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Floating Head - Sculpture Placement Group

Who we are

Sculpture Placement Group is primarily a research organisation. Our work impacts the visual arts. Our projects promote sustainability and pilot economic models to support artists.

As Kate V Robinson, co-director of SPG, states “we want to make improvements to economic conditions for artists, to bring art to new audiences, making it more accessible, and we want to address the waste in commissioning an artwork that gets shown once and then binned.”

Floating Head

Floating Head is a 26-tonne floating artwork that was originally commissioned for Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988. It was conceived by Richard Groom who made it alongside shipbuilders at the Govan Docks on the banks of the Clyde. It’s made of a steel mesh and covered with a cement render. The sculpture bonds Glasgow’s industrial history and materials with the process of art-making. 

Over five months from 26th April 1988, Glasgow Garden Festival attracted 4.3 million visitors and was part of the industrial transition that left its mark on Glasgow. The festival included 50 artworks including a number of new commissions from Scottish Artists.

The festival’s original site was a redevelopment of the once booming dry docks that had become symbolic of an industry in permanent decline throughout the 1980s. Fast forward to 2021, and this site is now home to BBC Scotland and Glasgow Science Centre – a complete change of architecture and industry. This story of Glasgow’s dockyards is represented by Richard Groom’s monumental structure.

The Artist

Early in his career, Richard Groom worked at Wallyford Stoneyard and David Lindsay Stone Carvers. He produced hand carved ornaments and supplied carvings for many of Scotland’s finest buildings including Paisley Abbey. As an artist, he was interested in what these skills could offer to more modern sculptural propositions.   

Sadly, Richard passed in 2019. Inspired by the outpouring of love at the artist’s funeral, Richard’s brother Andy Groom decided to seek out the sculpture, “so many of Richard’s friends and colleagues commented on all of his work, especially the Floating Head. It became apparent very quickly we had to find it, fix it, float it.” 

 

Our Aims

Floating Head was a legacy project undertaken by SPG over the course of three years. SPG’s research involves sculptures that are currently in storage, highlighting issues around ongoing commitment and care of artworks.

Some key questions that emerged from this research:

  • What should be considered ahead of a work being commissioned?
  • How do we extend the life of a commissioned artwork? 

Prior to getting involved in the Floating Head project, SPG had been looking to do a project around the Glasgow Garden Festival. The festival particularly interested them as it continues to have particular resonance with people living in the city. 

Kate v Robinson, the co-director of the SPG, explains the significance of the festival “the Garden Festival marked a turning point for the city from post-industrial to a cultural destination.”

SPG wanted to examine the festival format for art commissioning. There was a lot of anecdotal positive nostalgia about the Garden Festival, and it seemed like a good example to explore these questions about commissioning in more depth. Preparatory work in locating some of the artworks and piecing together the story began. many works commissioned and loaned for the festival which have now disappeared with very little trace. 

Floating Head was brought to SPG by Glasgow City Heritage Trust. Andy Groom, responsible for the Richard Groom Estate, had contacted the Trust about locating the artwork and his intention to shine a light on the work of his brother. Finally the dots were connected, and a synergy between Andy and SPG drove the project forward. 

The project was an exciting one, it matched the group’s research remit and generated more questions:

  • Did the Garden Festival have any models that could be replicated?
  • Did Floating Head survive by pure chance, or by the intervention of private parties?

Key Event: Ownership

After the festival, the details of where the sculpture went or exactly what happened to it are patchy. The sculpture was left on some land for storage that was bought by Ian Henderson, then the sculpture came into his ownership. The land was being cleared, and Keith from Offshore Works Ltd operating at Clyde Boatyard became concerned the sculpture might be damaged and towed the sculpture into safety. 

Since that point it had been sat in the dockyard as a curiosity. It bore those decades with patches of re-rendering, moss and some graffiti for good measure. 

During the process of bringing the sculpture back on display. A number of final destinations of the artwork were explored including placing it into a museum collection. Although to a visual arts organisation or artists’ estate this may seem like the ideal destination for a work of art, private owners of works have often invested resources into its preservation and feel it would be more secure remaining in private ownership. 

Key Event: Conservation

The conservation of the artwork was undertaken by a small team of interested parties and experts who were keen to support the project, including Concrete Repairs Limited. The company brokered free materials and charged for labour at a discounted rate, and contributed some money towards the launch event.

This group decided to keep the majority of the repairs to below the water line, aiming to simply get the sculpture water-tight and floatable without damaging the sculpture’s original rendering. The least evasive course of repairs was undertaken and the graffiti was also removed. 

Key Event: Fundraising 

Project cost: c £27k

  • Funders CITB were a sponsor that had professional ties to the artist, donated 6K]
  • Glasgow City Heritage Trust (5K towards engagement), 
  • Awards for All (7K towards Trail), 
  • Sustrans (2.5K) 
  • Crowdfunder (7K) towards conservation and repair.

SPG also ran a crowdfunder. It was part of Creative Scotland’s Crowdmatch, 1 of 20 shortlisted creative projects in Scotland – which provided 1.5K in match-funding.

The Crowdfunder was successful, reaching a total of £7,000. This meant the sculpture’s refloating could be realised and it engaged more people to feel some ownership over the project. This infrastructure also helped by providing press support, and a larger platform to share the project.

Key Event: Workshop & Science Centre

A partnership was formed with Glasgow Science Centre to deliver workshops. The first of these took place in March 2020 at Curiosity Live where over 300 school children made their own floating sculptures.

Following Covid we took this activity online and appointed artists Ruby and Greer Pester and boat builder Jason Bradley to lead this activity merging boat building skills and sculptural skills. In the end we delivered online workshops for Govanhill Development Trust and Glasgow Disability Alliance who made their own floating sculptures which were floated in the moat surrounding Glasgow Science Centre during the launch event.

Key Event: Display

Like most projects at this time, Floating Head’s refloating was beset with Covid delays. Eventually, the display of the artwork was delayed by a year. In the inbetween time, SPG ran a virtual experience of the sculpture with Glasgow Doors Open Day, creating a video that shared the story so far and people’s experiences of the sculpture. This provided SPG with another opportunity to spread our message about Floating Head to a new audience.  

Coordinating with those responsible for what parts of the land and water that the artwork was going to be moored in was challenging. The long-term liability and the maintenance of the artwork couldn’t be resolved, a shorter term commitment was brokered.

In August 2021 Floating Head was finally returned to the Clyde! An official launch event was planned for later in September, but the towing itself became an occasion, which was viewed by TV and Radio crews, friends and family of Richard’s, and many interested bystanders. The press coverage was very positive, taking the front page of many newspapers and BBC News. 

The launch event took place during Doors Open Day in September, with speeches, music and a ribbon cutting moment for Richard’s mother. It was very much a moment of celebration for Richard’s estate, and the conservation team, acknowledging what a massive undertaking and achievement the project was. 

A temporary display was mainly due to the COP26 event, which meant a heightened risk around that area and another stakeholder that was responsible for the management of the intended installation area. 

In order to have an offer for the COP 26 audience, Floating Head’s display period was accompanied by a sculpture tour that was developed with funding from Awards for All. Named the Govan Sculpture Trail, the tour placed other artworks that were in storage by contemporary artists in Glasgow into public spaces, taking viewers on a guided art tour around the Govan area, which lasted until the end of the climate conference.

A virtual tour was developed with an online guide developed by Annelise O’Connell funded by the Robertson Trust  internship programme. The research combined historical artefacts alongside the newer pieces, providing some cultural context for the tour and appealing to heritage audiences. 

One of the locations of the tour was Govan Cross Shopping Mall, the artwork installed there was Horse by Ester Gamsu. The response to this artwork was overwhelmingly positive, with unit owners offering suggestions of making a competition to name the horse and to keep it permanently. 

This part of the project also engaged other creative communities in the Govan area, forging closer ties with Govan Project Space specifically – a group that SPG collaborated with on another project.

Findings

Returning to the questions that the artwork posed for SPG: 

What should be considered ahead of a work being commissioned? 

  • In order to give works the best chance of future showings or permanent display, from the start of the commissioning process you need to know where it’s going next and have resources in place to make this transition.
  • Partnership agreements, liabilities and ownership need to be clear and agreed on before production commences. Maintenance requirements should be estimated at this early stage and made available to all stakeholders.
  • It is important to consider the return on investment in art at cultural events. If you spend money on an artwork for a cultural event, an investment should last longer than the event itself. 

 

How do we extend the life of a commissioned artwork?

  • A benefactor or private custodian can’t be expected to save and maintain an artwork like in the case of Floating Head.   
  • There are differing opinions between stakeholders in such projects as to where the ideal location for a work to end up. Arts organisations and curators see museum collections as the ideal scenario whereas private owners and trustees’ may have an entirely different view. 
  • We reflected our reservations about public funds being used to conserve a privately owned artwork. Ultimately we concluded that this is a long-standing tension within cultural funding which sometimes just has to be accepted in order for a project to be realised. 
  • Barriers like permissions and liability are challenging, but can be overcome to an extent, as with Floating Head, however sharing of knowledge between projects would be a way to demystify the permissions process and share a legacy of experience. 
  • The interest in this work is proof of the impact and legacy of GGF and similar events. It demonstrates that projects can harness nostalgia to communicate legacy and longevity in a critical way.
  • As the Floating Head progressed we had to let go of the idea of permanency being the only outcome. Having a temporary display of this work achieved many of the same aims. 

 

Did the Garden Festival have any exemplary models that could be replicated? 

  • GGF was not designed to consider the longer-term artwork life cycle. The use of art within this regeneration project did not result in good legacy outcomes for some of the artworks.
  • It’s more economical and environmentally sustainable to centre projects around existing artworks rather than creating brand new ones.