Sculpture by the Sea founder reflects on 25 years – Creating social entrepreneurship in the Arts

Posted: November 4, 2023 / News
His vision for a large-scale public art event sparked David Handley’s leap from lawyer to social entrepreneur. As his signature event, Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi, marks its 25th year, he reflects on riding the wave of arts enterprise.

David Handley AM (BA ’87, LLB ’89) has some advice for up-and-coming social entrepreneurs: “You need to have real passion for what you’re doing, or you’re not going to succeed,” he says. “So, either keep it as a hobby or, if it’s going to be a career, you need to jump in boots and all.”

It’s been more than two-and-a-half decades since Handley jumped in ‘boots and all’, founding Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi, aged 31. He had just 10 weeks to produce the first event “with a marketing budget of $400.” And the rest is history. The first exhibition was held over one day in 1997 and attracted approximately 25,000 people. “In 2022, we had 465,000 visitors,” Handley says.

Yatra ‘Journey’, by India Collins, Sculpture by the Sea 2023. Photo: Stefanie Zingsheim

This year marks the 25th year of the iconic Sydney event (two years were cancelled by you-know-what). Over that time, the exhibition has shown 2,691 sculptures by more than 1,000 artists from 51 countries. Handley’s concept has also spread from Sydney’s eastern suburbs to Cottesloe Beach in Western Australia and into the Snowy Valleys. He was even asked by Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary to launch a version in Denmark.

Handley’s inspiration was in part drawn from his fascination with Czech history. He was fascinated by the 1968 Prague Spring, when the then-Soviet Union sent in tanks to crush the liberalising reforms that were taking place in Czechoslovakia. “It was one of the most devastating moments of the 20th century. But the months before the invasion saw a flowering of creativity and freedom of expression there,” Handley says. “Sculpture by the Sea is the type of event I like to think would have been spawned by the Prague Spring had it continued.”

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he spent weeks touring cities that had been cloaked in darkness for decades, including making his first visit to Prague. Then in 1993, when he quit his job as a solicitor, he bought a one-way ticket there from Sydney, and it was among the ruins of a 13th-century Czech castle that Handley experienced “the power, drama and theatricality of sculpture” in an outdoor setting. He realised this was the art form for the large-scale, free public event he had wanted to produce since his early 20s.
No Colour in War, by Emryn Ingram-Shute, Sculpture by the Sea 2023. Photo: Stefanie Zingsheim

Back in Sydney in early 1997, a friend suggested he should walk the coastal path at Bondi to see if it would be a fitting backdrop to his vision. It was. “I could just see where the sculptures would go – and that backdrop of the Tasman Sea is extraordinary,” he says.

The eldest of four brothers, Handley could have been born to the Bar. His father, the Honorable Kenneth Handley AO (BA ’55, LLB ’58), was a prominent Sydney QC and a New South Wales Court of Appeal judge. However, the young David had no expectation of a legal career. “I only practised law for two years so I could get some understanding of the commercial world,” he says. “I always knew I wanted to go into business myself.

“University was a key foundation of my life, and what I learnt was fundamental to survive in the business world,” Handley says. “Many of my year group who are lawyers are now donors to Sculptures by the Sea. I’ve been really touched by that. But their support is not just about our relationship, it’s more to do with what the exhibition does for society.”

Untitled sculpture by Jonas Anicas, Sculpture by the Sea 2023. Photo: Stefanie Zingsheim

Another key memory from his time at the University of Sydney in the mid-1980s is of rocking out with his band in their heyday. “We were a typical uni rock band,” explains Handley, who was the band’s lead singer. Among their gigs was a show for the resident doctors of St Vincent’s Hospital. “We had fun. I think it’s essential for anyone to make the best of their talents, which may not be what they are studying.”

Although music did not turn out to be his shining talent, years later Handley went to watch Symphony Under the Stars, the annual event held in the Domain at Yuletide. “I was impressed with the free event, the community and humanity. With so many music events, I thought I would look for another art form which could be the foundation stone for a similar free-to-the-public event.

Hot With A Chance Of A LateStorm, 2006, by The Glue Society. Also part of Sculpture by the Sea 2023 Photo: Louise Beaumont

“Most days on my way to the law office, I walked past Brett Whiteley’s Big Matchsticks sculpture outside the Art Gallery of NSW. The two matchsticks – one pristine, the other burnt to a cinder – were a mirror of my life, all of our lives,” Handley says. “Each of us has a moment aflame, of brilliance, then we’re burnt. That sculpture helped steel my courage.”

He never looked back. In 2018, Oxford Economics estimated that Sculpture by the Sea had delivered $38.9 million to the NSW economy – $85.3 million indirectly – with 19 percent of visitors coming from Sydney’s western suburbs and another 14 percent from regional NSW. It remains a free event, supported by sponsors and state government funding.

“Sculpture sales also just started to happen. I was quite thrown by this, at first,” Handley says. “I didn’t want this to be a major selling show, but the market does what the market does – and it’s always a challenge to find the money each year.”

 So, after a quarter of a century, what are his favourite sculptures by the sea? His all-time favourite is The Ruin, 2011, by Marcus Tatton. “It’s the kind of ruin you might see as you drive through any part of Outback Australia – and looked stunning on Tamarama Beach made of firewood.” Another favourite is Lucy Humphrey’s Horizon, 2013, a giant water-filled ball overlooking the ocean – “an orb on the Tamarama headland that turned the world upside-down.”

It was important for Handley also that the exhibition developed, from its early years, programs for schools and people with disabilities. And it was for this that he received recognition by being made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2016. Handley says his aim was to make Sculpture by the Sea accessible for everyone.

“We wanted to make the exhibition available for people who are visually impaired or blind or with other needs regarding sensory processing. To feel the sculptures and to be talked through them by the guides is a really unique way of experiencing them.”

Horizon, 2018, by Lucy Humphrey. Photo: Clyde Yee.

Ahead, the Snowy Valleys Sculpture Trail continues to grow, along with the recovery of bushfire-devastated communities, working with Handley to evolve the project. “We currently have 35 sculptures at eight locations across 150 kilometres – and by December next year, it’ll be over 50 sculptures in 11 locations.” He is also approached every couple of weeks with proposals to create Sculptures by the Sea overseas, with some substantial plans in the pipeline.

“I wanted to create something free and long lasting,” Handley says, “From the outset, I have been thinking of how it can continue after I die. I think a free event on the scale of Sculpture by the Sea does add something to our sense of community. It makes us feel good about ourselves and our world.”

Written by Steve Meacham for Sydney Alumni Magazine, Photography by Michael Amendolia, Stefanie Zingsheim and Clyde Yee.

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