The sign of a healthy culture

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The first images of an exciting addition to Britain's public art were unveiled yesterday. When completed in August, a giant sculpture of Alison Lapper will be placed on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The work, by Marc Quinn, promises to be one of the most striking sights in London. Ms Lapper has the congenital disorder phocomelia, which means she has no arms and underdeveloped legs. The sculpture portrays her naked and heavily pregnant.

The first images of an exciting addition to Britain's public art were unveiled yesterday. When completed in August, a giant sculpture of Alison Lapper will be placed on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. The work, by Marc Quinn, promises to be one of the most striking sights in London. Ms Lapper has the congenital disorder phocomelia, which means she has no arms and underdeveloped legs. The sculpture portrays her naked and heavily pregnant.

Much thought has gone into the work. As well as challenging common perceptions of disability, it explores the concepts of femininity and modern notions of heroism. By stimulating the imagination, it promises to perform exactly what a fine piece of civic art should. And it comes at a time when Britain is seeing a boom in the public art sphere. One hundred iron figures by Antony Gormley are being planted over two miles of Crosby beach in Merseyside in a work entitled Another Place. An enormous sculpture of a chair and table by the Italian sculptor Giancarlo Neri - "a monument to the loneliness of writing" - presently adorns Hampstead Heath's Parliament Hill Fields. Right across Britain - from the Angel of the North to the diverse works of Millennium Square in Bristol - public art is enjoying a welcome renaissance.

The best public art can provide a focal point for a community and become a source of local pride. It also plays a role in urban renewal programmes. Indeed, Another Place was imported to Merseyside by the South Sefton partnership, a regeneration body.

Good public art is also a sign of a healthy civic culture. Thriving cities tend to have good public art. Take New York: Central Park was recently covered in saffron flags in a stunning work by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Bilbao is host to Jeff Koons' giant West Highland terrier constructed entirely of flowers. We should be proud that Britain is in the vanguard of this artistic movement.

Public art is not, of course, a new phenomenon. Many works by the sculptor Henry Moore were commissioned after the Second World War, and most of them are still with us today. And before 1945, many statues and monuments were erected by public subscription.

Today most of the funding comes from local councils and lottery money. If there is one blot on the landscape it is that the private sector is not doing enough. Alison Lapper Pregnant was due to be unveiled in spring, but the organisers failed to find a corporate sponsor. In the end, the London Mayor's office underwrote the project. So there is still room for improvement. Good public art is a cultural and economic benefit to our society. Let us have even more of it.

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