Alan Wilkinson, one of the foremost Moore scholars, said the artist would have been sympathetic about the hard times in Tower Hamlets, but would want his sculptures seen the way they were intended to be seen — in public spaces.
"Public sculpture was incredibly important for him," Wilkinson said. "He was very fussy about where it was placed."
Moore sold Old Flo at discount to the London County Council, a forerunner of the city's current administration, in 1962 on condition the statue would be displayed publicly. It was placed at a public housing project.
The East End was one of the areas hardest hit by Nazi bombs, and its residents were directly connected to the work.
Now war memories have faded. The median age of people in Tower Hamlets is 29, the lowest in London, and 43 percent of the population was born outside the U.K., according to the latest census figures.
Old Flo's story hasn't been told to the current generation, said Patrick Brill, an artist who uses the pseudonym Bob and Roberta Smith.
"If we don't cherish these things, we lose a bit of our history," he said. "If you lose your history, you lose a bit of yourself, really."
Still, Old Flo has a fan club. Danny Boyle, director of films such as "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Trainspotting," signed an open letter asking the council to reverse its decision. A flash mob of people dressed as Old Flo appeared at the Tower Hamlets offices in November to protest the sale. Another London borough has laid claim to the statue.
Critics believe money raised by the sale would quickly vanish— and Old Flo would disappear into the private collection of a foreign hedge fund owner or Russian oligarch, taking Moore's message into hiding
Rushanara Ali, a member of Parliament who represents part of Tower Hamlets, raised the issue during a December debate, suggesting the proposal was more the result of "profligacy and extraordinary waste," than tough economic times.
"This bonfire of public art is not the answer," Ali said. "One has to ask, where does this end? What precedents will be set for other areas that may wish to make such sales to deal with financial challenges?"
Noting Moore's interest in the work of Pablo Picasso, Brill said Old Flo was influenced by "Guernica," the 1937 painting that shows the suffering inflicted by war. As such, she still has resonance for the people of Tower Hamlets, an area that has been home to generations of immigrants, including the Bangladeshis who today account for 32 percent of the population.
"Old Flo ... is a very British 'keep calm carry on' image of the same thing as 'Guernica,'" he said. "Old Flo is East London's monument to people seeking sanctuary. She is our 'Guernica.'"
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