Sculpture by the Sea 1997-2014

The concept for Sculpture by the Sea was the culmination of many years thinking, where a new step in the thought process came up every year or so. Essentially 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!).

Pretty much straight away I thought there was a need for an accessible visual arts event in Sydney but the ‘what and where’ took some time to nut out especially 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.

Returning to Sydney, in 1996 friends who knew about my idea 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, by 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 these people were Anita Johnston at Waverley Council, which is 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 siting sculpture in a vast outdoor environment. Of equal importance Ron put his reputation behind the exhibition introducing many other substantial artists toSculpture by the Sea and thereby ensuring from year one that we had an exhibition of a high standard. Obviously many more people were crucial for getting the first exhibition off the ground but without Anita and Ron nothing would have happened.

Exhibition’s first year

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 before hand, the first exhibition started with a bank account of $100. Some of the volunteer crew were sensational and 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 of $11,000, of which $8,500 went to the exhibiting artists in the form of the artist awards, 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 25,000 people visited the 1997 exhibition, the quality of the show and the media interest gave the impetus required for the future development ofSculpture by the Sea. But given the fact our first major sponsor dollars did not show up for nearly 12 months it was a very hard time.

For 1998 the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) through the Artistic Director of “A Sea Change” Andrea Stretton, 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).

It was a pity not to be able to maintain each of these interstate exhibitions but without the SOCOG funding – which was fairly limited any way – it was not feasible, though we tried to keep Tasmania running with an exhibition included in the 2001 Tasmania wide arts fest “10 Days on the Island’. I loved this Tasmanian show and it was a pity that it was not financially feasible to keep it going. At least we now do the smaller, lovely ‘Ephemeral Art at the Invisible Lodge’, so we keep our ties with Tasmania.

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: (i) extending the exhibition over three weeks; (ii) significantly increasing the support we provide to the artists in the form of awards and in some cases subsidies, in 2007 this was over $300,000 (thank you to our sponsors and private donors); (iii) developing ties with overseas sculpture organisations that see two dozen overseas artists exhibiting every year; (iv) developing the exhibition’s sales, which totalled over $1 million for the first time in 2007; (v) encouraging those artists who incorporate the sun, sea, wind and rain to continue working in this area by developing an Environmental Sculpture Prize; and (vi) developing our schools education program in which over 1,600 students participated in 2007.

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. In this regard the company that previously produced the shows has given the rights to the exhibitions to SXSINC.

Establishing SXSINC and its listing on the national cultural register has enabled us to provide our private patrons and friends with tax deductions for their donations, aswell as allowing access to grants from philanthropic foundations. In this regard we are very appreciative of the support of the Balnaves Foundation with Neil and Diane Balnaves our Bondi exhibition Patrons.

In 2005 we launched Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, held annually at Cottesloe Beach, Perth on Australia’s Indian Ocean coastal. With its sunsets, long horizon and the gorgeous pocket of beach near Indiana Tea House it’s a wonderful location.

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