‘White middle class’ critics of River Cam public art which could cost £150,000 should heed working class views, says Cambridge alderman

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Critics of a ‘golden wave’ public art sculpture on the banks of the River Cam are overwhelmingly ‘middle class white people’ who should take working class views more into account, an adviser has suggested.

Cllr Mairéad Healy (Lab, Romsey) was speaking at a meeting where councilors approved spending between £80,000 and £150,000 in developer contributions on the controversial artwork, on top of the £120,000 already allocated to the river-based artist residency.

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

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

Green and Liberal Democrat advisers urged other committee members to await the results of a public consultation on the artwork before committing the funds, but the idea was rejected.

Conceived by artist Caroline Wright, the design concept is for a permanent piece, colored in gold and called “Selvedge”, for the shore of Sheep’s Green. The aim is to ‘celebrate and promote’ the history of the Cam in Cambridge as part of the artist residency To The River.

The initial design was inspired by the city’s textile industry in the 17th century – specifically the Cambridge weave, which is still used in graduation dresses produced today.

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

A public consultation on the concept idea took place earlier this month, and the results are awaited.

Cllr Healy, chair of the Environment and Community Review Committee meeting on Thursday evening (Thursday March 24), said: ‘A lot of the stuff I’ve seen in the media and a lot of the criticism is mostly from middle-class whites. .

“It upsets me a bit because I know that a lot of people who participated in the consultations were people from working class backgrounds.

“There’s a huge theme running through this work that the artist has designed around the working classes and I just kind of feel like we don’t take their opinions into account. Don’t we like their type of art? It just feels a bit uncomfortable to me.

She said she “spoke like someone who was brought up in extreme poverty during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in an environment that was not very pleasant”.

“There were often petrol bombs and all kinds of riots – the neighborhood wasn’t very nice, but we were very lucky,” she continued. “We had wonderful street art from Bogside artists in my area.

“It has brought me great joy to grow up in this context, in this environment in these very depressing times.

“As someone from a poor background, I could never have considered paying for galleries and I think art should be accessible to everyone.

“Public art offers this opportunity. He offers this opportunity to those who cannot afford to be able to enjoy art, even if they are going through difficult times without much resources or empowerment.

“I often think a lot of those who criticize come from a privileged place and I really ask them to reflect on their own considerable privilege.”

The 'Selvedge' artwork for the RIver Cam, created by Caroline Wright as part of the To The River artist residency
The ‘Selvedge’ artwork 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 councilors were not making a decision on the actual design of the sculpture.

She said approval of the additional funding of between £80,000 and £150,000 would allow the project to continue, either in its current form or with modifications after the responses to the public consultation have been considered.

The project is funded by Section 106 Developer Contributions – money donated to the city council by developers.

Cllr Smith said she wanted to make it clear that the money should be used for public art and if not used it should be returned to the developers.

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

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

Cllr Mairéad Healy (Laboratory, Romsey)
Cllr Mairéad Healy (Laboratory, Romsey)

Council officials noted, “While it is hoped that the additional funding required for production is at the lower end of this range, the costs of delivering the final artwork have yet to be confirmed, in due to fluctuating market prices of materials.”

An amendment was moved by Cllr Hannah Copley (Green, Abbey), and seconded by Cllr Katie Porrer (Lib Dem, Market), requesting that a decision on funding not be made until the outcome of the public consultation has not been taken into account.

Cllr Copley raised concerns about the proposed amount of money to be allocated to a project, as councilors were asked to contribute up to £150,000 of the remaining £290,000 funds available for public art.

She also pointed out that locating the work in a more affluent part of town may not target those who would benefit the most from access to public art.

However, the amendment did not gain enough support, with three councilors voting in favor and five against.

Additional funding for the project was approved by a majority of committee advisors.

The next steps set by the City Council will be the review of public consultation responses prior to approval of a design.

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

Meanwhile, council officers have also been tasked with identifying eligible proposals for local public art in two other locations:

  • in or near the Romsey area, incorporating the use of approximately £32,500 of local Section 106 funds to be contractually committed by Autumn 2023
  • in Queen Edith’s ward, incorporating the use of approximately £12,500 of local Section 106 funds to be contracted by Spring 2024.

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River Cam’s ‘deeply unpopular’ golden sculpture could fetch £150,000


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