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The colossal public sculpture show that the UK forgot

Nicholas Monro’s King Kong (1972) enjoyed a short-lived spell outside the Bull Ring shopping centre
Nicholas Monro’s King Kong (1972) enjoyed a short-lived spell outside the Bull Ring shopping centre
In 1971, organisers of the City Sculpture Project invited 24 artists to submit models for possible construction and public installation in one of eight cities across the UK. They had whittled down their list from around 200 artists, and finally selected 14 works to be put in cities including Birmingham and Liverpool. For six months, the sculptures (by artists such as Barry Flanagan, Nicholas Monro and Liliane Lijn) were kept in situ, after which each city could then elect to buy the work and make it a permanent fixture. None did. The sculptures were debated, ridiculed, some were even vandalised—and all were removed by Christmas 1972.

It was “incredibly ambitious, partly successful and partly failed,” says Jon Wood, the curator of a forthcoming show about the project. “It was an unusual project from the outset with a very small team running it.”  

The scheme was the brainchild of Jeremy Rees, the founder of Bristol’s Arnolfini gallery, who worked closely with the curator Anthony Stokes to develop the idea and secure funding from the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation and the Arts Council.

“Rees wanted more cutting-edge sculpture out there being discussed,” Wood says. One departure from tradition was that the artists were asked to make site-specific proposals. “At the time, that concept that we’re now more familiar with wasn’t on everyone’s lips,” Wood says. “It was challenging for some of the artists, who were used to making whatever sculpture they wanted. It was also challenging for the public, who were asked to work out what these weird and wonderful things were doing in relation to their town.”

One of the best-known commissions was Monro’s 5.5m-tall King Kong (1972), which was positioned beside Birmingham’s Bull Ring shopping centre, one of the first American-style malls to be built in the UK. “There was a campaign in Birmingham to keep King Kong,” Wood says. “A lollipop lady put a pound down to start it off because she said: ‘I walk thousands of children across the pedestrian crossing to school and they all talk about King Kong—they love it.’” The campaign was unsuccessful and the sculpture was bought by a car salesman who displayed it on his forecourt.

If nothing else, the show generated conversation. “There was a lot of press coverage but it was what you’d expect: ‘What a waste of money’ or ‘what on earth is that?’,” Wood says. The two works installed in Cambridge, by Flanagan and Brower Hatcher, were both vandalised. “It was a bit of student japes, coupled with an old-fashioned dislike of contemporary sculpture,” Wood says.

The show in Leeds, which opens in November, will include two of the original works from the project: Monro’s King Kong and William Turnbull’s Angle (1972), as well as a number of original maquettes and archival documents. Three of the participating artists— Garth Evans, Peter Hide and Hatcher—have agreed to remake models for the show.

Was the project really a failure? “It was a shame that cities didn’t buy them,” Wood says. “It was a different environment then; there wasn’t all the money and interest in contemporary art.” In some ways it may have been ahead of its time, taking place five years before the first Skulptur Projekte Münster in 1977, Wood points out. “I’d like to think people today would be a lot more open to it.”

• City Sculpture Projects 1972, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, 24 November- 19 February 2017
Venue details
Henry Moore Institute
74 The Headrow
Leeds LS1 3AH
United Kingdom
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