The massive bronze sculpture is formally known as Draped Seated Woman, a Henry Moore creation that evoked Londoners huddled in air raid shelters during the Blitz.
To the East Enders who lived nearby, the artwork was known as "Old Flo," a stalwart symbol of people facing oppression with dignity and grace. But now, Old Flo may have to go.
The cash-strapped London borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest communities in Britain, plans to sell the statue — estimated to be worth as much as £20 million (about $31 million Cdn).
Art lovers fear the sale of such a famous sculpture would set a worrisome precedent, triggering the sell-off of hundreds of lesser works housed in parks, public buildings and little local museums as communities throughout Britain struggle to balance their budgets amid the longest and deepest economic slowdown since the Great Depression.
"If the sale of Old Flo goes through, it can open the flood gates," said Sally Wrampling, head of policy at the Art Fund, the national fundraising charity for art and one of the groups campaigning to block the sale.
The proposal embodies a dilemma faced by many struggling households: Do you sell the family silver to get through tough times?
Sculpture moved 15 years ago
Tower Hamlets, where a recent study found that 42 percent of children live in poverty, is £100 million (nearly $156 million Cdn) in the red.
The sculpture hasn't even been in the borough for 15 years. It was moved to a sculpture park in the north of England when authorities tore down the housing project where it had been placed. The council says just the insurance alone for the massive bronze would be a burden to taxpayers.
'We make this decision with a heavy heart'—Local politican Rania Khan
"We make this decision with a heavy heart," said Rania Khan, a local councilor who focuses on culture issues. "We have to make tough decisions."
Local authorities throughout the country are being hit by funding cuts as the central government seeks to balance the budget and reduce borrowing. Funding for local government will fall 33 per cent in real terms between April 2011 and March 2015, according to the Local Government Association. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says the cuts tend to hit poor, urban areas like Tower Hamlets hardest, because their spending was higher to begin with.
Some 2,000 museums in Britain are local affairs. Bury Council sold a painting by L.S. Lowry in 2006, and Southampton City Council backed down from plans to sell an Auguste Rodin bronze in the face of public protest. The Museums Association has advised the Northampton council to hold off on the sale of an Egyptian funerary monument estimated to be worth £2 million ($3.1 million Cdn) until more consultation can be done.
The depth of the recession and the lack of hope that things will improve soon are fueling the debate.
The latest figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent agency created in 2010 to advise the government, show the economy is growing more slowly than previously forecast, reducing tax revenue and prolonging the government's austerity program.
One thing is certain: Tower Hamlets, a community of 254,000 people, desperately needs the money.
Moore 'would be in favour'
Khan says she believes Moore, the son of a coal miner and lifelong socialist who died in 1986, would be moved by the plight of her constituents. She knows women who will be hard hit by proposed limits on benefit payments — people for whom as little as five pounds can make a huge difference — and families living in housing with mold growing on the walls.
"If he thought the sale of the sculpture would benefit the lives of thousands in Tower Hamlets ... I think he would be in favour," Khan said.
Moore attended art school on a scholarship for ex-servicemen. He became fascinated with the human form, creating works with undulating curves that reflect rolling hills and other features of nature. His most beloved motif was the reclining female figure, like that of Old Flo.
The statue features the graceful draping that Moore traced to his observation of people huddled in the Underground during the Blitz. In a 1966 interview with the BBC, Moore talked about the fear and exhilaration of Londoners sheltering against the Nazi barrage. He had concern for those he was drawing: He never sat sketching but waited until the following day and drew from memory — rather than capturing people in their makeshift bedrooms.
Alan Wilkinson, one of the foremost Moore scholars, said the artist would have been sympathetic about the hard times in Tower Hamlets, but would want his sculptures seen the way they were intended to be seen — in public spaces.
"Public sculpture was incredibly important for him," Wilkinson said. "He was very fussy about where it was placed."
Moore sold Old Flo at discount to the London County Council, a forerunner of the city's current administration, in 1962 on condition the statue would be displayed publicly. It was placed at a public housing project. The East End was one of the areas hardest hit by Nazi bombs, and its residents were directly connected to the work.
Now war memories have faded. The median age of people in Tower Hamlets is 29, the lowest in London, and 43 percent of the population was born outside the U.K., according to the latest census figures. Old Flo's story hasn't been told to the current generation, said Patrick Brill, an artist who uses the pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith.
"If we don't cherish these things, we lose a bit of our history," he said. "If you lose your history, you lose a bit of yourself, really."
Critics protest sale
Still, Old Flo has a fan club. Danny Boyle, director of films such as Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, signed an open letter asking the council to reverse its decision. A flash mob of people dressed as Old Flo appeared at the Tower Hamlets offices in November to protest the sale. Another London borough has laid claim to the statue.
'This bonfire of public art is not the answer' —MP Rushanara Ali
Critics believe money raised by the sale would quickly vanish — and Old Flo would disappear into the private collection of a foreign hedge fund owner or Russian oligarch, taking Moore's message into hiding
Rushanara Ali, a member of Parliament who represents part of Tower Hamlets, raised the issue during a December debate, suggesting the proposal was more the result of "profligacy and extraordinary waste," than tough economic times.
"This bonfire of public art is not the answer," Ali said. "One has to ask, where does this end? What precedents will be set for other areas that may wish to make such sales to deal with financial challenges?"
Noting Moore's interest in the work of Pablo Picasso, Brill said Old Flo was influenced by Guernica, the 1937 painting that shows the suffering inflicted by war. As such, she still has resonance for the people of Tower Hamlets, an area that has been home to generations of immigrants, including the Bangladeshis who today account for 32 per cent of the population.
"Old Flo ... is a very British 'keep calm carry on' image of the same thing as Guernica," he said.
"Old Flo is East London's monument to people seeking sanctuary. She is our Guernica."