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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 August 2005, 13:16 GMT 14:16 UK
What is the point of public art?
Monolith and Shadow
Monolith and Shadow has not won over everyone
The appearance of a 70,000 polished stone sculpture outside a new London hospital has not gone down well in some circles.

The money could have paid for three nurses said the Sun, while the Daily Mail questioned how the "gallstone" could "possibly improve health care".

They are missing the point, say backers of the University College Hospital work, who argue that it will enhance its "welcoming and reassuring environment".

Are they right to suggest that public art is more than just a luxury?

'Real difference'

'B of the Bang' model
The B of the Bang is Britain's tallest sculpture

"Monolith and Shadow", the sculpture now sitting at the entrance to UCH, reflects the growing belief that art has an important role to play in hospitals, says Daniel Reynolds of charity the King's Fund.

"While most people think it's just a make-over project, they make a real difference to patients."

Combined with other improvements like well-tended gardens and re-vamped corridors, art works can help make hospitals better places, he says.

"They help to reduce violence on patients' wards. It makes people feel calmer and more relaxed."

The King's Fund, which matched public and staff donations to pay for the UCH sculpture, also argues that scarce NHS staff are more likely to stay on at well-presented hospitals.

Image of steel bowl
The Sky Bowl would float over the Durham horizon

And there is the suggestion that art can play a role in patients' recovery.

"A healing environment is crucial to a positive patient experience," says UCH chief nurse Louise Boden.

"There is increasing evidence that a welcoming and interesting atmosphere improves both patient well-being...even speeding recovery in some cases."

'Sky Bowl'

The opportunities for amateur art critics are certainly not limited to hospital grounds - with public art a favourite means of providing a focal point for a town or area.

The damaged sculpture
Shepton Mallet's sheep were attacked with a hammer

Liverpool recently saw Tracey Emin's Roman Standard unveiled in Liverpool, while Manchester has the B of the Bang and Durham has plans for a "Sky Bowl".

One way or another all public art works, no matter how grand, seem to fall foul of at least some members of the public.

Now a major attraction to Gateshead, the Angel of the North was attacked by early critics for making a "laughing stock" of the town.

Others suggested it should be renamed the Angel of Death as they thought it would distract motorists, causing them to crash.

Bronze bull

For the artists and officials behind the more humdrum pieces on display in countless other towns and cities across the UK, the challenge of winning public approval can be even greater.

Paradise Is
Paradise Is in Letchworth is by artist Bettina Furnee

"Moyner" and "Hasan" seemed to show little appreciation for Birmingham's bronze bull when they recently scratched their names into it.

And there was even less respect shown to a flock of concrete sheep in Shepton Mallet, when they were attacked with a hammer.

Elsewhere it is more a question of persuading residents that the town's new centrepiece represents good use of their public money.

When Letchworth spent 48,000 in 2003 on its sculpture "Paradise Is" not everybody agreed with the council's belief that the poles - arranged in the shape of a house - reflected the area's links between town and country.

"We have a range of people who still have strong feelings on it," said a council spokesman. But it remains convinced the money has helped foster interest in the arts and to provide a new landmark.

With officialdom across the country seemingly in agreement, there will no doubt be many more opportunities for people to have their say.

Your comments

What a dire landscape we would live in if we went for the cheapest possible buildings, with no regard for aesthetics. Public art enriches urban environments, and gives the community something to be proud of for future generations. Imagine if they'd refused to build Big Ben, St Paul's Cathedral, Nelson's Column and other British landmarks, and plonked a square brick building there instead!
Phil Whitehead, Abingdon, UK

Anything that enhances an environment (whether or not you think its good art or not) serves a purpose. In increasingly bland, uniform and clone like towns, any piece which is unique at least is testament to some form of life, which is apt to a hospital and convalescence. If the Sun wants to vent some spleen regarding the NHS and quality of environment perhaps it could turn its righteous attention to the poor quality hospitals built throughout the UK with cheap materials by profiteering private companies at the public expense.
Dave Toner, Belfast

Of course it is - I know plenty of people who would feel intimidated inside a gallery, these types of installations bring art to the general public in a relaxed (and relaxing) way. Monolith and Shadow is simply beautiful and if the Sun are that worried, let them put their hands in their pockets.
Mel, Sheffield

This so-called art is worth exactly what people are prepared to pay for it. Far too much money is being wasted on this junk. Cash-strapped health services have no right to waste public money on such worthless extravagances. Get rid of it, get the money back and spend it on things which really make a difference - doctors, nurses and equipment.
David, Cornwall, UK

The idea of public art is nothing new and is always welcome. Certainly, in theory, it can have a beneficial effect, whatever that really means. What disturbs is the mind-numbing mediocrity of the works on offer.
John Darck, Brighton, UK

If the purpose of art is to illicit an emotional response from the viewer than Monolith and Shadow has achieved its purpose with both supporters and non alike. Public art is about encouraging discussions and this piece has definitely done that!
Amy, Colorado Springs, USA

Landmarks are important for a city or town and for art itself, but I strongly disgusted with this 70K stone bought by the NHS when patients' waiting time could be cut by spending this money on more useful things.
Shakil, Pinner, UK

In what way can the Sun complain and demand how private people and organisations spend their money. This wasn't money diverted away from health services. It came from private donations and a private organisation. Certainly a backwater council paying 50,000 for a bunch of poles is daft, but you can't apply the same logic to all art in public areas.
Jamie Fryer, London

While a sculpture may make an environment more inviting, the sculptures won't be seen by a majority of patients, who may have been rushed in by ambulance and are stuck in a ward nearly all day. What patients desire is to see more staff around to care for them, that's where they mainly draw their comfort. Three nurses are better value for an oversized pebble any day.
John Pearce, Maidstone, Kent

If art was universally appreciated and enhanced life, it would surely be a remarkable thing. But most, while enjoying art, find it very hard to see its benefits. How could a patient benefit from a polished stone sculpture? A welcoming and reassuring environment is vital, one already fostered by gardeners, cleaners, maintenance staff. Why not spend the money on those services? Stop wasting money.
Richard Hartnell, Salford, Greater Manchester.

Definitely! It's always interesting to see how the public interact with their art - especially large installations. And it can be appreciated by everyone and anyone, so it's a brilliant use of public money, unlike, say, Olympic Stadia which cost billions of pounds more than all the government art funding put together, and can only be appreciated by people who like sport.
Philip Lawton, Swindon, UK

Emin unveils 'sparrow' sculpture
24 Feb 05 |  Merseyside
Concrete sheep damaged by vandals
10 Aug 05 |  Somerset
'Bang' sculpture goes on display
12 Jan 05 |  Manchester

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