It’s Sort of Public, and It’s Art of a Sort, But What Should We Make of Minerva?

Trinity Minerva: is it “public art”?

I’m not interested in whether you like the sculpture or not. Plenty of people will say they love it, but that’s beside the point. This isn’t a question of my personal taste opposed to yours(1), so let’s set subjective opinions about what’s good or bad art aside and instead consider what “public” means in this context.

What’s so public about public space? Does it mean anything more than that I’m free to enter and not prevented from passing through? Does public mean anything more than in plain sight?

Rather than answer these questions directly it’s probably easier just to look at where Minerva comes from and see where that gets us.

The sculpture was commissioned by Land Securities Trinity Leeds, a shopping mall – or is it shopping centre, as if there’s any difference. I don’t think I’m being particularly controversial in suggesting that in terms of what planners call “placemaking” shopping malls contribute little to the distinctive character of a city. Shopping malls tend to template the same sanitized, homogenized, nondescript experience of place whether you happen to live in Leeds or Louiseville Kentucky. This isn’t a facetious, throwaway comment. If you Google Louiseville shopping malls you’ll find the same shops, the same aesthetic, the same hype, the same expectations and the same overall feel. Same, same, same. The only difference is that in Louiseville the shopping malls not only have a code of conduct, a couple even have a dress code. I imagine Leeds will not be far behind. You’re not wearing Superdry, you’re not coming in.

Shopping malls not only regulate overt appearance and behavior they also attempt to regiment expression and thought. In a shopping mall you are considered nothing more than an individual with individual concerns and individual attachments. In a shopping mall it is acceptable to whoop your individual approval as you enter the inner sanctum of the Apple store. It is not acceptable for teenage fans of a boy band to gather in the street in excitable, messy, potentially uncontrollable crowds. Individual Mac owners can be relied on not to run amok. Collectives are trouble, however; collectives coming together with motives other than acquisition can’t be trusted to conduct themselves with the requisite consideration for the value of private property. They need to be dispersed and disciplined before they may cross the boundary into privately owned commercial space.

Shopping malls communicate with the public as if they were talking to one-dimensional beings who lack the capacity for critical reflection. No message a shopping mall broadcasts bears serious investigation. The slogan on the back of the jacket of the of the young Trinity employees gathering customer feedback is a good example: “The new urban heart and soul” it says. Not a word of that has any substance in reality. I even have my doubts about the definite article.

Take the claim, “urban”. Shopping malls are a suburban phenomenon. The fact that one has taken over a large portion of Leeds City Centre is a cause for regret rather than celebration, and an indication that Leeds is degenerating into more of a middling sort of suburb rather than developing into a better city. Just as adding a patch of grass to the Round Foundry doesn’t amount to “Holbeck Urban Village”, adding a mall to a city centre doesn’t make it urban. In fact I may make be so bold and suggest that the Trinity slogan should be “Leeds’ New Urban Suburb”.

Trinity describes itself as “the new heartbeat of the city”. Only engage your brain for a moment and consider what this means; Leeds had no heart till last Thursday! Or maybe Leeds suffered heart failure and needed a transplant? Either way, if you think about it there remains an awkward question: where did Trinity get the donor organ?

For months we have had it drummed into us that Trinity is our new “retail soul”. The only thing I recall so insistent about the authenticity of said spiritual possession was Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner… And we remember what happened to the Replicants, don’t we! Maybe Trinity is our retail replicant?

We don’t expect public communication from a shopping mall to convey accurate information or even express honest opinion. Its purpose is simply to prick our retail glands and send spurts of shopping hormones into our buying system. The only thought that counts in a shopping mall is which shop to visit next; the only judgement called for is comparison shopping; the only decision you have to make is which credit card will take the hit.

Shopping malls necessarily have an impoverished concept of the public. For a shopping mall the public are just a supply stream of individual consumers, valued for their discretionary spending power and not their capacity for collective deliberation. As a consequence, the shopping mall reduces public space to the seductive display of commodities and the spectacle of purchasing.

What sort of art would shopping malls promote for the sort of public they attract? Obviously the whole modernist project of art as critique of prevailing circumstances would not be welcomed. The prevailing circumstances of capitalist production and exchange are precisely what this art sets out to support. The art in a shopping mall can’t interfere with the purpose of retail, raise any awkward questions or suggest that things could or should be different. Shopping mall art should be shiny, superficial and pleasing on a passing acquaintance.

And this is precisely what Trinity have given us inside the centre. The horse (apparently called “Equus” though I would argue “TriNeddy” is a more suitable name) bears the same relation to the space around it as a glitter ball in a disco. There’s no point criticising, it just is what it is, shopping mall art, simply a statement of corporate kitsch (though it did remind me of my favourite remark of the great architecture critic, Ian Nairn, who quipped that the elephant on the Albert Memorial “has a backside just like a businessman scrambling under a restaurant table for his chequebook”, Go and look at TriNeddy after reading that, you won’t be able to hold back a chuckle).

Minerva, on the other hand, is not inside Trinity. Minerva is on Briggate, a public street. A public street has a very different set of demands than the inside of a shopping mall. When I am on a public street of a major city I expect to be engaged with as a citizen not as a someone with the mental equipment of a shop dummy. As a citizen the contents of my mind are more important than the content of my wallet, and I expect to be addressed as someone who is thinking, judging and deciding about more than just my next impulse purchase. And I want any public art in that sort of public space to reflect the complexity, depth and challenge of urban life.

So, we have two choices of how to approach Minerva. Either it’s just more corporate kitsch that we aren’t expected to think about critically at all – in which case it’s more appropriate that she be taken inside. Or this is serious public art and can withstand intelligent investigation.

Let’s for a moment take the second alternative. What do we think about when we encounter Minerva?

According to Trinity’s website, Minerva is

the Roman goddess of wisdom, poetry, medicine, commerce, weaving and crafts – a graceful draped figure which provides an echo back to the city’s rich heritage of cloth production

Actually, there’s not much linking Minerva to Leeds (not unless you are a conspiracy crank and you’re investigating the almost certainly definitely incontrovertibly established fact that the council is bent on a plan to make Leeds the best city … for Lizards! You heard it here first … unless of course you are a conspiracy crank, then it’s all over the internet.) I shall have to ask my Bettakultcha classicist friends, but I’m fairly sure there’s no reference to Minerva anywhere in the city, not even at the universities or libraries where she tends to be most popular elsewhere in the world. So, erecting a statue to Minerva in Leeds is about as relevant as sticking up a sheep in Holbeck.

The owl connection is tenuous at best. Yes, Leeds always gets into a flap about its owls, and fine, Minerva had an owl – one that famously spreads its wings only after dusk when philosophy paints its grey on grey. It has been a while since I read Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, but I don’t recall there being even a footnote about the importance of retail in the ethical progression of humankind. Philosophers don’t understand shopping, I suppose.

So we are left with the weaving. Leeds does cloth good. Minerva is the Goddess of cloth. There’s a natural fit.

Except …

The most famous story about Minerva and weaving cloth appears in Book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s not a hard book to find – I’m aware Trinity lacks a book shop but there’s a library around the corner, and it took me five minutes on the internet to find the tale. Minerva approaches Arachne – a rival, independent weaver – in disguise and demands she start treating the Goddess with a bit more deference. Arachne refuses to kowtow, so Minerva gets almightily miffed. She appears in her awe inspiring majesty, throws her considerable weight around and challenges the plucky independent trader to a weave-off. Minerva produces a bombastic piece making grandiose claims extolling how brilliant Minerva is, why there’s nobody quite like Minerva, what Minerva has done to improve the lives of lesser mortals, and who has done anything to compare to Minerva. Arachne weaves a beautiful and flawless portrait of the mighty gods raping, deceiving and destroying the little people. Minerva responds by beating up Arachne, trashing her small, independent business and then transforms her into a fat, ugly spider who can no longer ply her previous trade.

Ovid was quite a story-teller! He reminds us that before Minerva was the Goddess of weaving she was also the goddess of war, and she knows a thing or two about crushing an enemy.

Minerva is a deranged, arrogant, power-crazy bully bent on destroying anything which has more individuality, intelligence and craftsmanship than anything she could produce herself. She is a goddess determined to have servile devotees rather than strong, independent citizens free to practice their skills.

This is what we are celebrating in erecting this sculpture in public space in the city centre.

I can only conclude that by commissioning this thoughtless, specious, ridiculous work and deeming it “public art” Trinity is making a fool of itself, and a fool of us. Either way, Minerva has to go. She has no place in a city aspiring to be “best”.

(1) It looks like it was rescued from a skip after a refurb at Claire’s Accessories, mounted on a tatty length of industrial drain pipe, and placed atop a public urinal – which is handy as that is the most likely use come kicking out time most weekends.


  1. Interesting reflections!
    My 19 year old son offers these reflections on Trinity, which I think are shared by many of his friends … on the down side, it’s cold; on the plus side, there’s a Lego shop! That’s it. Happy to report that not much duping of the yout’ going on.
    Re Minerva and also Equus, yes my first thought was Claire’s Accessories too. Shiny pretty thing that very soon the sheen wears off and you realise you bought into another bit of cheap tat.
    So yes I think our planning people could have thought a bit more before allowing Claire’s Statues to escape from Trinity into the outside world. But maybe some art is better than no art at all? At least it gets us thinking what we could put there instead?

      1. Interesting article until it degenerates into slagging off towards the end. The problem with being critical about ‘public art’ in terms of art is often just going to lead nowhere because at best they are pieces of urban design or interesting signage, she does fit in quite neatly with the trinity logo in the background. And I think I would prefer at least some attempt, however small to create a slightly more interesting background for the shops that than all of the other bleak and soulless malls in the city centre.

        1. Actually I thought I’d started with slagging off and simply continued … but the serious point wasn’t about the art as such, it’s about the message. Is it ok to treat the passing public as dimwits who won’t bother to check that they have a statue on one of our busiest streets celebrating the Goddess of War who’s most notorious act was brutalising, destroying and persecuting a small, independent cloth maker?

          I prefer to be addressed as a citizen, valued for the contents of my brain and not the contents of my wallet.

  2. Great post Phil. In the course of your research did you find out if any public engagement actually took place for this public art?

  3. You didn’t finish your bit about “where Minerva comes from”.

    After the statue was commissioned by the shopping centre, it was discussed by councillors at a meeting of one of the council’s planning panels – or rather, at a bit of the meeting from which members of the public were excluded.

    “The meeting moved into private session to discuss the principle and proposed provision of public art on Briggate and within the development. Members were shown detailed drawings of proposed installations and asked to comment,” the minutes said.

    “It was felt (by councillors)that the principle was acceptable and the chosen works do not need to be brought to Panel for determination.”

    Acceptable? Land Securities say “great support and excitement was shown (at the meeting) for the statue proposals and the (Trinity) arts strategy (rpt arts strategy) in general”.

    Then – AFTER the statue had been given the firm nod by the excited councillors – the piece of public art (the sketches) went out to public consultation.

    Public consultation? We know how that works: hardly anybody knew it was going on and nobody (apart from Leeds Civic Trust) responded.

    Not that it would’ve made any difference if they had, as the statue never went back to councillors for further approval.

    I quite like it, though I’ve only seen it in photographs.

    But it’s a pretty shambolic way of getting “public art” commissioned, approved and appearing on our streets.

    I wonder what they did when the Black Prince went up. Mind you, those were days of civic enterprise.

    1. And the Black Prince (no connection to Leeds, but a hell of a statement) was erected back when councillors had the benefit of a classical education.

  4. Thanks Leeds Citizen, wow, I’m impressed you know so much about that meeting. Did you go or just read the minutes?

    I agree that public engagement over these things just doesn’t seem to work. But surely it’s not that complicated? Some detective work to identify the groups and individuals who really do care (this is one of the great platforms for that along with countless other media), along with a decent amount of time (perhaps this was one of the problems, it always seems to be…)and a campaign to help find out what people think (using the media mentioned above) – with a fair bit of education – as we will need a little help on that score too. Not that hard really? I don’t suspect a conspiracy, but that it was overlooked. Insufficient planning and time was probably the biggest culprit. A great shame and wasted opportunity in my opinion.

  5. PS I didn’t mean “just” read the minutes. That is a major achievement in itself! I “just” always liked to go in person myself. Will try to come along to a few….

    1. Sounds a bit scary, that identifying “groups and individuals who really do care”. Think I’d rather go with the decision of a dozen randoms dragged off Briggate.

      Who do we want or trust as patrons of public art these days?

      All we’re doing at the mo is replacing old-skool civic entrepreneurs (ex leeds mayors with plenty industrial cash) with nu-skool ones (shopping centre developers from london)?

      Who else is there? Some cabal of Arts Council leaders and their local patrnerships henchpersons?

      No thanks.

      I’d contribute two quid a brick though, if the Brick Man went out to public subscription

      1. I think the challenge faced these days are many. We expect to participate, yet don’t take it upon ourselves to involve ourselves in stuff until it’s too late. People tweeted the plans, but other than Leeds Citizen and The Civic Trust who else sought to ask questions? And I guess what confidence would you need to have to think you had the right to ask questions?

        What would good consultancy look like? Would we arrive at anything better for the city if the process had been different? Do we end up with the x-factorisation based on people’s wildly different taste, or would you kibosh the notion entirely of erecting public art in public spaces?

        With the narrative of Best City, how do we align public art/realm to realising the best city? (assuming we subscribe to that notion) Do we need transparent guidelines as to what we wish to encourage, or do we say it’s whoever has the deepest pockets gets to choose?

        Which cities (outside of London) have an interesting programme of public art/realm?

        Would be interesting to see what Hammersons plan to do

        1. You are right, I did see the sketch that Leeds Citizen posted and remember whinging privately to you (and no doubt many others) about it. But I did bugger all. Suppose I just saw it as a foregone conclusion – what the hell chance would we have intervening in what a developer wants to do, this is Leeds! So, yes, I have to accept that my critical outrage comes too late – a bit like Minerva’s owl in the Hegel quote.

          1. Truth is that for most of us this is just not a priority for us, but a potent symbol, a strong clue, a message about those who do care and take the decisions about our city and its development, and the extent to which they represent and lead us in pursuit of best or, in this case perhaps, spite laden mediocrity.

  6. Nice cultural sleuthing Mr Kirby.

    Personally I hate public art – it is almost always either triumphalist figures from ‘history’, or nonsensical abstract self-indulgence, or overblown showing off (sorry Angel of t’North).

    Isn’t the whole point of public – nay all – art not to ask permission, not to seek approval, or even relevance?

    I don’t think the figure outside Trinity is art at all. It is an advert.

    AS for Minerva as metaphor for all-conquering corporate retailer, I like it. I don’t necessarily think Trinity is going to be bad for small independents – the ones that need to watch out are the other shopping centres. The landlords of The Core must be spitting pins. Meanwhile a host of new independent retailers, cafes and restaurants have sprung up just a stone’s throw from Mrs Minerva’s spangley feet…

    I know it is not like Leeds to be so brash, so bold and so – well – in your face (that’s Manchester’s job) But, perhaps there is something to be said for a bit more dumbass flamboyance in the city centre – as Ovid once said “Fortune resists half-hearted prayers”…

    1. Again, my point wasn’t really against shopping centres – more about the hype we have to endure. And not about good or bad art – I think you are right about Leeds being flamboyant for once. My point was, couldn’t we have had something that at least showed a bit of thought? Not something that made a fool of everyone.

      And, if we are going to celebrate the ingenuity, invention, and imagination of the people of Leeds then is a figure of a dumb animal the best representation?

        1. Agree that it’s not a priority but think that’s sometimes because nobody feels there’s any point challenging the mighty developer. And when the developer is also doing some good things – supporting some local independent stuff for instance – it’s even harder to criticise as some of the indies getting a boost are friends.

          Again the main point wasn’t about the quality of the art but about the use of public space and what it is proper to public art – a statue celebrating the goddess of war who famously crushed all signs of local independence makes us as a city just that bit more gormless.

  7. Best thing I’ve ever read of yours on this site, Phil. A thoughtful, angry skewering. I’ve been bemused by the generally excitable response to Trinity and totally underwhelmed and dismayed by a visit to it. The sculptures look like a bad A level project and that’s somehow apt inside Trinity, but what the hell is it doing soiling up Briggate? It’s the most trite, puzzling, incongruous sculpture site I’ve ever seen.

    Keep up the anger, Phil, it’s much needed.

  8. Interesting and thoughtful article. It puts into words my feelings about The ‘Leeds Shopping Experience’,and why, these days I rarely venture into the City Centre. Anywhere without a bookshop or a woolshop is not for me. I am more of an Arachne than a Minerva, so take the warning of the statue on Briggate.’Abandon hope all who enter here'(Thanks to my West York’s comprehensive for my classical education. No, really!)

    1. Very tenuous connection. Fact is we have a statue of the Goddess of War on Briggate, whose most significant act as Goddess of Weaving was to crush an independent weaver (literally, after turning her into a bug) and destroy the independent cloth trade … not sure that’s something to celebrate.

      And it makes the city that bit more stupid.

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