The story behind taking sculptures from the beach to the bush.
Following the bush fires of 2019-2020 we had the idea of creating Australia’s first world-class public Sculpture Park in the Snowy Valleys in southern New South Wales as a significant cultural tourist attraction which would help with the socio-economic recovery of the area, 48% of which had been burnt in the fires. The collection opened in May 2022 and now has 35 sculptures in eight locations, with more sculptures and sites to be added in the next six months. The journey to get here has involved a considerable number of people, their ideas and support.
The first people we spoke with in Batlow and Tumbarumba really liked the idea of a public sculpture collection but strongly encouraged us to create a trail that would link the towns across the Snowy Valleys to spread the benefits and to link the different communities in a region wide project. They emphasised that if we created a sculpture park in one location, people might visit from Sydney or London, but many locals would not visit if it was not part of their town. Likewise, Destination Riverina-Murray encouraged us to consider a trail linking the towns and vineyards along the Snowy Valleys Way, the stunning back road between Sydney and Melbourne.
Clearly, we needed to listen to locals and change our idea.
We also needed to develop a project that would appeal to the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments’ Bush Fire Local Economic Recovery Fund, which was set up to help fast track the socio-economic recovery of communities badly affected by the fires. To do this we spoke to as many people and organisations across the Snowy Valleys as we could within the limited time frame. This resulted in 37 letters of support from local community groups and individuals for our grant application.
The more we explored the Snowy Valleys the more we fell for the area and realised that a sculpture trail linking a series of beautiful public spaces and the vineyards with cellar doors would excite and attract visitors, linking with the exceptional small to medium size food, wine, beer, cider and spirit businesses along the Snowy Valleys Way.
Happily, this has proven to be the case with Courabyra Wines and other businesses having an average of 40 more customers a week who are travelling to the Snowy Valleys specifically to see the sculptures. These are big numbers for a small regional community and amount to more than 3,000 extra visitors a year. It is widely accepted that cultural tourists spend far more per day than any other category of visitor, and that they tell others, so people keep visiting year after year, providing long-lasting benefits.
The next challenge for the project was to finalise the concept and to make a trail work within the budget before the grant deadline. Although a significant amount of money was available, it could easily have all been spent on the Adelong Creek Walk as it is such a great site for sculpture. However, we needed to create a trail that was balanced to attract visitors across 100 km of the Snowy Valleys to see the sculptures and everything else the area has to offer.
Deciding which towns to exclude was hard but necessary to ensure we had enough sculptures in individual towns to attract visitors from one town to the next – and with the physical attributes of a site essential for the successful exhibition of sculpture we needed to focus on towns where the sculptures would have a strong presence.
Importantly, our relationships with artists meant we could acquire very good sculptures at a price that fitted our budget within the time frame to meet the requirement of being a ‘shovel ready’ project. Some of the most prominent sculptures in the world, such as Anish Kapoor’s ‘Cloud Gate’ in Chicago, attract huge numbers of visitors a year but one of these artworks would cost much more than our entire budget.
Happily, the idea of a sculpture trail fell on fertile ground when we contacted the then Mayor James Hayes OAM who was immediately enthusiastic and said Adelong had wanted a sculpture trail for 20 years but funding had not been available.
When Ian Chaffey became Mayor we chatted for over an hour. At first, he was a little skeptical, but he listened and said, ‘I still don’t know why you chose us, but I know a lot of the locals like the idea and I reckon this could do some good adding to what we have that already attracts visitors.’ Ian, who freely admits to scratching his head about some of the artworks, has become a great supporter.
It was very important to have a decision-making process that ensured locals had the final decision on which sculptures were purchased with the bushfire recovery grant. To ensure this we established a Local Community Advisory Committee with a representative from each town in the collection: Adelong; Batlow; Tumbarumba; the hamlet of Tooma; and a representative of the Snowy Valleys Council.
Earlier this year, after some friendly arm twisting, we welcomed Talbingo which extended the sculpture trail to 150km, including the award winning Tumbarumba vineyards with cellar doors: Courabyra Wines, Johansen Wines and Obsession Wines.
The local committee selects sculptures from a short list prepared by our National Curatorial Advisory Group comprised of: Wendy Teakel (Artist & former Head of Sculpture at the Australian National University – who grew up nearby in Wagga Wagga), Dr Michael Hill (Head of Art History & Theory, National Art School) and Geoffrey Edwards (Curator, Pt Leo Estate Sculpture Park, former Director Geelong Gallery & former Senior Curator Sculpture & Glass, National Gallery of Victoria).
From the early stages of developing the sculpture trail we wanted to reach out to as many people as possible in the local communities, not just by consultation but by delivering something meaningful. We did this through the School Education Program, taking artists into the schools from late 2020 to conduct free sculpture making workshops. Prior to securing the bushfire recovery grant the School Program was funded by our Sydney School Education Program donors when COVID forced the cancellation of Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi. From an initial two Snowy Valleys schools, the School Education Program has grown to include 14 of the 16 schools across the Snowy Valleys. In this way the School Program shows families across the region that the project brings direct benefits to their children. Now, with the bushfire recovery grant all but spent, Snowy Hydro has stepped in to sponsor and expand the School Education Program for the next three years.
All projects need a little bit of luck and help from friends. This seems to have happened every step along the way and in particular in February 2021 when the wonderfully titled Friendship Society of Denmark, Australia & New Zealand contacted us out of the blue with the idea of making a substantial gift in international friendship to a community badly affected by the bush fires. We had a very close relationship with the Friendship Society that had sponsored Sculpture by the Sea, Aarhus in Denmark from 2009 to 2015, which was initiated by Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary after they visited Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi shortly after they met during the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
The Friendship Society, which did not know we had been working for 12 months on the development of the sculpture trail, liked the idea of gifting to Tumbarumba three sculptures by Danish, Australian and New Zealand artists each of whom had exhibited in Sculpture by the Sea, Aarhus.
Although it was tempting to share these sculptures around the Snowy Valleys, as we were yet to secure the bushfire recovery grant it was important to keep the sculptures together to create a small collection, if they were to be the only result of the work so many people had put into trying to get the sculpture trail off the ground. Keld Moseholm’s sculpture, ‘Together We Are Strong’, has been particularly well received in Tumbarumba as it represents how people helped each other during the fires.
The gift of sculptures from Denmark was accompanied by a letter from the Danish Ambassador to Australia to each school student in the Snowy Valleys bringing greetings from Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary.
In February 2023 Hanne Bache, the President of the Friendship Society, travelled to Australia to see the Snowy Valleys Sculpture Trail and to meet the locals. Much to her surprise she was stopped and thanked several times on the street by people who recognised her from photos in the local paper.
Ever since the early years of Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi we wanted to create a major sculpture collection in regional Australia with the idea of connecting the beach to the bush and to bring to a part of regional Australia the socio-economic and cultural benefits the Bondi exhibition has delivered to Sydney. But the right location, people and funding never came together, until as James Hayes sarcastically notes, “It took a bush fire to get arts funding for our part of the bush.”
The next stage in the development of the Snowy Valleys Sculpture Trail is the installation of major works by Sui Jian Guo of China (Tumbarumba) and Phil Price of New Zealand (Batlow) in December. This will be followed by the launch of the Sculpture Forest in April next year with one dozen sculptures across three new sites at Laurel Hill and Pilot Hill in the Bago State Forest on the Snowy Valleys Way between Batlow and Tumbarumba. Thanks to a NSW Regional Tourism Activation Fund grant and our partnership with Forestry Corporation NSW, visitors will have the opportunity to experience sculptures in three very different settings, including the truly beautiful 1km Alpine Ash Walk next to Pilot Hill Arboretum, which will be one of the most important sites in the collection.
The many people across the Snowy Valleys to get behind the project are too many to list here, but we would like to thank the community groups, local schools, Snowy Valleys Council and local Members of Parliament, Justin Clancy MP, Dr Joe McGirr MP and Minister for Regional Australia Kristy McBain who threw their weight behind the project, and to thank the Batlow and Tumbarumba Men’s Sheds and Adelong Rural Fire Service for taking care of the sculptures so they are clean when you come to visit.
As we celebrate the 25th Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi, a large part of the celebration and the tangible legacy of the Bondi exhibition is the Snowy Valleys Sculpture Trail. We could not have created a major international collection so quickly were it not for the many years of relationships with artists across the world, our skilled installation crew and our staff who did not have their usual work load due to the interruption of Covid.
As we look to the future, the Snowy Valleys shares an equal place in the heart of our previously beach focused not for profit organisation. But unlike our three-week Bondi and Cottesloe exhibitions, you can visit the Snowy Valleys Sculpture Trail all year round to enjoy this stunning part of Australia knowing your visit will contribute to the long road of recovery from the fires.
David Handley AM
Founding CEO & Artistic Director of Sculpture by the Sea & Snowy Valleys Sculpture Trail