River Cam ‘gold’ sculpture critics asked to ‘reflect on privilege’ in moving speech


Critics of plans for a gold public art sculpture along the banks of the River Cam have been asked to ‘consider their privilege’. Sharing her own experiences of the positive impact public art has had on her growing up in poverty during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Councilor Mairéad Healy said many people criticizing the ‘To the River’ proposals were mainly from to the middle class.

Speaking at a meeting of Cambridge City Council’s Environmental and Community Review Committee last night (Thursday March 24), she added that they were not taking into account the views shared by members of the working class.

Councilors were meeting to decide whether or not to approve additional funding for the public art project. Designed by artist Caroline Wright, the current concept is for a permanent room located in Sheep’s Green. The sculpture is proposed to be colored in gold and installed along the riverbank.

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The art project was launched with the aim of ‘celebrating and promoting’ the history of the River Cam in Cambridge as part of an artist residency on the river. 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 divided opinion.

“It annoys me a little”

Speaking at the meeting, Cllr Healy, chairman of the committee, said: ‘A lot of the stuff I’ve seen in the media and a lot of the criticism is mostly from middle class white people.

“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’s just me a little uncomfortable.

“Speaking of someone who was brought up in extreme poverty during the Troubles in Northern Ireland in not very pleasant surroundings, there were often Molotov cocktails and all kinds of riots, the neighborhood was not very nice, but we were very lucky, we had wonderful street art from Bogside artists in my area, it 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, it offers this opportunity to those who cannot afford to be able to enjoy art, even if they are going through difficult times without a lot of resources or empowerment. I often think that many of those who criticize come from a privileged place and I really ask them to reflect on their own considerable privilege.

It was also pointed out at the meeting by council leader Councilor Anna Smith that councilors were not making a decision on the actual design of the sculpture.

She said approval of the additional funding of £80,000-£150,000 to the £120,000 budget would allow the project to continue, either in its current form or with modifications after consideration of responses to the public consultation .

The project is funded by Section 106 developer contributions – money paid to the city council by the developers, in this case to be used for public art.

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.

“Public art provides this opportunity, it provides this opportunity for those who cannot afford to be able to enjoy art, even if they are going through difficult times.”

An amendment had been put forward by Councilor Hannah Copley, seconded by Councilor Katie Porrer, asking that a decision on funding not be made until the outcome of the public consultation had been taken into account.

Cllr Copley raised concerns about the proposed amount of money to be allocated to a project and also suggested that the proposed location in a more affluent part of town might not be placed near the people who would benefit most from the project. 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 before a design is approved, and planning permission will also need to be obtained before an installation can take place.


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