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Sculpture by the Sea, David Handley’s sea change

Sculpture by the Sea, David Handley’s sea change

From lawyer to art director of a famous exhibition; Sculpture by the Sea, David Handley explains what it takes to build an export business where the customers come to the product.

Despite his impressive resume, David Handley needed a change. And in his pursuit to export Sculpture by the Sea, he may have invented the term ‘sea change’.

A few years in Prague had fostered his creative nature, and he’d discovered a desire to run his own business. He didn’t know what this business was going to be, but he knew it was going to be fun and would only involve exporting from Australia, not importing. “All along I had this idea that I was going to do a major, community, free-to-the-public event. But I didn’t know what that would be.”

While the role of director of one of Sydney’s most famous exhibitions may seem like a huge stretch from life as a lawyer, it’s not as big a jump as it might seem considering some of his other previous work experience. After working in New Zealand’s film industry, he decided he wanted to be a producer. “And,” he adds, “twenty percent of what I do now, as a producer, is being a lawyer.” The rest of the role is carved up into 20 percent financial (which he admits is his weakest area), 20 percent marketing, 20 percent networking, and 20 percent artistic.

Returning to Australia, he had the idea to put on a one-day event overlooking Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach. “I just had a gut feeling that was right,” he says of the decision to run the first exhibition. “The media got behind it and artists jumped at it.”

Without much experience with ‘art’, the initial exhibition was a learning experience for Handley, but not one he found hard. Anything he didn’t know, he says, he’d ask. “Which is rule one as a producer; you need to know your limitations.”

He admits the first event was driven by a lot of luck and timing (“the planets were all in alignment to make this work!”). Sydney Water, founding sponsor and major partner, was looking to flaunt its role in cleaning up the much-ridiculed pollution in Bondi Beach, and it was also at a time before public liability insurance had become such a major issue.

Despite the obvious success of the event now, and the sister even held in March in Cottesloe, Western Australia, not everything’s been rosy. It takes a lot of perseverance and all his savvy to get enough sponsors on board, and as the staff levels grew with the business, so did the strain on the bottom line.

In fact, it wasn’t until a new accounts manager was appointed in 2000 that Handley realised how close the business came to imploding under the weight of the paper work. “That was more good luck than good management.” Turning things around, Handley passed control of these areas to experienced handlers, and is now aware of his exact situation at all times.

The last two years saw exponential growth, with staff needing to become more independent as Handley relinquished control of some areas to those with the right skills. It was a move that came in the nick of time, and one he attributes to his own need to get things done right. “It’s not that I’m controlling, but I’ve put 10 years of my life into this exhibition.”

These days, careful review and planning makes up for most of his day-to-day role, including budgeting (Sculpture by the Sea now flies in senior artists), developing marketing and PR plans, as well as strategies to increase sales and growth, such as the new calendar and education program.

Handley credits his staff with facilitating growth in the business, and in turn the staff numbers increased. After starting with only volunteers in the early years, there are now eight full-time and five permanent part-time employees. He also makes sure he fosters career growth, whether in the company or in helping to find new roles outside the business, because there are few jobs in the Arts.

And in a not-for-profit organisation, relationships are key to continue to fund the business. While Handley personally underwrites growth in the business, he knows this has to change—”for obvious reasons”—and is planning to establish a capital fund to ride the peaks an troughs of the business. Fostering relationships with sponsors and local and federal government bodies is vital (only seven percent of overall funding comes from the government), as are private donations, which have also skyrocketed in recent years. Handley attributes this to the growing public awareness of the exhibitions, which, without formal advertising, is linked to focused marketing and public relations exercises.

Driven by what he terms “social entrepreneurship”, Handley’s main aim was to create an exhibition that was free for the audience, and a business that wasn’t driven by the bottom line. “So much of the exhibition was geared around the social ideals that I had as a late teen, early twenties guy. So the art form wasn’t driven by the need to get bums on seats, and where I was producing an event where there was no need to advertise.” These ideals, he adds in hindsight, were unrealistic and naive. “I very quickly came to realise PR and the media were fundamental to the success of Sculpture by the Sea.”

He was also wary of growing quickly, and having the event lose its roots and ideals, but knew the success of the exhibition meant getting money into the artists’ pockets. “So personally I went through quite a challenge, because suddenly we were selling a lot of sculpture, and I thought ‘This isn’t meant to happen!’ Of course, if we weren’t doing that, the whole thing would have come down like a pack of cards.”

He had hoped the popularity of the exhibition would drive funding from arts bodies, but to date, this hasn’t happened, so Handley had to shut out his ideals and appeal to the marketplace. Then, three years ago, he signed the rights to the company from his own company to a not-for-profit company, and did so for gratis. The visual arts environment, he says, is set up to be run by non-profit companies. So to get funding support from philanthropic foundations and government arts bodies, he had to run the company as a non-profit entity. “In doing so, private donations have jumped hugely, from about $36,000 in the last year, when people didn’t get tax deductions, to around $180,000 this year.” Although happy with this increase, he admits there’s still a lot of work to be done in this area.

In the most recent figures for 2005, some 500,000 people are estimated to have visited Bondi for the exhibition, and Handley’s economic impact results for 2004 point to around $40 million being brought to the local economy. Almost all visitors are tourists, and with the majority of these coming from overseas it seems he got his wish to build an export business.

In its anniversary year, 2006, 120 artists exhibited 108 works, 24 of which were international, and Handley estimates 2.3 million visitors have come along to the exhibition over the past 10 years.

Although planning for the events are all-year projects, Handley admits it can be a struggle dealing with the ‘seasonal’ aspects of the events. Planning is key to insure against these problems, and there are strategies to ensure staff and suppliers are paid on time. For starters, he tries to make arrangements with sponsors to stagger payments throughout the year. Regular receipt of private donations also makes things easier. “The thing is to know when cash flow ‘nightmare’ times are, and try to gear income to then.”

Also, after adding the Cottesloe exhibition to the mix, it meant they weren’t relying on one cash flow peak. The choice of location was key, and thanks to the state’s mining boom, the second year of the West Australian event out-sold the second-last Bondi event, with only half the number of sculptures. And sponsors were much quicker to get on board with this offering, because there was a proven track record.

Although National Australia Bank have just signed on for three years, and Sydney Water have been involved since day one, but it hasn’t always been easy getting sponsors on board. Each has different reasons for getting involved, Handley explains. One of the biggest drivers, for example, is that the event creates unique corporate hospitality opportunities. There are also added-value opportunities, such as with Kodak, who have photo booths set up at the site to print photos on the spot.

On top of pressure to get sponsors on board, sculptors to exhibit, and people to visit, there is the pressure from the weather. “A wet weekend day will cost us between $15,000 to $20,000.” Even the event of bad weather has to be budgeted for.

Much of the money earned from the event comes from the sculpture and catalogue sales, but Handley recognises this needs to be “icing on the cake, not the whole cake”, so planning for future events has taken a more strategic approach. This is another reason for the successful growth of the business, as he and the team review processes and plan for other ways to more creatively run the business and manage funding.

Because he is involved so hands-on, Handley admits one of the business’s biggest risks is that of him burning out. So he makes sure to turn his focus to other projects as a sideline. He now organises fundraising ocean swim events in Fiji, attracting former Olympians like Shane Gould, to raise awareness and help prevent the high rate of accidental drownings there.

And while this extra role may seem to be yet another step away from his legal training, he is still utilising the same skills, as well as learning new ones along the way. Like most entrepreneurs, Handley isn’t afraid of taking on new challenges, and encourages others to do the same: “If you have money and an idea, it’s a piece of cake!”


Tips For Success

What you can learn from David Handley:

Protect your upsides and downsides.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Think beyond the obvious.

Let staff go if it’s not working out, quickly.

Don’t avoid problems—make a point of acknowledging them and address them as soon as possible.

Don’t fight unless you’re really in the right. “Sometimes it’s just not worth the fight, but at the same time, you can’t be a chump.”

And if you deal with sponsors:

Come to the table with what they want. “What we offer Sydney Water, for example, changes every year.”

Work out what your demographic can offer sponsors.

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