Does Cambridge’s public art glitter?

Digging behind the proposed golden bank of the sewage-filled River Cam.

…recalling the protest against Anglian Water’s dumping of sewage into the River Cam last September – which in itself was a striking piece of public art. Only three months earlier in June 2021 the Friends of the River Cam took part in the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam.

“What does this have to do with public art?”

“No-one has ever contacted me asking for public art as a contribution to their quality of life.”

Cllr Sam Davies MBE – 20 Feb 2022.

…so began Cllr Sam Davies (Ind – Queen Edith’s) in her latest blogpost – this one being on public art following the proposal by River Cam Artist in Residence Caroline Wright for a golden bank along one part of the river.

“Over 12 months Caroline will be researching stories, facts and unusual aspects of the river to uncover how it serves as a foundation to the city. What are our relationships to the river? How has it shaped us in terms of social, economic, geographical, historic and ecological impact?”

To The River project commissioned by Cambridge City Council

You can see progress so far at

In a strange way, the pollution-filled river streaming/squelching past a golden-covered bank opposite one of the older colleges would in itself be a very powerful artistic statement of the state of Cambridge today: one where the brand and historical-touristic money-shots of the colleges, the dash-for-financial wealth of their finance committees, and the dismissal of the environmental limits to growth combined are all visible in one piece. The only thing to add to that image is that of a broken bridge over the Cam to represent our broken political institutions and the continued broken relationship between town, gown – and also the villages surrounding that together make up our city.

And there is enough artistic talent in and around our city to make that vision a reality in the cheap. Some stakes in the ground by the banks of the Cam with several rolls of golden-colour shiny wrapping paper stuck to it, combined with the papier mache floaters from the River Cam protests last year, and a broken bridge made out of wooden poles and cardboard with stone drawn out in marker pen. A simple metal hinge from any DIY shop could link the poles together to represent the break in the bridge, then glue the ‘cardboard bridge ends’ to the poles and that’s your broken bridge, with the hinge in the middle being the bit that goes under water.

A broken process created from a broken process which came from a broken policy which itself was only firefighting a broken policy from a larger institution?

Back to Cllr Davies again.

“As things stand, it’s yet another example of things being done to, not with – or better still by – residents. And I don’t think that’s good enough for ‘public’ art.”

Cllr Sam Davies MBE – 20 Feb 2022.

…which in part links into how councils define communities vs how people in communities define themselves. Here’s Dr Catherine Howe, Chief Executive of Adur & Worthing Council:

“Community asset mapping is not a new idea but it is a really important step that helps move towards that better understanding of how our communities define their places and boundaries”

Dr Catherine Howe, 10/01/2021

What do Cambridge’s ward boundaries look like for elections, and how to do they compare with hour different neighbourhoods see themselves? What do the councils see as community assets? What do residents see as community assets? Because if consultations (on anything) are done on a ward basis that does not align with how the people of the city see their neighbourhoods and live their lives, the process is likely to be broken.

So…what is the process?

These are the Public Art pages for Cambridge City Council

There was also a recent consultation that ended on 04 December 2021.

“We believe we have a well-regarded approach to commissioning public art, which has demonstrated benefits for the city and the people who live and work here or visit.”

Cambridge City Council – Public Art Consultation Sept 2021

That consultation ended on 04 December 2021.

The next steps were supposed to have provided that new strategy for formal approval on 27 Jan 2022 – but the meeting papers and decision-making notes don’t indicate that such a strategy was ever debated/voted on, let alone presented to the committee.

…unless I’ve missed it. In which case 24 March 2022 is the next opportunity for councillors to vote on it.

Yet this blog – as well as others, have already highlighted multiple examples of how our system of public consultation is broken.

One of the reasons why the Local Transport and Connectivity Strategy for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough is having a longer round of consultation starting in May 2022 is because the guidance from Central Government below stated that its previous round of six weeks was far too short.

Above – the Government’s Code of Practice on Consultation dating from 2008 – the principles are still sound, even today. You can read it here.

I also went after the consultation process for the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s Police & Crime Plan, slamming the lack of engagement with teenagers and young adults – and reminding how the 1990s generation of local councillors, MP & ministers, and senior police officers had failed my generation of/as teenagers – something I’m still (strangely) bitter about because of how it affected some major life decisions at the time, and not just for me.

“What’s the use of money if you ain’t gonna break the mold/mould?”

“Gold” by Ƭ̵̬̊ (Prince)

…which is about as close as you’ll get on a keyboard – when back in the mid-1990s he rebranded himself as the symbol – while the media just went with “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” – or the acronym “TAFKAP”. It was one of the songs that defined an era that both made me and broke me. The line: “What’s the use of money if you ain’t gonna break the mold/mould” still applies today. (Take your pick on the US vs UK spelling). As do the two sentences that precede it.

“Everybody wants to sell what’s already been sold
Everybody wants to tell what’s already been told”

“Gold” by Prince Rogers Nelson, © Universal Music Publishing Group

…which is basically social media.

“All that glitters ain’t gold”

For years I mis-heard that line as “All that glitter and gold”.

At the time it was a warning from the present. Today, it’s a warning from history.

“Is our questionable public art a symptom of things going wrong further up the line?”

Cllr Davies lists the more recent pieces of public art:

  • the dead tree at Trumpington Meadows;
  • the fibreglass tents outside Royal Papworth Hospital which have frequently been mistaken as a settlement of rough sleepers;
  • the Southern Fringe apple tree project;
  • and the inaccessible tiled installation at The Marque. In fact… all the way back to…
  • the hemi-spherical seating at Wulfstan Way.

A decade ago the Snowy Farr statue was lampooned in the short-lived but much-missed local (Cambridge) satirical blog The Shallot – local public art being an easy target – along with anyone who posted thoughts about local politics – such as Puffles.

And yet one of my favourite pieces of public art in Cambridge – which many people get to see, is the interior of the entrance hall of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Above – The Fitzwilliam Museum – taken by me. (Antony Carpen)

I was playing around with photography in Cambridge that summer and waited for the right time of day when I knew the sun would be shining in from just the right direction for this photograph. It’s one of the very few buildings in Cambridge that for me has that ***Wow!*** factor. Mindful that I grew up in this city so I take for granted being able to walk down King’s Parade because…it has always been there.

“So what is broken further up the line?”

I note the ones that stand out are the pieces of public art that are built to last – i.e. not the short term exhibitions or the one day long events or the week-long one-off ‘festivals’

  • The outputs of public art commissions – which makes me wonder how are these evaluated? What is the public’s overall response? (For all I know it might simply be indifference – which then speaks volumes of the challenges ministers face given their policy objective of increasing local pride people have in their area)
  • The broken consultation processes not just within a single institution, but institutions across the local public sector
  • The broken structures of governance – unnecessarily complicated, a lack of who is responsible for what, and an existing one that has not been overhauled this side of the Millennium to account for changing social patterns and rapid advances in communications technology
  • The broken relationships between institutions responsible for the essential functions that are needed for cities to function – something Dr Catherine Howe, the Chief Executive of Worthing and Adur touches on in her blogpost here on co-designing services
  • The broken systems of how towns and cities raise revenue to spend on maintenance and improvement of infrastructure – both essential and desirable
  • The broken systems of how those exercising power and the institutions that hold power are held accountable to, and are influenced by the people they have powers over.
Is Big Change in the air?

That depends on which newspaper you read I guess, but as Andrew Rawnsley noted in the Observer, the UK is currently facing three scandals that it has faced separately before, but not all at the same time.

  • A crisis of systemic corruption in Westminster politics that institutions are unable to handle and put an end to
  • A crisis for royalty – and the legitimacy of it in the eyes of the general public at a time when Queen Elizabeth is advancing towards 100 years old
  • A crisis of legitimacy in policing following the scandals and the resignation of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner

And those are just three. This is on top of the crises of:

  • The Climate Emergency
  • Brexit and after
  • The Covid19 Pandemic

Further along, we also have crises of:

  • Health and social care funding and provision
  • Housing and accommodation
  • Ever-increasing inequality
  • Corruption of standards in the building & construction industry
  • Corruption of entire professions regarding money laundering
  • Sector-wide strikes in higher education following fee hikes, leading to highly paid executives vs a new precariat of academics existing on successive short-term contracts
  • A chronic mental health crisis – in particular for teenagers

…which makes the next two years and ten months (there *must* be a general election by that time or Parliament loses its authority to collect taxes) could be very interesting politically – where we could see both a new head of state and a new head of government from a new political party. Given how long the present heir to the throne has waited, some of you may want to look at the impact King Edward VII had when he inherited the throne from Queen Victoria. (That said, his personality was very different to that of the present Prince of Wales).

Prince Charles on public art?

Now there’s an interesting prospect given his outspoken views on architecture and also the institutions he has already founded – such as the Prince’s Foundation. Not a popular figure in contemporary architecture circles, even with his advanced years I can imagine him wanting ‘to get going’ in a very big way – similar to his ancestor who in the grand scheme of things created the tradition of monarchs and royals being seen regularly in public opening buildings, unveiling foundation stones, bringing publicity to charities and good causes, and so on. (Recalling Queen Victoria spent so much time in private mourning for Prince Albert that radicals such as Cambridge Liberal councillor Henry T Hall publicly called for the abolition of the monarchy – and got into a bit of trouble for it)

Above – Henry Thomas Hall (Liberal – Barnwell) Via – this original is hidden in The Guildhall somewhere. It needs restoring and bringing back to prominence as he was the unofficial political patron of the Founding Father of Cambridge’s Municipal Libraries, John Pink. Cllr Hall was a generous benefactor of what is now the Central Library, donating many books in its early years at a time when councillors were unwilling to vote for funds for new books.

We’ve ended up with a model of public art – or rather public sculpture that plonks expensively-procured pieces in front of bland anonymous buildings neither of which appear to have any relationship to each other.

Take the statues around Hills Road Bridge by the railway station – seen in the set of photos by Cllr Davies here. The buildings have been around for longer than the sculptures. While they might be impressive pieces of art in themselves, to me they seem completely out of place in a part of town with depressingly uninspiring architecture that resulted in Jones & Hall’s 2013 masterpiece on Cambridge’s more recent building commissions.

Above – Hideous Cambridge – by Jones and Hall (a few copies may be found here to buy)

How can we come up with something where the buildings themselves are designed in a manner that:

  • engages the public at the very early stages, but is not dictated by the public (the old joke of a race horse being designed by a committee looks like a camel)
  • creates something that is inspiring, long lasting, and is a very significant improvement on what was there before
  • adds to, rather than takes away the things that the public value – thinking of the case of the Flying Pig Pub now in front of a Planning Inspectorate Appeal
  • takes away some of the bad stuff/negative aspects of what is currently on the site, whether that be waste dumped on the site through to vanquishing a negative stereotype of a neighbourhood (& turning it into a place where people want to be)
  • makes people think of the building as a work of art in itself – the sort where generations of students at school are happy to draw sketches of, and incorporate descriptions of both the building and its history into their coursework.

I’m struggling to think of examples in and around Cambridge of civic and/or publicly-accessible buildings recently constructed that I would make the effort to go and simply be in the company of while say reading a book or having a cup of coffee.

And that saddens me.

Because We Are Cambridge – We Demand Better.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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