Handley says organisers will meet with Waverley Council and state government next week to work through contingency plans around the 2020 event, such as moving it to April if Sydney suddenly experiences a Melbourne-like spike in COVID cases.
The discussions come as the exhibition announced over 100 artists have been selected for this year’s show, with more than 30 per cent of those exhibiting at Sculpture by the Sea for the first time. Organisers say over 400 artists from 24 countries including Kazakhstan, India and Ecuador applied for this year’s show.
Handley says the enthusiastic response from artists convinced organisers a 2020 instalment was worth pursuing, despite the uncertain logistics.
“We actually gave artists the option back in February to apply with previous works, on the basis that may be how we had to make up the show. But artists being artists, almost all of them wanted to make a new work. We’ll have less than a handful of previous works in the show,” he says.
The COVID shutdown has played havoc with Sculpture by the Sea’s operations. Handley says the biggest challenge has been urging sponsors and donors to stay onside while planning for a show they’re still unsure will be allowed to go ahead.
“It’s been, ‘Please continue to pay us for a show that may or may not happen, because if you don’t we’ll have to close now!'” says Handley. “With some sponsors those discussions are still happening, but we’ve managed to squeeze through twice, cashflow-wise, by the skin of our teeth.”
He says the organisation was forced to make one redundancy and reduce hours for half a dozen staff, and that JobKeeper has been “fundamental” to the organisation’s survival.
“Show me an arts organisation that’s doing well, and I’ll show you they’re probably more a business. This is what we’re all going through,” says Handley. “It’s been lots of dancing on the spot.”
The show’s artists have faced similar challenges.
After his job in playground design was put on hold as the pandemic took hold, Joel Adler – whose Instagram-favourite Viewfinder won the Artist’s Pick, People’s Choice and Kids’ Choice prizes last year in his first exhibit at Sculpture by the Sea – moved back into his parents’ home in North Bondi where he’s converted their garage into a makeshift studio.
“It’s basically just a garage full of crap and then there’s my little area where I can make models and 3D printing, and that’s where I came up with the idea for this year’s sculpture,” says Adler, 26. His “ambitious” project for this year’s show includes four sculptures with 56 mirror chambers each that reflect the view at different angles to create a pixelated image of the location.
He says he’s confident the festival – in terms of being held outdoors and the efforts by both organisers and artists to ensure it’s safely socially-distanced – will go ahead in October. He says it’s also necessary.
“I think having all the galleries closed, having so many other modes of entertainment closed, it’s given everyone a new appreciation for those things,” says Adler. “Having the opportunity to bring new work into the world at this time is exciting; you can add to that creativity and the hope that’s out there to get things moving again.”
Handley also says hope will be the underlying theme of this year’s exhibition. “Hope that the show goes ahead, but also a symbol of hope for everyone that we have a more normal future ahead of us.”
The return of Sculpture by the Sea to Bondi in 2020 follows a public spat with Waverley Council last year that had threatened to see the event move to Manly.
“I’m still getting therapy,” laughs Handley over the row which played out in media headlines. “The new mayor [Paula Masselos] has been fantastic to work with, and that changed the whole dialogue back to what it had always been. We’re in a happy space again.”
Robert Moran is a culture reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age