The first “Sculpture on the Gulf” outdoor sculpture exhibition took place in February 2003 and was based on the exhibition model of Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi in Sydney. It was the brainchild of a group of Waiheke Islanders with an interest in outdoor sculpture and the desire to do something for the Waiheke community and was developed in friendly co-operation with David Handley, founder of Sculpture by the Sea. They included Jackie O’Brien (then Director of the Waiheke Community Art Gallery) and those known as “the founding benefactors” – Ruth Foreman, Sue Fisher and John and Jo Gow.
Over the years many others have contributed; local individuals and businesses in particular have been very generous with their time, goodwill and expertise.
Right from the start the aim of the exhibition on the Matiatia coastal walkway was to be the very best outdoor sculpture exhibition in New Zealand. Works were to be new, not seen anywhere else, “unexpected, daring and original” and responding to, and complementing the unique and spectacular location.
That first exhibition lasted only two weeks and attracted some 12,000 visitors. It was a nerve-wracking process for all involved; there were major constraints of time and money, and those involved seriously considered abandoning the project. In the end, it turned out to be a triumph.
The public, many of whom had never experienced outdoor sculpture in that way, loved their day out on Waiheke, while many of the artists involved saw their careers take off after the exposure, and sales were good even at this inaugural event.
In line with the remit to be “unexpected, daring and original”, the selection of artists has often been controversial. Nevertheless, some names reappear over the years, as stalwarts of the exhibition, and others have tried for selection over several years before making it onto the list. The 2003 event saw both a “People’s Choice” and a “Premier” award; at the request of the artists the Premier award was discontinued for 2005 and a financial contribution to each artist made instead.
By 2009 the event took place over three, not two weeks, and included a school’s programme. The focus on artistic education has strengthened over the years, with the introduction of talks by the artists and guided walks by trained volunteers.
Up to and including the 2011 event Sculpture on the Gulf was managed by a sub-committee of the Waiheke Community Art Gallery; in 2011 a limited liability company owned by WCAG but with its own Board of Directors was created to run what had become a challenging and complex project.
The new Board instituted a number of changes, including reversing the direction of the walkway, which made it an easier walk, and erecting a pavilion on the Matiatia foreshore where visitors could relax before catching a ferry back to Auckland. A gallery in the pavilion show-cased maquettes and small works by both the selected artists and other invited artists.
Following a review of the 2015 event, the Board set a strategic direction for Sculpture on the Gulf, which reaffirmed the ‘new contemporary art’ focus of its biennial sculpture exhibition, but with an expanded long-term ambition to make Waiheke a ‘Sculpture Island’.