Twenty Years of Sculpture by the Sea 

Posted: June 28, 2023 / Essays

Margarita Sampson,’Urchins’, Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi 1997. Photo Clyde Yee

Sculpture by the Sea began as an eccentric idea that has since caught the imagination of a nation.  It has become an institution in its own right and now is as firmly entrenched in the country’s psyche as is the Archibald Portrait Prize.  Today it would be difficult to imagine the arts calendar without Sculpture by the Sea at Bondi, now in its twentieth year, and Sculpture by the Sea at Cottesloe, on the opposite side of the continent, that is now in its twelfth year.   

J.F. Archibald, who died in 1919, had an idea and a bundle of cash but left the development of the Archibald Prize to the trustees of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, who in 1921 inaugurated the competition to award a prize for “the best portrait, preferentially of some man or woman distinguished in Art, Letters, Science or Politics, painted by an artist resident in Australia”.  With an institution behind it and fanned by orchestrated and accidental controversy, the show has become immensely popular with the broader public, a money spinner for the gallery, a boost for the local economy and a thorn in the side of the art establishment. While hundreds of thousands of people flock to see this popularist art show, academically sanctioned and publicly funded exhibitions of ‘serious high art’ frequently remain bereft of visitors.   

David Handley AM is the charismatic instigator of Sculpture by the Sea.  Similar to Archibald, he was a man with an idea, but unlike the energetic editor of The Bulletin, he did not have a bucket of money, nor did he have an established state art gallery that could bring his idea to fruition.  Sculpture by the Sea was born out of a personal spiritual quest by a thirty-one year old man who at the time was between jobs.  He recalls, “I was very disillusioned with the world which seemed to be repeating the same old mistakes.  We had not learned from history.  But it was also a time of change following the coming down of the Berlin Wall and the new sense of freedom appearing in a world.  With the ideals of the Prague Spring firmly in my mind, I was concerned the world was becoming too commercialised where nothing was free and everyone was always selling you ‘something’.  In response I wanted to create a new, major free to the public art exhibition that, by adding to our sense of community and fostering the dreams of artists, would in a small way make the world a better place.”

Handley is a person who is a strong believer in the power of dreams as a vehicle to make to make the world move forward.  As he observed “artists, collectively, are the biggest lot of dreamers in the world.” With travel abroad, including one to two years in both London and Prague, he was also painfully conscious that Australia was perceived by the rest of the world primarily as a sporting nation and there was little understanding of our cultural achievements. 

The inaugural Sculpture by the Sea in May 1997 was one of those freaky exhibitions where the odds were stacked against it happening and any of a dozen things could have gone wrong to completely derail it.  Ultimately, nothing did go wrong and the exhibition was an amazing success.  While Handley had been long interested in the idea of a major outdoor sculpture exhibition, he had only recently been introduced to the Bondi to Tamarama coastal walk.  When he made the walk it came almost as a revelation, he could see a great exhibition of sculptures arranged in one of the most spectacular settings of any city in the world.  Having recently missed out on a film job and inspired by the idea of this sculpture exhibition, he enthused a number of close friends and embarked on organising the exhibition in a suicidally short period of ten weeks.  The local Waverley Council came on-board with an in-principle approval within forty-eight hours, and after a three week invitation period there were 123 artist submissions that were whittled down by the curatorial panel, the prominent sculptor Ron Robertson-Swann and art critic John McDonald, in a marathon seven hour session, to 64 artists, who were invited to participate. Handley recalls “The first exhibition was held for just one day because I had no money and the business plan was simply ‘not to spend anything’.  However, as the saying goes, fortune favours the reckless and I then had the first of many extraordinary strokes of luck, winning the ‘lucky-door prize’ at the Tropfest short film festival, which was $15,000 of computers with film editing capacities.  The entrepreneur in me wanted to set up a film editing studio but I needed the cash fast so I sold the computers for $6,000 and the first Sculpture by the Sea was cash-flowed.”

From the outset there was always going to be a broad church approach to sculpture that included the figurative and the irreverent work, as well as that which primarily engaged with formalist, environmental, conceptual and the performance dimensions of sculpture.  Although previous unknown to each other, having Robertson-Swann as a close collaborator from the outset gave the exhibition considerable legitimacy in the art world and with Dr Gene Sherman, Director of the Sherman Galleries, Terence Measham, Director of the Powerhouse Museum, and David Cook from Christie’s Australia, added to the final prize judging committee, the whole process assumed an aura of respectability within the broader art community.  Alongside unknown artists the exhibition itself attracted a credible group of significant artists, who included Michael Le Grand, Richard Goodwin, Stephen King, Amanda Hart, Kim Mahood, Noel McKenna, James Rogers, Vince Vozzo and Tim Winters, most of whom returned time and again to exhibit in subsequent exhibitions.  The program for the exhibition was unbelievably ambitious with the works installed at 7am on Saturday 3 May 1997, judged between 9 and 10am, the awards made at 11am and the whole show dismantled between 4.30 and 5.30pm, as there was no money to pay for overnight security.  The day also featured a number of live performance artworks.  Fortuitous publicity and sunny weather brought out the crowds and before the exhibition was dismantled over 25,000 people had come to see the show.  In the professionally produced twenty-seven page catalogue, the premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, prophetically wrote “I look forward to this exhibition becoming an annual exhibition for the sculptors of New South Wales and for all those with a love for art and the sea.”

In May 1997 the seeds were sown for Sculpture by Sea for the next couple of decades.  It was to be a free, high quality, popularist exhibition that would attract tens of thousands of visitors a day.  As it was not organised inside the academy and Handley was not part of the art establishment, the exhibition was shunned by some within the academy and envied by others.  Perhaps most crucially, as the exhibition appeared to many in the arts bureaucracy as such a runaway success, there was little enthusiasm to use public funds to support it, especially from the arts sector, despite thousands of people voting for it with their feet and the sorely needed funds to assist the artists.  Increasingly in the Australian sculpture scene, the show became too big and too important to ignore. It was to become the elephant in the room in any discourse on Australian sculpture.   

When organising the second Sculpture by the Sea for 1998, fortune once again smiled on Handley. Sydney was gearing up for its Olympic Games in 2000 with a series of Olympic Arts Festivals. The artistic director of the second of these, A Sea Change, with its focus on transformations in Australian culture, was Andrea Stretton who had heard of the artists’ and public response to the inaugural exhibition.  She invited Handley to research the country looking for sites for five Sculpture by the Sea exhibitions around Australia, primarily in regional locations.  As a result 260 sculptures were installed across the five locations – Darwin, Noosa, Albany, Bondi and the Tasman Peninsula – in shows held between May and November 1998.  The concept was shown to be viable nationally, even though the limited funds were a one-off and left no room for repeat performances, except for the Tasman Peninsula in 2001, which likewise ended due to the lack of available funds.  Perhaps the most significant benefit of the bigger national exposure was that Handley, again with the assistance of Robertson-Swann, was able to build up a national network of key contacts amongst Australian sculptors and arts administrators.   

The 1998 Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi put in place most of the ingredients which were to become key in subsequent exhibitions.  The number of exhibits had risen to 90, selected from about 300 submissions by the curatorial panel, Deborah Edwards Curator of Australian Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales and the sculptor Anne Ferguson.  There were six international sculptors, including artists from England, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, and a sprinkling of interstate participants.  A stronger field of sculptors was also emerging, who now included Michael Snape, Stephen King, Laurens Tan, Nigel White, Vince Vozzo, Richard Tipping, Judith Englert-Shead, Denese Oats, Ari Purhonen, Tom Deko, Robert Preston, James Rogers, Barbara Penrose, Amanda Hart and Michael Le Grand.  Sydney Water remained the sponsor for the main award which had trebled in value with the award winning work gifted for permanent public installation at the Campbelltown City Bicentennial Art Gallery, and there was a smaller acquisitive prize by the Waverley Council for a work to be installed in the municipality.  This response of Handley and Robertson-Swann to the lack of public sector funding, who with their meagre means attracted corporate or philanthropic funds to ensure at least some of the artists were recompensed for their works by placing them in public collections.  Since then some 80 sculptures have been acquired from Sculpture by the Sea for public collections in Canberra and across New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia. 

Importantly, the exhibition was no longer a one night stand, but was extended over several days, four days in this instance, which would eventually grow to nearly three weeks.  In 1998 the exhibition attracted well over 100,000 visitors.  It was also moved to the October time slot, when there was a better chance of a continuous spell of fine weather, although on several occasions this proved to be wishful thinking.  The 1998 catalogue also contained a strong endorsement of the overall concept by the veteran and highly respected sculptor, Tom Bass, who wrote “The idea behind the exhibition Sculpture by the Sea deserves to be supported by all those who see sculpture as a significant part of the life of our society … I see Sculpture by the Sea as a positive sign that sculpture will take its proper place in the activities and the dynamic ferment of the life of the whole community.  We need so much to celebrate and enrich the environment of our cities and towns, to create incidents in public places which will reconnect us with the things that raise our consciousness above the prosaic commerce of everyday lives.”

The 1998 exhibition proved that the concept was viable in the long term, attracting a growing national and, to some extent, international pool of sculptors eager to participate and a huge audience who came in their hundreds of thousands to partake in this remarkable experience.  Where the exhibition failed to make substantial progress was in attracting public funding from either the Australia Council or Arts NSW.  At the time, Sculpture by the Sea at Bondi was the only major sculpture exhibition in the country. The influential Mildura Sculptural Triennials, that lasted from 1961 to 1988, had largely run out of steam by 1978, while Australian Sculpture Triennials in Melbourne lasted from 1981 to 1995, but failed to replicate the intimate pressure cooker-like atmosphere of Mildura.  In contrast, the show at Bondi was annual, professional, but democratic in its curatorial process, and hugely popular.   

The 1999 exhibition became a nine day exhibition and attracted some 350 submissions from all Australian states and territories, plus forty-five submissions from abroad.  The highly regarded veteran sculptors, Tom Bass and Bert Flugelman were invited to participate and the show was launched by Edmund Capon, the Director of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  Highlights included pieces by Paul Selwood, Matthew Harding and Ron Gomboc as well as international contributions by Keld Moseholm from Denmark, Todor Todorov from Bulgaria and Keizo Ushio from Japan.  Premier Carr, noted with enthusiasm in the catalogue “last year’s extraordinary number of visitors made Sculpture by the Sea one of the State’s most popular visual arts exhibitions”.

The Bondi exhibitions held in the opening years of the new millennium marked a growing consolidation with the administration moving into offices, rather than operating out of the second bedroom in Handley’s apartment, and more money being made available to artists both in awards and in assistance with installation costs.  A small State government subsidy continued but offered only of a few hundred dollars each towards freight for regional NSW artists, as did support from the local council, but there was no support in the way of grants from the federal or state arts bureaucracy.  Although not part of Handley’s original plan, sales of sculpture became significant and kept growing.  By 2002 the idea of selling sculptures from the exhibition in response to the continued enquiries of collectors had taken hold as the only way to keep the exhibition afloat and to provide income for a growing number of artists. A concurrent indoor exhibition ‘Sculpture Inside’ of affordable sculptures was established for the sale of modest scale pieces that introduced the idea of small sculptures to the general public for the first time.   

In 2003, Handley decided to give his rights to the concept of the exhibition to Sculpture by the Sea Incorporated, a not-for-profit entity that he established with tax deductibility provisions for potential donors.  Certainly those in the private sector were opening their wallets, but ongoing year-on-year financing of the exhibitions remained problematic. For although each year there was added support for some artists Handley was troubled by their inability to raise the additional funds to cover key costs for each artist such as freight, while the need for additional and more experienced staff kept growing.  Ron Robertson-Swann, dubbed by Handley as the ‘patron saint’ of the exhibition, expressed some of this frustration in a strongly worded essay in the 2004 catalogue.  Speaking of viruses that affect sculptural practice in Australia, he noted, “The third virus is virulent and affects Federal and State funding bodies.  It is very difficult to treat because it is circular and keeps reinfecting.  It comes from such high moral ground that most medication is unable to have any affect.  Artists can only apply to these bodies for special programmes, using special language and complying with special criteria and only at particular times.  They know what is best for art, artists and the public.  A self-fulfilling prophecy has been created and if there was any doubt about this vision they also fund the galleries their funded artists show in … They usually defend their positions by saying that they ‘fund art that otherwise would not be made’.  Without the slightest hint of irony.”  

In the new millennium the exhibitions experienced unprecedented interest from artists across the world, attracting 540 submissions in 2003 and over 600 the following year, with Icelandic sculptors taking a lively interest, the British Council involved and with selected artists applying from as far afield as China, Belgium, Austria and the Czech Republic.  Some of the highlights from these years included work by Inge King, Ken Unsworth, Geoffrey Bartlett, Fiona Hall, Philip Spelman, Koichi Ishino from Japan and Phil Price from New Zealand.  A number of new Australian sculptors emerged at this time, nurtured by this exhibition, that included Alex Seton and James Dive from Sydney.  With justified pleasure, Premier Bob Carr could declare in 2004 that this had become “one of Australia’s most loved exhibitions.”

In 2005, Sculpture by the Sea crossed the continent and set up an annual exhibition at the spectacular site of Cottesloe Beach, a western suburb of Perth.  Back in 1998, Handley wanted to hold an exhibition here as part of the Olympic Arts Festival, but lack of support from the local council saw it shifted to Albany.  Now, when the Western Australian branch of the law firm Allens Arthur Robinson offered themselves to be the chief sponsors, the Mayor of Cottesloe jumped at the opportunity and Alcoa along with WA Arts chipped in, together with many local businesses.  Thus, seven years after Albany, Sculpture by the Sea returned to the shores of the Indian Ocean and repeated the success that it had encountered on the East Coast.  In the first three exhibitions, in 2005, 2006 and 2007, the number of exhibits in this ten day show grew from 38, to 47, to 50, while attendances also grew to 100,000 visitors by the third exhibition.   

 When recently reflecting on the necessary prerequisites for a successful Sculpture by the Sea exhibition, Handley isolated three main factors.  “Firstly the site, it has to be spectacular, popular with the public and accessible for installation purposes.  It should have a variety of environments for different sorts of sculptures with large and also intimate spaces and be readily identifiable, preferably with natural landscape bookends.  It has to be close to a major city to attract people as well as government and sponsors.  Secondly, the politics have to be right with an enthusiastic and receptive council and the mix of private and public funding.  Presently it costs somewhere between $2.3 and $2.4 million to hold such an exhibition.  Thirdly, and most importantly, there has to be a high quality core of sculptors in the area who are receptive to new exhibiting opportunities and who are welcoming of outsiders and whose community is not dominated by mediocre artists.”

Cottesloe has all of these qualities in spades.  Although understandably there was a focus on Western Australian sculptors with Lou Lambert, Geoffrey Drake-Brockman, Lorenna Grant, Tony Pankiw, Kevin Draper, Richie Kuhaupt, Nien Schwarz and Ron Gomboc all included in the inaugural 2005 exhibition, they were joined by a strong national and international contingent.  These included sculptors from Japan, China, Italy, Spain and Iceland, as well as the rest of Australia with prominent names such as Ron Robertson-Swann, Michael Le Grand, Keizo Ushio, Mitsuo Takeuchi, Simona De Lorenzo and Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir.  The following year, a number of other prominent local artists joined the exhibition, including George Haynes, Mark Grey-Smith and Philippa O’Brien.  Perhaps a fourth prerequisite for the success of the exhibition was for it to become so inscribed in the art calendar of the state that it would be inconceivable for artists, the broader public and the local economy for this exhibition not to occur annually.  

From 2005 to 2010 the exhibitions at Bondi appeared to follow a well established and successful formula.  Between 100 and 114 major installed sculptures appeared on the spectacular coastal walk from Bondi Beach to Tamarama for about eighteen days at the end of October and the first half of November.  A covered pavilion had a display of smaller sculptures, primarily by the sculptors who had been included in the outdoor exhibition.  About half a million people would come annually to see them and about $1M – $1.5M worth of sculptures would be sold.  Funding from the corporate sector, private donors and sales kept the show afloat. However, Arts NSW funding was still negligible and the Australia Council was prepared only to support when encouraged by the Minister for the Arts, and then only occasionally for part of the education or a commissions program, and never more than $50,000, which gave nothing towards the organisation of the exhibition or as support to participating artists.   

By 2007, thanks to a private donation for several years, for the first time each artist was guaranteed by the organisers at least $2,000 towards their costs, but many remained substantially out of pocket. Handley reflecting on his first decade at the helm noted, “Over the last 10 years Sculpture by the Sea has come to mean different things to different people: from those who love it (especially the children!); to artists whose careers it has launched; to artists who spend frustrating years trying to get in; to residents who throw parties to celebrate its annual return; to a few dozen or so who wish it would go away.  To me it has been a joy and an albatross around my neck … in doing so we have changed the way many Australians relate to sculpture, while providing a previously unheard platform for sculptors.”     

The exhibitions at Bondi have created a paradigm shift in the popular perception of sculpture in Australia.  Sculpture no longer appears as difficult and inaccessible, but as with the Archibald exhibition and portraiture, Bondi has made sculpture appear as something on which everyone can have an opinion – a friendly art form that anyone can admire, understand and even own. Although a core of sculptors have become regulars at the Sydney show and have even notched up ten or more appearances over the preceding 19 years of the exhibition to join the Decade Club, competition for a spot is tight with some 500 entries to be considered by expert curatorial panels each year. For example, in the 2010 exhibition there were 109 exhibitors of whom only eight belonged to the Decade Club – Ron Gomboc, Michael Le Grand, Phil Spelman, Geoff Harvey, Orest Keywan, Stephen King, Keizo Ushio and Vince Vozzo – while over 30 were newcomers to Bondi.  Also over this period a number of high profile sculptors were invited to exhibit, including such internationally renowned artists as Anthony Caro and Phillip King from England, Fletcher Benton, John Henry and Tim Prentice from the United States and Takehiro Terada and Zero Higashida from Japan.  The richly endowed Helen Lempriere Scholarships for Australian Sculptors, the Clitheroe Foundation Mentorships for emerging sculptors and the Balnaves Foundation Sculpture Prize followed by the Macquarie Group Sculpture Prize added to the gloss, glitter and substance of the exhibition.  Apart from the cultural shift, research was commissioned to determine the economic benefits of the show which demonstrated that it generated over $59 million for the New South Wales economy from interstate and overseas visitors coming to Sydney specifically for the exhibition each year.  Bondi has become an exhibition that has the rare ability to reinvent and regenerate itself annually, so that each year it surprises, startles and amuses its hundreds of thousands of fans.  

It is difficult to pinpoint cause and effect, but after about a decade of Sculpture by the Sea, there was a broad based revival of interest in sculpture in Australia.  The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra conducted its National Sculpture Prize in 2001, 2003 and 2005, while the McClelland Sculpture Survey and Award in Victoria commenced in 2003, attracting about 100,000 visitors during its seven months and carrying a prize purse of $100,000.  Four years later, in 2007, the Lorne Sculpture Biennale on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria commenced as well as a myriad of smaller outdoor sculpture exhibitions frequently of ephemeral duration.  It has become fashionable in Australia to hold sculpture exhibitions in natural settings, but this has not created a competitive environment and neither the Bondi nor Cottesloe shows have suffered or declined in popularity as a result.  Between 2000 and 2009, the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award at Werribee Park in Victoria became Australia’s most lucrative sculpture award with a total of $145,000 in prizes, but the organisational burden saw its trustees, Perpetual, transfer the funds from the Helen Lempriere Bequest to Sculpture by the Sea to establish the three annual $30,000 Helen Lempriere Scholarships.  The guiding philosophy at Bondi is always to keep the exhibition free, democratic and secular and while maintaining a high professional standard, it is not aligned to any particular school or aesthetic or conceptual orientation.    

In 2009, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, Sculpture by the Sea travelled to Europe and took root in Aarhus, the second city of Denmark.  Appropriately for the homeland of Hans Christian Andersen, what happened reads like a fairy tale.  His Royal Highness Crown Prince Frederik, having met and married his beautiful Australian bride Mary, returned to Denmark extolling the virtues of Bondi Beach and its amazing exhibition of sculpture.  The authorities in Aarhus were eager to please their Royal patron and in 2009, and with the assistance of David Handley, organised the inaugural exhibition.  The public response was huge with about 500,000 visitors in a city with an urban population of about quarter of a million and a bit more if you include the regional catchment area.  This guaranteed that it became a regular fixture in the Danish arts calendar.  There have been four biannual Sculpture by the Sea exhibitions held in Aarhus, each attracting about half a million visitors during their month-long display making it into Denmark’s largest visual arts exhibition, which is even more remarkable when we remember that the population of the whole country barely tops five million.  The Aarhus coastline is spectacular in a very un-Australian way, with dense Nordic forest and rocks and sand on the beach.  As in Australia, the exhibition in Denmark struggles to obtain central government funding and generally survives through a mixture of local government money, business donations and philanthropic funds, plus the enthusiasm of local volunteers.  In Aarhus, the chief sponsor is the local municipal Authority, Aarhus Kommune, plus a raft of other sponsors.  The overall budget is impressive, 15.5 million Danish krone, over $3 million Australian, which covers the operation and catalogue production, pays the freight for the work of all of the selected artists, the hefty site-specific installation costs as well as staffing for the month-long display.   

The operation is massive.  There are some 500 individual applications from prospective sculptors, plus about a score of invited participants.  From these, a five-person selection committee selects about 50 exhibitors.  With Royal patronage, from HRH Crown Prince Frederik and Australia’s Crown Princess Mary, the project has high profile backers and has certainly matured over the years into arguably the most important sculpture exhibition in Europe.  The fourth Sculpture by the Sea at Aarhus in 2015 had 56 sculptors from 24 countries and, as one could anticipate, was a much more Eurocentric affair than that in Australia.  The Danish experience is quite different in mood to either Sydney or Perth.  The light is very different, even in mid-summer it is muted and subdued, the forests are lush and evergreen, yet ordered and park-like, in contrast to the scruffy bushland in Australia, and the beach is sandy and rocky with the water quite a different shade of blue.  Also a much larger area is occupied by the sculptures than in Australia with each work having its own discrete space.  The Australian formula, adapted to Danish conditions, has proven to be exceptionally popular in this Scandinavian sanctuary.  Likewise more Danish artists seek to exhibit in the Australian exhibitions.    

Over the past five years the annual miraculous transformation of the coastal strips at Bondi and Cottesloe into sculpture parks has progressed with the predictability of a well-oiled and well-organised machine, but one that produces unexpected and spectacular results.  In 2011 the New South Wales State Government of Premier Barry O’Farrell pledged an annual grant of $300,000 a year for the next four years in recognition of this “cultural icon of our city”.  Although this amounted to only about 15% of the annual budget, it was the largest grant received from a government in the exhibition’s near two decades of existence and was sorely needed.   

Sculpture by the Sea has grown from a starry-eyed adolescent, which could make do with next to nothing and operate with a volunteer staff of friends and fellow travellers, to a team of more than a dozen full-time professional staff running a world-class exhibition.  The catalogue has become a glossy hundred page publication, complete with a foldout site map and entries on each artist with colour photographs of their work.  The curatorial panels, who consider the vast field of entries to establish the list of invited finalists, have been composed of prominent curators, gallery directors, artists and art academics, while amongst the Award judges, who decide on the various annual awards, scholarships and mentorships that now mount up to about $300,000 nationally, the artist’s voice has remained strong and prominent.  The trick has been to retain the earlier infectious enthusiasm and experimental boldness, but to do this in a very professional, efficient and transparent manner that is appropriate for a multimillion dollar operation.   

It may be inaccurate to speak of a Sculpture by the Sea family of sculptors, after all over 1,000 different artists have exhibited at Bondi, over 370 at Cottesloe and almost 200 at Aarhus, while the Decade Club at Bondi and Cottesloe combined barely tops twenty.  However, a network has been established and a number of sculptors now slip freely between all three exhibitions.  It is a discourse that is both national and international.  For the first few years Cottesloe was carefully controlled to foster sculpture in the West with the exhibition open to Western Australian artists and to other artists nationally and internationally only through invitation.  In 2011 all restrictions were removed and artists could, and did, apply from anywhere around the world.  That year at Cottesloe there were 76 exhibitors, the exhibition lasted eighteen days and attracted 215,000 visitors.  The invited artists included Sir Anthony Caro OM from England, Chen Wenling from China and Tony Jones OAM from Western Australia.  As at Bondi, the exhibition was a hit with local politicians and Premier Colin Barnett wrote, “For more than a decade, this iconic beach has hosted one of Western Australia’s favourite exhibitions, Sculpture by the Sea.  Over that time, more than a million people have flocked to Cottesloe to experience this unique exhibition which has involved more than 350 artists from around the globe and more than 600 artworks.” 

The independent and unaligned nature of the exhibition, whether on the shores of the Pacific or the Indian Ocean, has meant that the Australian voice has not been drowned out by some imported orthodoxy from abroad.  International artists, who have received a particularly warm welcome at the Australian exhibitions in recent years have included Keizo Ushio, Haruyuki Uchida, Kozo Nishino and Hiroaki Nakayama from Japan, Sui Jianguo, Qian Sihua, Wang Shugang and Chen Wenling from China, Jörg Plickat from Germany, Peter Lundberg from the USA, Silvia Tuccimei from Italy, David Černý and Vaclav Fiala from the Czech Republic, Phil Price and Virginia King from New Zealand, Keld Moseholm from Denmark, as well as Caro, King and Sean Henry from England.  Australian based sculptors who have come to prominence at these exhibitions have included David Horton, Lucy Humphrey, Sean Cordiero, Claire Healy, Alex Seton, Jock Clutterbuck, Stephen King, James Rogers, Linda Bowden, Geoff Harvey, Michael Le Grand, Kevin Draper, Orest Keywan, as well as the veterans Lou Lambert, Bert Flugelman AM, Inge King AM, Fiona Hall, Paul Selwood, Guy Warren AM, Ron Robertson-Swann OAM, Anne Ferguson, May Barry, Tony Jones OAM, Robert Juniper AM and the unforgettable Ken Unsworth AM.   

In 20 years Sculpture by the Sea has achieved more than anyone would have realistically thought possible.  It has not only transformed the popular discourse on sculpture in Australia, but has given the art of sculpture, in all of its fabulous diversity and fecundity, a new, vigorous and popular existence.  When looking at the spectacular setting sun over the Indian Ocean or the whales and dolphins dancing on the waves at Bondi or partaking of the mystical shade of the Danish coast and to be everywhere surrounded by challenging and beautiful sculpture, it is humbling to remember that Sculpture by the Sea was a dream by one man, who 20 years ago wanted to introduce some magic into the world to make it into a better place.   

Essay by Emeritus Professor Sasha Grishin AM, FAHA, Australian National University from the book ‘Sculpture by the Sea, The First Twenty Years, 1997-2016’ 

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