City Sculpture Projects 1972 brings public art to Leeds

A new exhibition takes a fresh look at the 1970s programme that commissioned thought-provoking sculptural works in cities across the UK

Walk through any major UK town or city today and you will happen across a piece of public art, its presence so expected that it has come to be an everyday part of the urban landscape. But this democratisation of contemporary works is a relatively recent phenomenon, coming to prominence only in the post-World War II era.

The Open Air Exhibition of Sculpture, which took place in Battersea Park, London, in 1948, proved a turning point for this artistic medium. Its success demonstrated an appetite for taking sculptures out of galleries and into open spaces, but it would take another ambitious project to move it beyond such dedicated shows and on to the streets on a large scale.

The City Sculpture Project, which ran from March to November 1972, was a pivotal moment and opened the floor to public appreciation – and criticism – of works from living artists. Seventeen people were chosen to create pieces to be displayed in cities across the UK, including Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield, Birmingham, Cambridge, Southampton, Cardiff and Plymouth. At the end of the period, the cities had the option to purchase the sculptures. None did and the works have since been relocated, sold to private collectors or destroyed.

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Now, a new exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is re-examining the project, bringing together photographs and archival material, much of which has not been shown in public for more than 40 years, alongside sculptures and maquettes, including some remade by the original artists for the occasion.

The main draw is Nicholas Monro's King Kong, a 16ft-tall statue of the fictional ape that originally stood in Manzoni Gardens against the Brutalist backdrop of the first Bull Ring Centre in Birmingham. The first time it has been lent to an exhibition since its original outing, it will tower over the entrance to the museum overlooking Leeds' busiest thoroughfare – a fitting tribute to the project's original intentions.

City Sculpture Projects 1972 is at the Henry Moore Institute, 74 The Headrow, Leeds LS1 3AH, from 24 November to 26 February 2017;

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