John Kaldor AO arrived in Sydney in the post-war years, his family on the move from Eastern Europe having survived war and invasion. Successful in the fabric industry, Kaldor first began to collect art and then in the late 1960s to commission public art. Kaldor first established a sponsorship for Australian artists to travel overseas, but from 1969 he reversed this, bringing in international artists to perform and make art here.
The first big project, Project #1, was Christo and Jean Claude’s Wrapped Coast. The New York based Bulgarian and French artist couple were already internationally well known for their wrapped projects, wrapping store fronts and other objects as public art, but Wrapped Coast was by far their largest project to date. Over a period of two months, with the assistance of engineers, volunteers, art students and others, they wrapped a 2.4km section of Little Bay in Sydney with 92,900m2 of fabric and 56km of rope. The fabric and rope came from factories in Alexandria, then Sydney’s industrial heartland.
Three years before the opening of the Opera House, and in a deeply conservative city, Wrapped Coast was a turning point for public art in Sydney. Many, without seeing it, thought it a terrible waste of money and pointless project. Hard to understand from a distance, those who were drawn in to see it, on the whole fell in love with the whimsy. Kaldor himself saw it as the start of a lifetime of support for public art.
Jump forward 26 years to 1995 and Jeff Koons' Puppy (#10) saw a 12.4m high puppy dog, sitting patiently in the forecourt of the Museum of Contemporary Art at Circular Quay. Covered in flowers, all primed to bloom together, the piece was a risk for the newly opened MCA, which had struggled to capture the attention of the Sydney public. Puppy changed all that. Although it scampered away after four months, Puppy captured Sydney’s heart and settled the MCA in the forefront of contemporary art in Australia.
Michael Landy’s Act of Kindness (#24) and Marina Abramovic In Residence (#30) were among the blockbuster projects. In 2016, Jonathon Jones presented the powerful barrangal dyara (skin and bones) (#32) in the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Jones took the site as his inspiration, recreating the Garden Palace, destroyed by fire in 1882. Jones explored the loss of the contents of the palace, much of which consisted of Aboriginal cultural artefacts, weapons, canoes, shields and artworks collected or taken by European’s since 1788. All was lost in the fire, incinerating a cultural collection that could never be recreated. Jones used ceramic shields, in the form of traditional shields from eastern Australia, the peoples who took the brunt of the first contacts, to outline the palace footprint on the lawn of the RBG.
For many contemporary artists, fifty years represents a lifetime. Kaldor has done the hard work of pushing bureaucrats, government departments and the public creating the space required for artists to show what is possible. Thanks to Kaldor, these projects have together transformed Sydney’s eye for art.
A retrospective of Kaldor Public Art Projects is currently on at the Art Gallery of NSW with the exhibition Making art public: 50 years of Kaldor Public Art Projects, curated by artist Michael Landy, as well as a series of talks, films and other events.
Head to the Kaldor Public Art Projects website to check out all the anniversary events and for further information about the history of all of the projects: http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/
Mark Dunn is the Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!
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