Can public art save us?

by Charlie Powell

Sustaining the conversation

Public art can help shape economies, identities and our way of life. Taking a closer look at the data which does, and does not accompany some of the country’s most iconic works of public sculpture.

Do the benefits outway the negatives? How can art be used as a tool to better our world, more than just as a symbol of status associated with the bourgeoisie?


Art in public spaces for commemoration and educational purposes can be traced back to the medieval era. In recent decades, the role of public art has developed further into the profitable sector of art tourism. As the field has developed, so has the style of art being featured; public art is no longer restricted to commemorative statues (think Robert Burns in Edinburgh or London’s Winston Churchill), or performance activists (such as Regina Jose Galindo or the Guerrilla Girls); instead, there is now opportunity to exhibit art publicly which connects more intimately with its surrounding environment. Three examples of such art are The Kelpies, The Angel of the North and Verity. Conversations have taken place about the symbiotic relationship which can exist between locations and these artists, but there remains room for further discussions about just how beneficial this relationship can be and how it can put boost an artist’s profile while stimulating an area’s economy. 

The Kelpies by Andy Scott, Falkirk, 2014

Following a project which transformed 350 hectares of land, The Kelpies reign over the surrounding grounds and guards the canals, paying homage to Scottish history and culture. While the sculptures’ name references the shape-shifting water horses of Scottish folklore, the contemporary design of the statues recognises the tow horses that once pulled boats up and down the same canals that the horse heads survey. The 30-metre-high horse-head sculptures were the result of a decade-long collaborative project between Glasgow-based Andy Scott and partners. Scott aimed to create ‘a socio-historical monument’ to commemorate part of Scotland’s overlooked past.

The impact of their design has been significant. Since their actuality in October 2013, millions have flocked to see the dramatic sculptures, with almost one million visiting in the first year alone. A visitor centre was established two years after opening, and this reportedly attracted further tourists. Indeed, between 2009-2016, there was a reported 51{becadb6bdea5a41ab443f196aae132715666f0f63ec5a71582903b9f050de250} increase in the economic impact local to the statues, consequent to a 50{becadb6bdea5a41ab443f196aae132715666f0f63ec5a71582903b9f050de250} tourist increase. While the research does not specifically correlate these figures to the dramatic sculptures, it seems unlikely that there is not a relation.

The cost of developing Falkirk’s former fields into its current design is reported as £43 million. In addition to the art pieces, the space includes performance areas, watersports and play areas. While the visitor numbers declined slightly post the successful opening, they continued to be in excess of 500,000 annual visitors post-2014, demonstrating the success of redevelopment projects where public art is promoted as the primary attraction.

Angel of the North by Anthony Gormley, Gateshead, 1998

A similar case study can be made of the 20-metre-high statue,The Angel of the North – created by Antony Gormley, which has had a biblical impact to the areas of Lamesly and Gateshead. The spaces were previously dwarfed by the more recognisable name of Newcastle. However, like many of areas in the north, it was historically mined, and The Angel of the North pays homage to this. Gormley stated it as serving as a reminder of the sacrifice of the coal mining history local to the area, but also as an aspiration for the future while we transition ‘from the industrial to the information age’. 

Gateshead Council credits The Angel of the North with attracting 1.24 million visitors to the site within the first three years. Additionally, it resulted in almost £150m of lottery funding being secured for Gateshead Council, following their commission of the statue. Ultimately, a 2008 ERS assessment established that 6,000 local jobs were created, and there was a definitive boost to the employment sector. With a total investment of £800,000 in 1998, the Angel has resulted in approx £1 billion being invested in Gateshead Quays which “alone would have taken a lot longer to generate, if ever realised at all.” Perhaps most importantly, the statue has become synonymous with its area and has solidified the identity of the North in a positive context.

Verity by Damien Hirst, Ilfracombe, 2012

In contrast to these clearly beneficial examples of public art, is the impact of the more controversial ‘Verity’, from the world’s most famous artist – Damian Hirst. The piece of art was controversial from its inception, it has since received adoration from the local community. The tallest statue in England, at  20.25 metres, depicts a pregnant woman – sword in hand – standing on books and holding scales. Half of her figure presents a study of the anatomy, with the foetus and rest of her biology exposed. Described by Hirst as an ‘allegory for truth and justice’, the statue prays explicit tribute to these merits with the books and scales involved. 

However, its economic impact on the community is backed by minimal metrics. While there is evidence of increased tourism and local businesses believed the statue had boosted the economy, the majority of evidence is anecdotal and does not reflect significantly on the town. Alternatively, if the anecdotal evidence is to be believed, Verity could be credited with the gentrification of the area, which has involved an influx of art galleries, artisanal stores, and coffee shops over the past decade. It is potential that this process has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic which has seen many people buy homes, or second homes, in the Devon countryside; subsequently, 2022 is now witnessing a housing crisis in the local area. 

The negative potentials for public art in this instance can be challenged by a proposal to establish public art more widely across the country. If there was a more balanced distribution, there would consequently be a more balanced economic impact – avoiding any negatives associated with problematic situations of gentrification. Equally, while gentrification, housing crises and public art can be viewed as correlative, there is no causative evidence in place. Regardless, the benefits of public art are clear self-evident in economic terms, and this does not even take into consideration the cultural benefits on communities. 

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