A decade after its first Cottesloe show, Sculpture by the Sea has become as much a part of Perth summertime as snags on the barbie, generating wonder and excitement in audiences, and turning Perth into a major focal point for the global artistic community.
When Sydney law firm Allens – the sponsors of Sculpture by the Sea – invited the exhibition’s founder David Handley to set up a second annual event outside NSW, the choice of two locations was offered to him: Brisbane or Perth. Fortunately for 10 years of visiting art lovers, David decided to take his iconic coastal showcase to the west.
“I knew that Cottesloe beach would be a good site,” he says, “and I loved the idea of a transnational series of exhibitions, from sunrise in Sydney to sunset in Perth, Pacific Ocean to Indian Ocean, literally spanning the country.”
Since the first Cottesloe exhibition in 2005, visitor numbers have swelled enormously, with 200,000 people flocking to this year’s 10th anniversary display of Australian and international creations – an enormous increase on the 25,000 who turned up to the inaugural event.
“All people’ve got to do is either walk down a hill or get public transport, and it costs them next to nothing to see,” says David of the show, which has also doubled in duration since its inception, running for 18 days instead of just nine.
For him, the exhibition exudes a sense of wonderment, excitement and enjoyment, something that he sees reflected in the streams of WA schoolchildren who attend the show annually.
“We have 2500 students come through our ALCOA schools’ education program each year,” he says. “ALCOA sponsored it from year one, and you never know how that’s going to benefit WA in the future.”
One noticeable benefit has been a newfound public respect for the works and what they represent: exposing children to different art forms at an early age, says David, has the potential to change their perceptions of exhibitions in later life.
“We couldn’t have had the same show we staged this year four or five years ago in Perth,” he explains. “For example, the 8000 flags on Cottesloe beach (Carl Billingsley’s Red Center) – 10 years ago, the larrikins would have run amok with that at night. That didn’t happen this year, it was respected.
“I think that part of that is just simply because people understand that this is something to respect. Today’s 18-year-olds are yesterday’s eight-year-olds; they loved the show as eight-year-olds, so they’re going to respect it.”
Unfortunately vandalism wasn’t entirely unavoidable this year, with WA artist Mikaela Casteldine’s The Gift of the Rhinoceros squashed, thanks to a spectator. “We worked for about 18 hours to repair it and had it back on the beach in about 36 hours,” Mikaela says.
Despite being annoyed that she had to do further work on her piece, Mikaela isn’t as enraged as most would think. “Many people were keen for me to be devastated and distraught rather than sanguine and philosophical,” she says, “but really the damage to, and subsequent repair of my work was simply part of the process of art.
“One of the things you accept about a public exhibition like Sculpture by the Sea is the public. Damage to the work is an inherent risk that we are all aware of.”
It’s a risk the artist and many others are willing to take to help bridge the gap between the art world and the public – and in return, the 70 or so artists involved in the event each year get to exhibit their large-scale works at a major international show.
“Those shows are very few and far between around the world, and as far as I’m aware, the three Sculpture by the Sea exhibitions in Sydney, Perth and Denmark, are the largest three sculpture exhibitions held every year or two years around the world,” David says.
“Then there’s the national and international networking opportunities for the artists, which exist on the individual level – artist to artist. Sometimes the artists end up collaborating between themselves, most noticeably Ron Gomboc and Keizo Ushio from Japan. They’ve done a West Australian symposium twice in Japan, and we had nothing to do with that.”
The reach of the show has even extended to Europe, with the newest of the three Sculpture by the Sea events – which has taken place in Denmark every second year since 2009 – the result of a very royal invitation.
“The invitation came through Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary,” says David. “One of their first dates was at Sculpture by the Sea in Sydney, after the Sydney Olympics in the year 2000.”
“The exhibition’s not in the main city in Denmark, it’s in Aarhus, which is the second main city in Denmark, so I suppose it’s a little bit like having the show in Perth.”
And with Aarhus being named the European Capital of Culture in the year 2017, the Sculpture by the Sea that’s scheduled to coincide could prove to be one of the leading arts and cultural events in Europe.
For all the success and international recognition, however, it hasn’t been easy, running two free shows in Sydney and Perth, not to mention the third in Denmark.
“In 2012 and 2013, we made losses in Perth,” David says. “We only knew that we were going to make budget in Cottesloe for this year about halfway through the exhibition.”
Even then, the exhibition only reached the break-even mark thanks to securing principal sponsors Hancock Prospecting and Roy Hill at the last minute. Without them, David remarks, next year’s show would have been in major jeopardy. The eleventh-hour injection of funds prevented a loss of a quarter of a million dollars, but even then, the overall budget barely covered the necessities of the artists, which included installation, freight and contribution costs.
Behind the scenes, the Sculpture by the Sea team spends most of the year trying to raise enough funds to support the show. But despite all the hassle, David says, it’s still worth it. “In many ways it’s best encapsulated with the first face of a stranger that I see beaming at the sculptures.”
And with the show held in such a high regard across the world, David assures us that we’re nowhere near seeing the end of this sculpture extravaganza: “Who knows where we might be next…”