Sculpture by the Sea is back at Cottesloe after COVID-19 forced its early exit in 2020 – and organisers vow to stand their ground despite the shifting sands of funding uncertainty, discovers Jaimi Wright.
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Held annually in Bondi since 1997 and Cottesloe since 2005, Sculpture by the Sea, the much-loved annual outdoor exhibition, feels like an institution in its two home cities.
In its 17th year on the terraces and sands of Cottesloe, Sculpture by the Sea (SxS) founding director David Handley says ongoing public support will make or break the world-renowned event.
SxS Cottesloe closed four days early last March as COVID-19 shut down Perth – cutting estimated attendances of 200,000 down to just to 80,000 and reducing revenue from sales and on-site donations. It was a harbinger of the financial precariousness that the wider arts sector would experience over the next 12 months.
Despite this and the postponement of SxS Bondi 2020 until later this year, Handley was optimistic about the Cottesloe exhibition after Perth’s recent five-day lockdown.
“The possibility of an outbreak in WA is something that we will have to take in our stride,” Handley said of the event which opened on Friday and runs until March 22.
“We have developed a COVID event plan that is primarily focused on having many QR registrations, COVID marshals encouraging people to register, and the constant cleaning of surfaces,” he said. “But it is also important to keep in mind whilst we have large numbers of visitors, we don’t have large numbers at any one moment. They’re spread out over 18 days, and we anticipate that to continue to be the case.”
Handley said the return of Sculpture by the Sea Cottesloe had been driven by the passion and resilience of the exhibition’s crew and artists hit hard by the pandemic. The site manager and exhibition coordinator both quarantined in Perth prior to the exhibition’s start and many interstate and international artists had to install their work by remote control. “Our international artists are finding it strange as they can’t fly over, which some have been doing for 16 years, but it is what it is.”
But Handley said the biggest battle was a financial one for the sustainability of the not-for-profit organisation, which runs its Cottesloe exhibition with an annual budget of about $2 million.
In addition, participating artists collectively spend $1.26 million to create and transport their artworks to the Cottesloe site this year. In comparison, SxS has raised $267,000 from sponsors and donors towards artists awards and subsidies. The rest artists will be seeking to claw back into the black through sales to collectors.
Two of the SxS Cottesloe artist awards were announced at the opening of the event on Friday, with Jarrod Taylor awarded the WA Sculptor Scholarship of $10,000, donated by Gavin Bunning AM & Julienne Penny, for his work Structural Wave (pictured above) and Gwilym Faulkner awarded the newly created WA Emerging Sculptor Scholarship of $15,000, funded by Ian Hicks and Susie Grant through the George Hicks Foundation, his work, Yang-Yin, two 3m-tall structures made from aluminium and rope. A new major award, The Sculpture by the Sea, Cottesloe Artist Award of $30,000, funded by Minderoo Foundation, will be announced during the first week of the exhibition.
The event’s supporters include Alcoa, the Bendat Family Foundation and the State Government through Tourism Western Australia, which has renewed its long-term sponsorship for the next three years.
A State Government spokesperson said discussions were underway between the event organisers and government agencies for further funding support for next year’s Sculpture by the Sea.
“Shortly after being elected in 2017, the McGowan Government secured another three years of taxpayer funding support for Sculpture by the Sea,” the spokesperson said. “Extra financial support was provided in 2019 when a commercial sponsor withdrew its funding at relatively short notice.
“In recent years, taxpayers have provided millions of dollars of support for the event, which like many large-scale events, also needs to attract corporate sponsorship to meet its funding requirements.
“Premier Mark McGowan has always been clear about the need for local governments and corporate sponsors to make Sculpture by the Sea financially viable.”
But organisers are reeling from the loss of $250,000 of annual funding from the Australia Council, of which $100,000 went to subsidise costs of the artists at Cottesloe.
Last year, Sculpture by the Sea made a public appeal for people to make a $5 donation when they visited the exhibition. Almost $96,000 was raised, which was matched dollar-for-dollar by the Minderoo Foundation to a total of nearly $192,000.
Handley said generous donations from the public were helping keep Sculpture by the Sea Cottesloe afloat.
“The public has been so good with how they responded last year,” he said. “People just donated so freely and so willingly it was so humbling and exciting. The idea that we’re chasing is to improve the financial future of the exhibition and financial support for the artists.”
This year, Sculpture by the Sea is again asking visitors for a $5 donation to help offset the artists’ installation budget and the costs of staging the event.
Fremantle artist Kate Hulett is one of 34 participating WA artists and she said Sculpture by the Sea artists already had been facing instability even before the pandemic began. She called for further government support to cultural projects.
“It’s always a battle,” Hulett said. “I also work for the Fremantle Biennale and of course, like every arts organisation, you’re constantly with your cap in hand looking for money from wherever the money is available. I think it’s completely upside down that it’s not funded well and you’re always begging from month-to-month and year-to-year, whatever that grant cycle is.”
Handley and Hulett said “people power” was needed to support artists and ensure Sculpture by the Sea continued.
“People always get caught in those conversations like, ‘they (the government) should do something about this’,” Hulett said. “I justify that you and I are also ‘they’. We have to remember the power in where we spend our money, where we go and have our coffee, what exhibitions we go and see.”
Pictured top is Tuinna Blackie’s ‘The Boab’ at Sculpture by the Sea Cottesloe, 2021. Photo: Richard Watson
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