Saturday, 30 August 2014

Read in full my letter to Lancaster Council objecting to their proposal to remove The Tasting Garden

Dear Councillors

RE: Proposal to remove remains of the artwork Tasting Garden from the gardens of The Storey Creative Industries Centre

I write to protest against the proposal to remove the Tasting Garden artwork by Mark Dion that is to be put forward to Council members on Tuesday.

I was employed as Public Art and Regeneration Officer at Lancaster City Council at the time the bronze fruits in the garden were stolen in 2008.

After hearing about the Council’s proposal from John Angus at the Storey Gallery a week ago, I set up an online petition in protest at Lancaster Council’s motion, to enable people to express their views:

At the latest count the petition had been signed by 475 people.

Many are local people which you can see if you look through the comments section; many others are professional public art commissioners such as Isabel Vasseur, Iwona Blazwick (Director of the Whitechapel Gallery), Alistair Hudson (Director of MIMA), Tom Freshwater (Contemporary Art Programme Manager at the National Trust) and Lucy Byatt (Hospitalfield, and formerly Contemporary Art Society and Spike Island, Bristol).

During my time at Lancaster Council I commissioned a Public Art Audit (I have emailed a copy separately) that recognized both the importance of the Mark Dion artwork to Lancaster and the problems that had affected it, with a view that these problems should be avoided in the future with any new commissions.

As evidenced in Lancaster’s Public Art Audit, I discovered that unlike the Tern Project artworks in Morecambe that has a dedicated maintenance programme and budget, the Tasting Garden artwork was not properly insured by Lancaster Council, and hence the stolen bronzes could not be replaced with insurance monies. At the time I left my post, the Storey Gallery were investigating the possibility of fundraising to have the stolen bronzes re-cast in resin, so as to prevent them being attractive to metal thieves (who as I recall, also stole lead from the roof of The Storey, which I presume was replaced).

The Tasting Garden is by far the most significant piece of public art in Lancaster and should be restored, properly insured and maintained for posterity by Lancaster Council for the people of Lancaster, and visitors, to use and enjoy.

I understand that the Tasting Garden is the only permanent public artwork by Mark Dion in the UK (possibly in Europe) and this is something that Lancaster should be proud of, like it is of the Tern Project in Morecambe. The Tasting Garden is a beautiful restful, tranquil oasis close to the bustling heart of Lancaster and the content of the artwork - which involved the planting of rare fruit trees - and its ecological message is as relevant today as the day it was installed.

I believe that the cultural significance of the artwork, nationally and internationally, has been entirely missed by Lancaster Council, and from my correspondence with officers involved I think there has also been a general misconception that the artwork consists primarily of the bronzes that were stolen, which is not the case. It is important to note that the artwork is the entire garden and everything in it, including the Arboriculturalist’s shed, fruit trees, landscaping and paths.

If Lancaster truly is an ‘Arts City’ (see: ) as it would like to portray itself, I do not think that the Council destroying the city’s most important public artwork is the right message to give out. Lancaster is hugely lucky to have The Tasting Garden, and it has the potential to be a considerable cultural asset to the city once again if it were to be restored. I sincerely hope that Gateshead Council do not follow Lancaster’s lead and decide to remove the Angel of the North.

Mark Dion is an internationally recognized American artist who has exhibited at galleries all over the world and whose work is held in collections including the Tate in London (14 works) and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His work regularly sells for thousands of pounds. The Tasting Garden is considered important enough that papers relating to it are held permanently by the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds:

I understand from the Storey Gallery’s Board Member Lois Willis and former Storey Gallery Curator Suzy Jones that both the Henry Moore Foundation and the Arts Council have expressed an interest in funding the restoration of the artwork, but neither have been approached, partly because the ownership of the garden and therefore the responsibility for the artwork, lies with the Council.

It is a shame that the garden was never properly integrated into the Storey’s redevelopment, linking it properly to the cafĂ©. Although I understand the financial challenges the project was under, I think this was a great opportunity missed to help bring people into the garden.

I very much hope that you can take my letter into consideration when a decision is made on the future of the artwork. It is my belief that the artwork should be restored, the bronze fruits re-cast in resin, and the Tasting Garden tidied up and reopened to the public. The artwork should be properly recognized and promoted as the huge asset to Lancaster it has the potential to be. Lancaster Council should extend the excellent model of best practice set by the Tern Project in Morecambe to the Tasting Garden.

Yours sincerely
Mrs Suzanne Heath
Freelance Arts Project Manager