Like so many other people, I have always loved large community arts events like ‘Opera in the Park’ and ‘Symphony Under the Stars’, especially the way total strangers sit next to each other listening to music while enjoying a picnic dinner and a few glasses of wine. To me, this sense of community is too rarely displayed or available in the modern world where there are few opportunities for seriously enjoyable cultural activities that are free and not fringe (but hey, long live fringe!).
Early on, I thought there was a need for an accessible visual arts event in Sydney but the ‘what and where’ was unclear to me as I did not have a visual arts background.
While running away from the corporate world and living in Prague in the early 1990’s I was taken to an outdoor sculpture park set amongst 13th-century ruins near the town of Klatovy in northern Bohemia. Playing amongst the ruins and sculptures one night with my Czech art school friends I had my first experience of the power, if not majesty, of sculpture. From here my thoughts for the ‘event’ I might one day put on began to turn to sculpture.
Upon returning to Sydney in 1996 and hearing of my idea, my friends suggested I take a walk along the Bondi to Tamarama coastal walk (thanks Marie- Violaine and Matthew). All around me I saw natural plinth after natural plinth where sculptures of all descriptions could be installed. At the time I was expecting to land a major film job any day so the idea for the exhibition was put on hold until I realised the film job was not going to come through. With nothing scheduled in my life for several months, I thought I would set ‘Art by the Sea’ in motion – as I was still thinking of including paintings. It did not take more than a day to realise paintings would be an absolute liability in the wind and sometimes rain of the cliff-top walk. So that idea was dropped.
Fortunately for the exhibition, now called Sculpture by the Sea, a number of key people fell for the idea and helped to make the exhibition a reality. Chief among them was Anita Johnston at Waverley Council, responsible for managing the coastal walk, and Ron Robertson-Swann OAM, one of Australia’s most recognised (if not occasionally controversial) sculptors. From the first phone call, Anita was enthusiastic and guided the exhibition through Council’s environmental, safety and crowd management issues, while Ron advised on matters relating to installing and sitting sculpture in a vast outdoor environment. Of equal importance, Ron put his reputation behind the exhibition introducing many other substantial artists to Sculpture by the Sea and thereby ensuring from year one that we had an exhibition of a high standard. Many more people were crucial for getting the first exhibition off the ground but without Anita and Ron, nothing would have happened.
In the exhibition’s first year, 1997 (and still far from resolved now) our biggest problem was financing the show. Run from my lounge room and staffed entirely by volunteers, none of whom knew each other beforehand, the first exhibition started with a bank account of $100. However, within no time we had over 100 artist submissions for the show, media interest, Council approval and a principal sponsor in Sydney Water which put up $5,000 for the first Sydney Water Sculpture Prize and also assisted with advertising costs.
Produced on a shoe-string budget the first exhibition was hustled together in 10 weeks. Given that we had no budget for security, the first exhibition had to be limited to daytime and therefore to one day only, but this had the advantage of allowing Waverley Council to see how we produced the show before being prepared to authorise us to stage a multi-day exhibition in 1998. That first year, 25,000 visitors, the quality of the show and the media interest gave the impetus required for the future development of Sculpture by the Sea.
In 1998 the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) commissioned five Sculpture by the Sea exhibitions around Australia for the 1998 Olympic Arts Festival. This was a huge step up for us and one which artists really responded to with over 260 sculptures being installed among five locations around Australia (Darwin, Noosa, Albany, Bondi and the Tasman Peninsula). Although unable to maintain each of these interstate exhibitions without the SOCOG funding, this created a national platform for Sculpture by the Sea and enabled the continued growth of our organisation and its reach
From 1998 on the challenge of producing the exhibition was to attempt to stay in tune with the artists’ and the public’s expectations while growing our financial resources.
To this end our major developments have been:
Since 1997 our Bondi exhibition has exhibited over 2,400 sculptures, while some 600 different artists have exhibited at Cottesloe. We have launched the careers of many emerging sculptors, reinvigorated the careers of many dozens of mid-career and senior sculptors, introduced the general public to Sculpture and generated many millions of dollars of income for what was previously one of the least resourced Art forms in Australia. Each year we put $2M – $3M into artists bank accounts from our two exhibitions, with the bulk of these funds from sculpture sales.
The 50 Sculpture by the Sea exhibitions have been held in the following locations, including five across Australia for the 1998 Olympic Arts Festival and four overseas:
The most substantial development in terms of our organisation has been the establishment of Sculpture by the Sea incorporated (SXSINC) as a not-for-profit incorporated association to run our exhibitions. SXSINC has also been listed on the national cultural register, enabling us to provide our private patrons and friends with tax deductions for their donations, as well as allowing access to grants from philanthropic foundations.
It has been an exciting, frightening and busy time and to everyone involved and in particular to the exhibition’s staff, sponsors, Waverley Council, our Board and most of all to the sculptors, thank you for coming along for the ride.
David Handley, Founding Director