What role does public art play in Ipswich?

PUBLISHED: 18:30 10 October 2019

Jidesh next to his favourite Elmer   Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Jidesh next to his favourite Elmer Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN


As we bid farewell to both the Elmer Trail and Cornhenge, does public art have a role to play in the future regeneration of Ipswich?

Young Ipswich singer Roma Nicholson busked her way around the Elmer trail - singing 55 songs at 55 Elmer's in aid of St Elizabeth Hospice  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNYoung Ipswich singer Roma Nicholson busked her way around the Elmer trail - singing 55 songs at 55 Elmer's in aid of St Elizabeth Hospice Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

After a colourful summer, the Elmer elephants have packed their bags and said their goodbyes.

The brightly-painted sculptures were auctioned off at an event last week, with the sale raising over £260,000 for St Elizabeth Hospice, and one elephant - the aptly named 'Castle on the Hill' Ed Sheeran tribute - selling for £10,000.

This is a tremendous amount of money raised for such a valuable local charity, but the benefits of Elmer's Big Parade don't stop there. Throughout the summer, the characterful elephants have brought real joy to the citizens of Ipswich, introducing a pop of colour to the town and encouraging people of all ages to engage with the art that they see in the street.

Right up until the last days of the trail, you could see families making their way around the town, maps in hand, ticking off Elmers as they found them. Each vibrant statue was its own photo opportunity, and you would regularly see groups gathered round an elephant, posing for a picture.

Elmer Armstrong outside Ipswich SchoolElmer Armstrong outside Ipswich School

Even the author of Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, David Mckee, was bowled over by the success of the trail, telling the BBC: "I've never seen anything like I've seen in Ipswich, a town full of elephants which are absolutely brilliantly designed and painted."

Attracting visitors from far and wide, getting families out enjoying the summer sunshine and bringing communities, workplaces and schools together for a good cause, Elmer's Big Parade was an unprecedented success. In fact, the Elmer trail might just be one of Britain's best examples of public art, showing the good that artistic initiatives can do for local communities.

At its best, public art enriches communities, ignites imaginations, inspires conversation and perhaps most importantly, gives something back to the local area.

It can put towns on the map and even inspire significant regeneration projects - just think of the lasting impact of the Angel of the North. Since it was first erected in February 1998, the imposing statue has served as something of a catalyst for the transformation of Gateshead, which has seen the town's quayside emerge as a thriving cultural destination.

The plinths soon showed signs of rust Picture: PAUL GEATERThe plinths soon showed signs of rust Picture: PAUL GEATER

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The transformative power of public art cannot be overstated, and Ipswich is lucky to have played host to one of the UK's most vibrant and exciting artistic initiatives.

But, while Ipswich has welcomed one of the best examples of public art, some would say that the town has also been subjected to one of the worst.

The controversial Cornhill sculpture - dubbed Cornhenge by locals - was demolished at the end of August, following complaints from Ipswich residents over the look and finish of the installation. The grey stone plinths, which were designed to showcase the history of the town, soon showed signs of rusting, with residents criticising their lacklustre finish.

The plinths were removed after just nine months  Picture: PAUL GEATERThe plinths were removed after just nine months Picture: PAUL GEATER

An Ipswich Borough Council spokesman admitted that the designs "didn't come up to standard", and acknowledged the unfavourable public opinion towards the sculptures.

The now-demolished plinths are believed to have had a £60,000 price tag. While the Ipswich Vision - the partnership behind the Cornhill renovation - never paid for the sculpture as it failed to meet specifications, it was required to pay for its removal, leaving many local residents questioning whether this money could have been better spent elsewhere.

So after the success of Elmer's Big Parade and the disappointment of Cornhenge - where does this leave public art in Ipswich?

The two projects certainly give us plenty to think about, and couldn't be more different in terms of their impact and reception among residents. The coloured, cheerful elephants are worlds apart from the grey, uninspired Cornhenge plinths.

But, more importantly, the eye-catching Elmers captured the public imagination because they were both interactive and collaborative - inspiring residents to personally engage with the artwork on display through the map and sticker trail, and bringing together communities, artists, businesses, charities and schools in order to create the 55 individually painted sculptures. These elephants weren't simply there to be passively admired, but represented something more - namely, art uniting and inspiring a community.

This was art by the people, for the people, and it was fantastic.

Cornhenge might have been a costly misstep, but it taught us valuable lessons about what shape public art should take. Rather than impersonal, colourless structures, we need more Elmers - bright, cheerful, vibrant installations that inspire us all to get out and engage with the space around us. Let's hope this is the legacy that Ipswich's Elmers leave behind.

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