Leading article: A monumental debate

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The Independent Online

There has been a trend towards gigantism in public sculpture in recent years. Antony Gormley's 20m Angel of the North in Gateshead kicked it off in 1998. Then, in 2005, came Manchester's 40m B of the Bang, followed in 2008 by Nottingham University's 60m Aspire tower. Anish Kapoor's 50m long Temenos was unveiled in Middlesbrough's docks earlier this year. But that is only the beginning. Mark Wallinger's 50m Ebbsfleet Horse will soon greet passengers as they emerge from the Channel Tunnel. And Mr Kapoor's 115m Orbit tower is due to open on the Olympic site in east London in 2012.

As we report today, some in the art world are beginning to ask sceptical questions about this profusion of monumental sculpture. Is it value for public money? Does it actually contribute to the regeneration of depressed areas? And what is the quality of the work? There have been flashes of local opposition too. Proposals for a 16m tower in Gloucester have drawn complaints. Meanwhile, some in Cumbernauld have wondered whether the £250,000 spent on the town's new 10m sculpture could have been better spent on local housing.

There will always be disagreements on matters of taste. And it should be remembered that opponents of projects do not always reflect the majority view. French literary luminaries such as Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant protested against the construction of the Eiffel Tower. Parisians, in the end, disagreed with them.

Something similar has taken place in parts of Britain. Though some in the art world have always been dismissive of the Angel of the North, the sculpture has been embraced by the local population in the North East. It remains to be seen whether more recent sculptures will inspire the same affection. But it would be foolish to assume that these works are all destined for contempt.

To some extent, the debate about monumental public sculpture is likely to prove academic. Most of these large projects were given the green light at a time of public affluence. Now council and arts budgets are under pressure we are likely to see fewer commissioned. The era of the monumental public sculpture might be coming to an end even as it reaches new heights. But it would be a shame if we were to lurch from one extreme to another. Public sculpture is of vital importance when it comes to forging a sense of local pride and belonging. The critics are right that quality matters and that size is not everything. But, equally, we should not fall into the trap of assuming that the job of civilising our public spaces, towns and regions through art is complete.