Giant-sized creatures and public art in Birmingham


For Birmingham, 2015 is a historically significant year: the impending demolition of Madin’s Central Library and the renovation of New Street station marking a definite shift in the city’s aesthetic ideals and an attempt to shed the reputation it earned architecturally during its period of post-war urban redevelopment. The anticipated loss of one of the city’s iconic Brutalist structures has sparked in many an urge to reflect upon and remember Birmingham during the post-war years, and to consider the ways in which the city has changed and developed since then. As well as the architectural redevelopments happening this year, the recent instalment of a gorilla statue atop a carpet shop in Stirchley has brought to mind for many the King Kong statue which in 1972 stood for six months in Manzoni Gardens, a grassy area in the old Bull Ring Shopping Centre. The site of Manzoni Gardens itself is now changed beyond recognition, now lying somewhere beneath the west mall of the current Bullring development, and the giant ape statue, having gone on a long journey north, now lies recumbent in a car park in Penrith. Despite only having been displayed in the city centre for six months, the statue (and the loss of it) has captured the imaginations of many in the years following its removal, and there have been many suggestions that it should be returned to the city.

The 23ft high gorilla sculpture by Nicholas Monro, weighing a ton and with a 15ft arm span, was commissioned to stand in Manzoni Gardens by the London-based Peter Stuyvesant Foundation set up to foster the work of young artists, and was immediately met with mixed reactions. It was only initially intended to be in place for six months, but less than two months after installation, more than 59 people had signed a petition urging the council not to keep the fibreglass sculpture on display for the duration of the proposed time. There were opportunities for the council to buy the sculpture but, despite various efforts such as the idea of setting up a fund to keep it in the city, the City Council Labour leader refused to spend ‘£1000 or 1000p on it’ and it was removed.

At that time, there were no public art policies or strategies like those in place in the city today – it was the City Council’s Public Works Committee and the Art Gallery Committee who made recommendations or particular works of art for public places. Most of the works commissioned had a historical connection, such as the mosaic murals by Kenneth Budd, and other work came hand in hand with Manzoni’s drastic urban redevelopments, such as the Hockley Flyover murals, ‘abstracts of concrete designed to contrast with the rigid and precise environment created by the viaduct and subways.’ The economic climate and government priorities of the time also affected public art: speaking about the delayed installation of a sculpture in 1972 a spokesman for the Public Works Department said ‘nobody’s to blame, but we’re all building motorways and so forth and art has to take second place.’

After being removed from Manzoni Gardens, Monro’s Kong statue went on a four year long, over 300-mile journey north (and then some of the way back south) to reach the destination in which it remains to the present day. Initially the statue was bought for £3,000 by Michael Shanley, who displayed it outside his car dealership: a great mascot for his newly renamed ‘King Kong Car Co’, before being sold in 1976 to Nigel Maby in Edinburgh for £12,700 where it stood outside his Scottish company Spook Erection Ltd., before finally being moved to his outdoor market site, Skirsgill Auction Mart in Penrith, where it remains to the present day, albeit now in a recumbent position. There have been attempts in the years after to buy the statue and return it to Birmingham, but Lesley Maby, widow of the late Nigel, refuses to sell it. There was also a recent plan to make a documentary about the statue and the campaign to see its return, but sadly, the project’s fundraising bid was unsuccessful.

In the two decades which followed the removal of Kong, Birmingham saw a new drive to develop the city artistically, and a large program of public art was part of this. In 1986 the City Council was recommended to appoint a city arts officer, and a scheme was suggested in which a public sculpture or other work of art would be provided as part of a major construction project each year. PACA, or the Public Art Commissions Agency, was formed in Birmingham in 1987 as an educational charity organising public art projects across the UK, and later, internationally. The 1990s saw a period of urban regeneration and renewal in the city, the ICC of 1991 being a prime example of the relationship between this regeneration and public art, being the first project nationally to implement the ‘percent for art’ scheme, whereby one percent of a project’s total capital cost would be used for the commissioning of works of art.

Over a decade had passed since the removal of King Kong from Birmingham when a survey was undertaken in 1984 to find out what sort of art the public would like in the Bull Ring Shopping Centre, following which, West Midlands planning councillor David Sparks was quoted as saying: “There were lots of comments about it, [King Kong] clearly people related to King Kong more than they do to these modern art creations whose significance is often obscure. I think King Kong was a great loss to Birmingham and we are seriously going to look at providing some giant-sized animals as a replacement. A bull would perhaps be appropriate.”

In a 1993 strategy from the PACA archive for artists’ involvement in the redevelopments of the Bull Ring, the concept of introducing a ‘real’ bull to the Bull Ring was brought up, but prior to this, in 1989, they made suggestions that King Kong should be returned to Birmingham and displayed atop the Rotunda before it was demolished. Of course, the Rotunda never was demolished, and Birmingham never saw the return of Kong.

The late 1990s into the 2000s saw a slight slowing in the drive for public art in the city, with PACA closing in the summer of 1999. In the present day however we can still see links between public art and regeneration, like those apparent in the 1990s. Aimed at Eastside, a massive area of redevelopment in the city, ’Public Art in Birmingham Eastside’ is a document which is an advice and guidance document, rather than a policy as such. The document has been adopted by Birmingham City Council, who are currently working on a public art strategy embodying the values of the document.

We may never see the return of the ‘real’ Kong to Birmingham, but the city’s prayers for the return of a giant-sized animal to the Bullring were answered when a twice life sized sculpture of a bull turning in motion was unveiled with the opening of the centre in September 2003. The bull may not fit with PACA’s suggestions a decade earlier that the artist should be ‘a woman artist of international status or high public appeal’, having been sculpted by the male artist Laurence Broderick, and seems less in line with Birmingham’s other public sculptures, and perhaps more an emblem of the city’s shopping culture. However, it has outlasted its giant-sized predecessor by over a decade, and in terms of popularity, has been adopted by the citizens of Birmingham as a 21st-century symbol of the city.


by Ally Standing


All Images © The Birmingham Mail