‘An act of cultural vandalism’

Foyle Street Urban Park in the late 1980s - Joan Walsh-Smith's award winning 'City People' sculpture can be seen on the perimeter wall on left of picture. [24-02-12 SML 1]

Foyle Street Urban Park in the late 1980s - Joan Walsh-Smith's award winning 'City People' sculpture can be seen on the perimeter wall on left of picture. [24-02-12 SML 1]

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If you can remember Foyle Street Urban Park - with its impressive water fountain, domed bandstand and landscaped greens - then you’re sure to recall the 30 foot long sculpture which formed part of its perimeter wall, writes Sean McLaUghLIn.

City People’, as the artwork was known, was the brainchild of Joan Walsh and Charles Smith - two young Irish sculptors who, in the early 1970s, were working on their first ever major public art project.

The husband-and-wife team - living in Australia since the mid-1980s where they operate their own studio - are now regarded as among the world’s premier sculptors.

Their work - which is on display around the world - is so highly regarded that they were awarded the Australian Prime Minister’s Federal Centenary Medal in 2001.

However, it was back in the early 1970s that the young couple’s ‘City People’ project scooped top prize in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s prestigious ‘Art in Context’ competition.

The 30 foot long sculpture of interlocking lines and shapes carved in high relief would go on to form the focal point of the newly-developed urban park at Foyle Street.

So proud are the Irish couple of their Derry sculpture that it’s featured on their website - www.smithsculptors.com - alongside their more famous projects.

But, believe it not, the Smiths’ website is the only place where ‘City People’ still exists as it was unceremoniously bulldozed to make way for a car park.

As part of a radical redevelopment project at Foyle Street in the mid-1990s, ‘City People’ was simply torn down. It’s understood no effort was made to either relocate it or remove it and preserve it.

All that’s left of the sculpture is documentation and a few photographs.

It was just a few months ago that Joan Walsh-Smith queried the whereabouts of the sculpture after trying to locate it on Google street maps.

She says that, when she realised that Foyle Street had been redeveloped, she assumed her artwork had been relocated elsewhere.

Now, following an inquiry from the ‘Derry Journal’, Derry City Council has confirmed that ‘City people’ was “decommissioned” - a technical term for demolished.

Joan Walsh-Smith is, understandably, gobsmacked at the revelation: “I’m shocked and appalled to discover that my prize-winning major artwork has been ‘demolished’, evidently to make way for urban development,” she told the ‘Journal’.

“We were never consulted on any change to the site or the status or plans for my sculpture. No attempt was made, to our knowledge, to contact us. Certainly Derry City Council have not confirmed that they have done so. Even though we were living in Perth at this time, any correspondence to our old address in Ireland would have been forwarded to us.”

Mrs. Walsh-Smith, who has outlined her dismay in a letter to Derry City Council chief executive Sharon O’Connor, believes the decision to demolish the sculpture - while taken some time ago - is all the more alarming given Derry’s designation as City of Culture 2013.

She also insists that, contrary to claims by Derry City Council, her work was not “site specific.”

“Effectively, a ‘site specific artwork’ could not be placed anywhere other than where it was specifically designed for. This sculpture was not designed, ever, for Foyle Street Urban Park - or anywhere else in Derry for that matter. It was a ‘generic work’ in its own right which won a competition based on the concept of artworks which could be sited anywhere in a suitable urban context.

“The adjudicators had to find, with the collaboration of the artists, a suitable site somewhere in Northern Ireland. This took approximately 6-9 years and, eventually, Foyle Street Urban Park was suggested to me as a possible location. Ultimately, it was my decision, as the artist, to agree to this site.”

Mrs. Walsh-Smith also refutes claims that, when the Foyle Street site no longer became viable, the sculpture, in effect, became defunct with it.

“As the artist, I fully accept that, in the contemporary world, artworks inevitably have to be moved from time to time.

“However, this does not mean that they have to be destroyed which I consider to be a stupendous act of cultural vandalism.

“In fact, I would like to know who made this decision and upon what grounds was it made?”

She also rejects suggestions that the sculpture could not have been removed and relocated to another location without damaging it.

“The sculpture was comprised of segments of reinforced concrete 150 mm thick which is virtually indestructible. The only criteria for demolition that we can ascertain, technically, is cost which begs the question: how much is a public artwork worth?”

In her letter to Derry City Council, Mrs. Smith has asked that her sculpture be reinstated in the city.

“I believe this can quite easily be achieved from the moulds which are available in perfect condition.”

A spokesperson for Derry City Council explained that it had to undertake extensive research to determine the “current position” of the art piece.

The Council spokesperson added that it had informed Mrs. Smith that the ‘City People’ artwork was decommissioned following the redevelopment of the former Foyle Street Urban Park in the mid-1990s.

“The decision to decommission the artwork was made following an extensive assessment of the site where it was advised that it could not be removed without being damaged,” said the spokesperson

“Derry City Council fully acknowledges the important role the ‘City People’ artwork played in the city.

“The work is well documented and is held within the significant archive of the city’s rich history of the commissioning of temporary and major fixed public art. It is unfortunate that this piece of work was decommissioned and demolished and we fully acknowledge that, during its time, it served the public life of the city.

“The Council continues to demonstrate a civic commitment to public art and fully acknowledges the significance of celebrating art and culture as it prepares for becoming the first UK City of Culture in 2013.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Arts Council for Northern Ireland - which commissioned Joan Smith’s ‘City People’ sculpture as part of an Arts Council scheme in the 1970s - said: “The Arts Council would always want to safeguard pieces of public art and to ensure that the lifespan of any art commissioned through us justifies our initial funding investment.

“This work, jointly commissioned with Derry City Council, would already have satisfied these terms when it was removed from its site in the 1990s as part of the Foyle Street redevelopment by Derry City Council. The Arts Council is not aware of its current location.”