In 1993, while living in Prague, David Handley began exploring ideas for a large-scale, outdoor, free-to-the-public art project in Sydney. On a trip to an outdoor sculpture exhibition set in the grounds of a 13th-century castle at Klenová near Klatovy, he was struck by the idea of doing something similar back home in Australia. Four years later, with a tiny budget and the help of a few volunteers, Handley realised this vision and pulled off a one-day exhibition of 64 sculptures that attracted 25,000 visitors.
That exhibition was the beginning of Sculpture by the Sea, now the world’s largest annual free-to-the-public outdoor sculpture exhibition. Over the course of 18 days in October-November every year, two kilometres (1.2 miles) of Sydney’s famous Bondi-to-Coogee coastal walk are transformed into a showcase of sculptures from local and international artists. Culture Trip spoke to Handley and Sydney artist Joel Adler, winner of the exhibition’s 2019 People’s Choice and Kids’ Choice Prizes for his Viewfinder piece, about why Sculpture by the Sea is a must-visit exhibition.
To exhibit a piece of work at Sculpture by the Sea is a tough gig. “Each year, around 450 artists from all over the world submit proposals, from which 100 are selected by a curatorial panel of esteemed sculptors, academics and curators,” Handley explains.
“There is never a theme to Sculpture by the Sea, the artists are free to create what they want. Each year artists are able to transform the Bondi coastal walk in very different ways, always keeping the show fresh, but fitting into the awe-inspiring natural landscape. As curators, it’s up to us to lay out the show in a way that allows each sculpture its own space while creating a journey of discovery for visitors.”
But if you do manage to get a spot, it’s a real career highlight. “It’s always been a dream of mine to exhibit at Sculpture by the Sea,” says Joel Adler. “There’s something about showing work to a public audience that really raises the stakes as an artist. It has been a very special experience for me. The community of artists and locals that gets behind the exhibition every year has been very welcoming to me as a young artist.”
The exhibition is not just limited to local artists; all corners of the globe have been represented over the years, and it’s always a mix of well-known and emerging names. Previous participants have included international collective Cave Urban, Chinese artist Wang Kaifang and New Zealander Morgan Jones. In 2019, Handley’s Prague beginnings came full circle with a showcase of ten acclaimed Czech and Slovak artists in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
Sculpture by the Sea has been going since 1997 – and shows no sign of stopping. “I think people love to be inspired and to see and experience new things – the artists bring such a diverse range of ideas to the exhibition each year,” says Handley. “Many of our visitors would not frequent art galleries, but they come to Sculpture by the Sea to experience art in a setting that is more accessible. They can enjoy everything Sydney has to offer – the beach, the beautiful natural environment – while exploring art and discovering new things.”
It’s an exhibition that’s recognised on the world stage, too. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to expand Sculpture by the Sea and its spirit to a number of other locations around the world,” says Handley. “Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe, takes place on the famous white sands of Cottesloe Beach in Perth in March every year, and we’ve previously held three exhibitions in Aarhus in Denmark, supported by exhibition patrons Frederik, Crown Prince of Denmark and Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark, who had one of their first dates at Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi in 2000. We’ve also launched Sculpture Encounters – Granite Island, a permanent sculpture trail for the people of Victor Harbor and South Australia and their visitors.”
For Sydney beaches, it doesn’t get much more iconic than Bondi and the smaller pockets surrounding it. For Joel, “it’s all about this incredible location. Viewfinder, my work this year, was a reaction to the environment. I see Viewfinder as a reminder not to take our natural environment for granted. This rings true for the whole exhibition. The Sculpture by the Sea team understands deeply that the importance of the natural setting and how it makes the exhibition so unique. It’s a delicate balance. To be able to exhibit your work in an open-air, panoramic and almost undisturbed setting is rare.”
Sculpture by the Sea is a free exhibition that takes place on the accessible coastal walk, so no tickets are required and there’s no official ‘entry point’. The best way to experience it is to start at the bottom of Notts Avenue near the main strip of Bondi Campbell Parade, and follow the path of the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk all the way to Tamarama Beach (or start at Tamarama and walk to Bondi). With almost 500,000 people in attendance, it gets busy, so do like the locals and head there for sunrise or sunset to beat the crowds.