Atlantic Cities

Public Art, Sold to the Highest Bidder

They stood there, 44 of them, ringing a small public plaza and protecting pedestrians from the traffic circling just feet away. These men, standing more than six feet tall, were an effective protection. Constructed of reinforced concrete and installed in 1999, the sculptures became known as the “Lego Men” and were one of the more noticeable pieces of public art in Newcastle, England.

Noticeable, but not entirely welcomed. City council leader Nick Forbes referred to the sculpture in a recent BBC article as a "'love it or hate it' piece of art." Part of it was aesthetics, surely, but The Guardian reports that much of the distaste stemmed from the fact that the sculpture’s water feature frequently malfunctioned and sprayed unsuspecting passersby. The sculpture, officially titled “Shoulder to Shoulder,” was removed in 2008.

Since then, the city hasn’t been sure what to do with the Lego Men. Each of them weighs about a ton, so they’re a bit of a physical burden. After removal, the city had placed them in an empty lot, where they still sit. But instead of becoming a public art cemetery, the lot’s now a waiting room as the city has found a solution: they’re selling the sculptures on eBay.

After 38 bids, the first figure sold last week for £1254, or about $2,000. Four more figures are currently up for bidding, which ends Friday. The city says it plans to put the proceeds into a local fund that provides support to volunteer organizations.

The idea is a good one for a number of reasons. It’s good for the city because it helps get rid of unwanted and burdensome property, and it’s good for the winners of the auctions, who get to own something they (presumably) value more than the city did. But maybe less obviously, it’s good for civic art in general because it helps to highlight the potential of replacement art to add a renewed vibrancy to a place.

This is an idea that’s taken hold in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, where large-scale sculptures are installed for temporary display in a local park. Known as Patricia’s Green, the park plays host to a variety of art pieces, most of them brought about through the support of the Black Rocks Art Foundation, a group run by the organizers of the Burning Man festival. In coordination with the Hayes Valley Art Coalition, the group arranges for sculptures built for the Burning Man event to take on temporary residence in the park. Ranging from a few months to a few years, these residences end and new sculptures are installed.

There's plenty of value in permanent public art installations, but replacing art is also a good way of pumping new energy into a place. And for cities tight on cash, selling off older works might not be a bad way to pad the coffers.

Above image by City of Newcastle, England

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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