WALKING around our towns and cities we may have become used to the sculptures, statues, murals and other pieces of public art which have become part and parcel of our communities. Conservative or wacky, beautiful or ugly, people either love them or hate them. ALISON SANDERS looked at the contribution public art in Gwent has made and whether it can be justified in today's economic uncertainty.

OPINION is usually divided when it comes to the unveiling of the latest piece of public art in our towns and cities.

There will be those who find it inspiring, beautiful and fitting and there will be those who find it ugly, unsuitable and simply a waste of money.

During these hard economic times, are local councils still spending money on public art?

Is it the first thing to go when cutbacks loom in a recession or is it a necessity to bring culture and a feel-good factor to our communities?

For artist and sculptor Sebastien Boyesen, public art can add value and life to an otherwise bland landscape.

"I absolutely believe it's a fundamental factor to the wellbeing of a town. If you take it all away from a town centre you would notice and it would be a lot poorer as a result. If you just put tarmac down everywhere it would look horrendous and people would be complaining," he said.

Mr Boyesen is the man behind the Guardian in Six Bells, the Chartist Sculpture and the Lantern in Blackwood and This Little Piggy and the Merchant Navy Memorial in Newport.

Mr Boyesen said the recession has in fact made him busier than ever in the last few years.

"I have been busier. Because of the downturn in the economic climate, people have been spending more money on making their town centres look more attractive. Maybe it's a way of trying to get investment," he said.

He said public art can create a 'feel-good' factor and can have the knock-on effect of encouraging outside investment.

He said not all public art will be successful as people don't often realise the money used to pay for it has perhaps been ringfenced or is grant funding.

But Mr Boyesen said he has had good feedback from the 20-metre high miner figure called the Guardian which he created in Six Bells.

Dubbed Wales' Angel of the North, the Guardian was commissioned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1960 mining disaster in Six Bells where 45 men lost their lives and was finished in 2010.

The miner, with his arms outstretched, is made from corten steel and lists the names of those who died.

The project was mainly funded by the Welsh Government's Heads of the Valleys programme at a cost of £185,000.

Mr Boyesen said this was one of the biggest pieces of work he has been involved in and said it was an honour to do.

"It was a very difficult piece to do but the feedback I have had from people is enormous. They felt it was a relevant and deserved thing to remind them of their loved ones. It's just appropriate. We've always had memorials in this country but people who have died in industrial accidents like coal mines are just as important and doing that memorial was one of the high points of my career."

Mr Boyesen said local authorities have to try to create an environment where people can be happy and proud and said Newport tries really hard at this.

He said the city has made fantastic improvements in the quality of the environment over the last 20 years.

"I hope that in some small way the works I have done do help," he said.

Mr Boyesen is working on a piece of work called the Risca Cuckoo in Pontymister, paid for by Tesco, and expected to be finished before Christmas.

The Cuckoo, together with the Memory Bench and Artwork Railings in Newbridge are being installed in Caerphilly over the next few months but the council itself has and will not be making any financial contribution towards them..

This is compared to the last five years when Caerphilly council contributed £118,325 towards public artwork projects worth £742,682.

In Newbridge, the memory bench, art railings and controversial Hallelujah Lamp have cost £125,000 which has been paid for by the European Regional Development Fund and the Arts Council for Wales.

It is a similar picture in Newport where the council has not paid for any public art for the city during the last five years and has no plans for any more council-funded art work in the next 12 months.

However, new works have appeared in Newport in the last five years which have all been funded by other organisations such as the Name Tree and Whirlwind in Lower Dock Street and the Portrait Bench in Caerleon.

Monmouthshire council has spent funds on one main project in the last five years and has no plans to spend money on any future pieces of public art in the next 12 months.

Artwork at the Brewery Yard in Abergavenny cost £182,843 and was paid for by Monmouthshire council and the Welsh Government's physical regeneration fund and town improvement grant schemes.

The council said the art works in the Brewery Yard bring the space to life and creates economic potential.

Another recent piece of public art in Monmouthshire has been the four large wood sculptures scattered around Chepstow funded by other organisations.

Torfaen council has received grant funding in the last five years to spend on projects in Blaenavon and Pontypool.

Hope, a blast furnace shape frame made of corten steel and filled with toughed glass, was installed in Blaenavon's Community Garden in 2009 and cost £16,990 while the Blaenavon Spiral cost £73,200.

Public art is a key feature of the Pontypool regeneration scheme and includes the Pontypool Patterns made up of five steel pieces which will be unveiled in December.

Blaenau Gwent is a different story with the council spending £218,840 on public art over the last five years.

Most of these projects cost the council less than £10,000 each.

For example, the painted myths and legends mural in Aberbeeg children's park cost £3,400 in 2008 and the swimming pool mosaic at Tredegar Sports Centre cost £3,600 in 2007.

The exception to this was the Birds in a Tree metal sculptures in Alma Street, Brynmawr, which were created in 2007 and cost the council £68,000.

Other art projects in the borough have been funded by grants or other organisations such as the gates and screens at Bedwellty Park and the stone and iron sculpture on Beaufort Terrace in Ebbw Vale.

Blaenau Gwent council is also planning a tile wall mosaic in Abertillery next year which currently has an estimated cost of £55,000.

THE spending of taxpayers' money on public art has come under criticism in recent years.

John O’Connell, research director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: "Whilst many are probably happy to see some of their tax money used to subsidise free entry to major art galleries, numerous recent examples demonstrate a gulf in priorities between those spending taxpayers’ money on art and those of us footing the bill for their follies.

"Since public spending needs to be cut, the Government must reassess its priorities and allow the private sector to provide art that people actually want. The number of badly-planned and poorly-executed art projects around the country show that there is substantial money to be saved."

The Hallelujah Lamp in Newbridge attracted some similar comments at its unveiling earlier this month.

Jim Heal from Newbridge Trading told the Argus: "I don't like it all and maybe the money may have been better spent helping traders."

THE Argus asked readers to vote on whether taxpayers should pay for public art during a recession - 24 people voted yes and 67 people voted no.

Comments left on the poll included one from Bobevans who said: " We should not be spending silly amounts on so-called art. I have no objections to reasonable amounts being paid for art to be produced by local colleges. This though should only cover reasonable material cost."

Owain Vaughan wrote: "Taxpayers' money should be spent to build our way out of recession."