Some art projects are worth forking out for

I guess that’s it then. We should take down the hanging baskets in town centres and forget the Christmas lights this year.
As for that 20,000-ticket centenary celebration in Hanley Park on December 4; we can’t possibly countenance such largesse.
We should all stop at home with a cuppa and a Rich Tea biscuit. OK, maybe we should scratch the biscuits…
Yes, it’s time to batten down the hatches, pull up the drawbridge and stop those champagne Charlies down at the Civic Centre frittering any more of our hard-earned dosh.
We just can’t justify non-essential window dressing or daft art projects which cost a fortune.
That’s the extreme but not entirely unexpected reaction of some people to the £135,000 sculpture which is to be unveiled outside the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery next month.
The work, by Scottish sculptor David Annand, depicts a man and a woman holding up a plate and a chalice and is part of the celebrations marking the centenary of the federation of our Six Towns.
As the 8,000 or so Stoke-on-Trent City Council staff brace themselves for hundreds of job losses there will be some people who regard the £135,000 project as an obscene waste of taxpayers’ money.
Well, whisper it quietly but I quite like it, which is, of course, not the thing to be saying when the local authority is conducting a no-stones-unturned audit of services and personnel in order to save millions of pounds.
After all, that sum of money could be used to save maybe five or six jobs at the council.
The question is, of course, which ones are worth saving?
In truth, that £135,000 is a drop in the ocean compared to the savings which must be achieved and so we should be avoiding such apples and pears comparisons.
To be fair, I’ve been in the vanguard of criticism of the local authority for its past inefficiencies, its well-documented squandering of public money and the way in which some very senior and untouchable officers have treated the citizens of Stoke-on-Trent with utter contempt.
But as most of the UK seems to consider Stoke-on-Trent to be a cultural desert I’m all for projects which help to alter that perception.
We can argue about how the piece was chosen and who was consulted but, in my view, the centenary sculpture is a strikingly simple piece of work which looks like what it is rather than some airy-fairy artistic nonsense.
It will be ingeniously lit and create a landmark gateway to a venue which is to house half of the Staffordshire Hoard.
Of course, one man’s public art is another man’s wasteful tat – particularly at a time of great austerity.
But the moment we start sacrificing art and culture is the moment that we cease to have any ambitions to be a city worth the name.
If we do that, we may as well close our museums and all our public libraries.
Culture is a great intangible but we must never underestimate its potential for raising people’s aspirations.
Fifteen years ago if you had told people in Gateshead of the idea of spending £800,000 on the Angel of the North you would have been laughed out of town.
No-one’s laughing now at an iconic piece of public art which has levered in tens of millions of pounds in regeneration funding, helped to create thousands of jobs and done wonders for the profile of the North East.
The (by comparison) relatively small centenary sculpture to be located outside Hanley’s museum won’t do any of the above.
But it will help to enhance the experience of the tens of thousands visitors who come to our Cultural Quarter every year and perhaps help to engender a feeling of pride among local people.
I’ve always been of the opinion that if you create a pleasant environment for people they are more likely to have respect for it.
To my mind, projects such as the centenary sculpture are just as important as sending hundreds of council staff out on to the streets to clean up graffiti and litter.
It is about nurturing a better, more aspirational environment in which we can all live and work and one which we can be proud to call our home.

Saxon sculpture could be an angel to transform our fortunes

Pieces of the priceless Staffordshire Hoard.

Pieces of the priceless Staffordshire Hoard.

There you are, minding your own business as you drive along the M6 approaching Stoke-on-Trent.

Suddenly, off to the left, the gentle monotony of rolling fields is broken by something huge dominating your vision.

Atop a ridge, framed by a stormy grey sky, is a colossal figure – easily 70 feet tall.

The cloaked warrior, a sword strapped to his back, wears a full-face helm and chainmail armour and carries a large round shield and a spear, which is thrust towards the heavens.

Sculpted from a russet brown metal, he is only visible from the knees up as though this god of war had burst from the soil.

This is the world-famous Staffordshire Saxon.

It signifies the county’s ancient history and reminds everyone, who passes by that the Staffordshire Hoard was dug up in a field not far away.

It tells coach-loads of tourists that they are close to their destination – the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, in Hanley, – where much of the Hoard is on permanent exhibition to the public.

Now, before you shoot me down and tell me such a monstrosity would spoil the countryside, be a distraction to motorists, is in the wrong place, or would cost far too much money, hear me out.

In 1994, work began on a landmark project to create an iconic public work of art in England.

It was finally completed in 1998 and cost more than £800,000.

Twelve years on and the Angel of the North has become an instantly recognisable sculpture and one of the most viewed pieces of art in the world – seen by more than 33 million people every year.

In addition, about 400,000 people visit the sculpture each year.

What’s more, the Angel is credited with helping to revitalise the North East and aiding Gateshead Council in attracting around £145 million of lottery funding.

A new report states: “The value in promotional terms (of the Angel) cannot be accurately measured, but the exposure generated for Gateshead would have cost millions of pounds in advertising.”

It goes on to say: “The process set in train by the Angel has boosted employment in the tourism and cultural industries.”

The report also states: “Importantly, the economic growth ushered in during the Angel era appears sustainable and the regeneration activities that followed its installation are ongoing.”

Now the Angel of the North is undoubtedly a fine piece of art but it was the vision of one man – sculptor Anthony Gormley.

It was not created to coincide with a breathtaking archaeological discovery of international significance.

Yes, we can argue about the cost and location all we want – we are very good at throwing obstacles in the way of radical proposals.

However, the news that the joint bid to keep the Staffordshire Hoard in the Midlands has been successful presents us with a unique opportunity.

So before Britain’s ‘second city’ steals our thunder let us seize the day as our Saxon warrior ancestors would have.

Let us position the Potteries – and not Birmingham – as the centre for the Hoard’s legacy so that inward investment and tourism flows into North Staffordshire.

Over the next few years, millions of pounds more will have to be raised to create the so-called ‘Mercian Trail’ in order that our museum can be radically altered to accommodate the permanent Hoard exhibition.

Already our colleges and universities are tapping into the interest generated by the Hoard and laying on courses about Anglo-Saxon England.

The time is right to think big, throw off the shackles of our industrial past and create for ourselves a new identity.

On TV at present there is a slick, beautifully-shot advertisement featuring beaches, castles, galloping horses and a helicopter flying low over hills and dales.

A gravelly-voiced bloke tells of an amazing land ‘where the tempo rises as the sun goes down’.
Where is this magical place, you may ask?

It is the North East of England – the giveaway being a shot of the Angel of the North during the final couple of seconds.

Thus, the makeover is complete.

And there is absolutely no reason why Stoke-on-Trent can’t ‘do a Gateshead’ and enjoy the same sort of renaissance.