,000 funds available for public art.

She also pointed out that locating the piece in a wealthier area of the city may not target those who would benefit most from access to public art.

However, the amendment failed to get enough support, with three councillors voting in favour and five against.

The additional funding for the project was approved by a majority of the committee councillors.

The next steps set out by the city council will be the consideration of the public consultation responses before a design is approved.

Planning permission, Environment Agency consent and approval from the Conservators of the River Cam are also required before the artwork could be installed.

Meanwhile, council officers have also been instructed to identify eligible proposals for local public art in two more locations:

  • in or near Romsey ward, incorporating use of around £32,500 of local Section 106 funds that need to be contractually committed by autumn 2023
  • in Queen Edith’s ward, incorporating use of around £12,500 of local Section 106 funds that need to be contractually committed by spring 2024.

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‘Deeply unpopular’ golden River Cam sculpture could cost £150,000

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