Sculpture by the Sea was the accumulation of many years planning for something that didn’t yet exist. The exhibition came from my wish to create a major free to the public arts event for Sydney.


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:

  • In 2000 we invited the first significant Australian sculptors to exhibit, who have since included: James Dive, Anne Ferguson, Bert Flugelman AM, Fiona Hall, Inge King AM, Jan King, Michael Le Grand, Ron Robertson-Swann OAM, and Ken Unsworth AM.  Since 2017 we have the Transfield Australian Invited Artist Program with two artists each provided with $15,000 towards their costs of exhibiting.
  • In 2002 we started our NSW primary and secondary schools education program, run during the exhibitions. This has evolved into a program designed around the Department of Education’s curriculum and has grown to engage 2,500 students from Greater Metropolitan Sydney and Regional NSW in artist led workshops and tours during each exhibition and similar numbers in Greater Metropolitan Perth and Regional WA.  In 2020 our Cottesloe exhibition had its 30,000th school student through the Alcoa School Program.  In 2019 we began taking artists into schools in greater metropolitan Perth and Regional WA during the year, NSW followed in 2020.
  • In 2004 we introduced ‘Sculpture Inside,’ exhibition of small indoor sculptures held on site concurrently with Sculpture by the Sea. The purpose of the indoor exhibition was to educate and inform the public about sculpture on a small, liveable scale, while increasing sales opportunities for the sculptors that would help them offset the cost of producing their larger outdoor works.
  • The popularity of the Bondi exhibition led to the creation of the annual Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe in Perth in 2005. The Cottesloe exhibition currently features over 70 sculptures by artists from across the world and with an estimated 220,000 visitors across 18 days.
  • In 2007 we established our Decade Club to acknowledge those artists who have exhibited in our Bondi exhibition 10 times or more. Similarly, we have a Decade Club for our Cottesloe exhibition and the first two members of the Double Decade Club for Bondi.
  • In 2010 Perpetual appointed SXSINC to take over the administration of the funds from the Helen Lempriere Bequest with the establishment of the Helen Lempriere Scholarships of $30,000 for three Australian sculptors each year. This is an exciting component of the Bondi exhibition.
  • In 2011 the NSW State Government recognised the importance of the exhibition in the cultural and tourism calendar and agreed to provide multi-year funding to cover the 2011 – 2014 exhibitions of $300,000 per year which has been renewed each year and increased to $400,000 in 2020.
  • In 2016 the Cottesloe exhibition joined the Bondi exhibition in covering the artist’s heavy equipment costs for installation and de-installation.  Our next major financial aim is to cover each of the artists’ reasonable freight costs.
  • In 2016 the Bondi exhibition celebrated its twentieth year.

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:

  • 24 Bondi;
  • 17 Cottesloe;
  • 4 Aarhus, Denmark.
  • 2 Tasman Peninsula (Tasmania);
  • 1 Albany (Western Australia);
  • 1 Darwin (Northern Territory);
  • 1 Noosa (Queensland)

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