The Les Sculptures Refusées exhibition, featuring 40 professional artists and scheduled to take place from 14 October to 12 November around the historic North Head Quarantine Station (Q Station), has been called off at the last minute.
Exhibitors have had to cancel flight and accommodation bookings and take on other expenses to deal with the disruption caused by the unexpected annulment.
Ministers Zali Steggall and James Griffin also expressed their disappointment (see below).
The ban is attributed to a new prohibition enacted by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) to protect endangered bandicoots. However, event organisers say they followed environmental protocols in submitting their proposal.
Part of their remit includes protection of ecosystems and habitat that is home to threatened native species.
The annual open-air Les Sculptures Refusées exhibition showcases three-dimensional artworks that didn’t make the final selection of the better-known and longer-running Sculptures by the Sea, which takes place along the Bondi to Tamarama seafront during October-November every year.
2023 would have been the fourth year of the Les Sculptures Refusées exhibition. In previous years the sculptures were displayed on the grass fields surrounding the Heritage-listed Quarantine Station accommodation buildings, where the mainly nocturnal bandicoots are known to forage.
The coordinators of the Les Sculptures Refusées claimed the ban on their opening the exhibition this year appears to be centred on a recent change in the site map for bandicoot foraging on North Head.
Although they deal directly with Q Station, who in turn communicate on their behalf with NPWS, the exhibition organisers insisted they followed the 2020-21 North Head Eco Health Report guidelines by providing detailed maps of where the sculptures were to be installed.
They revealed they haven’t been made aware of any modifications to the stipulations concerning environmental awareness for events taking place on North Head.
Exhibition co-founder Tania McMurtry and Curator Tamsin Salehian told Manly Observer that last year’s free exhibition, which included 30 individual artworks displayed along a sculpture trail (profiled here in Manly Observer), was a success.
They asserted there were no reports of disturbance to bandicoots or other native fauna on North Head and added that bandicoots were seen jumping on and playing around the sculptures at night after visitors departed.
Tamsin told Manly Observer, “It’s not an intensive show, it’s a very low-impact family-friendly show. We’re very mindful of that, which is why we hold it over a longer period of four weeks and five weekends, to minimise the number of people on site at any one time; to minimise the impact on the environment and the wildlife; and to maximise the experience of the artworks on site to allow people to explore site in their own time and to understand the ecology and the history as well as the cultural importance of the works themselves.”
Tania revealed her disappointment over the sudden cancellation.
“We’re two weeks out from the opening night. We are three days out from installation period, starting on Monday [2 October]. And we heard yesterday morning [28 September], that the site map has changed for bandicoot foraging and all grass areas of Q Station are now deemed bandicoot foraging areas, which means no sculptures on the grass at all.
“Which means our show can’t happen, in any situation!”
Tamsin added, “We’ve asked National Parks if we could meet with them to move any works that are on particularly sensitive sites so that they can find new sites for those works within Q Station for us. And work with them.”
Tania continued, “We’re prepared to have a dialogue with National Parks. But we haven’t yet heard back from them.”
National Parks and Wildlife response
Manly Observer asked NPWS: “While it is a fair request to avoid the grass to protect the wildlife, has this not been an issue for the past three years?
“Is there a sudden increase (or decline) in native creatures that can be found foraging on grass, such as echidnas and bandicoots, which necessitates new restrictions?
“Can a compromise be reached, such as a wildlife officer monitoring the grass areas during the short period the exhibition is being held, to ensure no species is harmed?”
A spokesperson from NPWS told Manly Observer, “Activities such as this at the State Heritage Register-listed historic Quarantine Station require assessment and approval to ensure that both the Heritage values and threatened species on the site are protected.
“To date, NPWS has not received the information required to be able to consider and approve the event. However, NPWS has offered to meet with the proponents to discuss what is required to be able to consider the application.
“Heritage approvals, or complying with standard exemptions, are also required. NPWS remains open to granting an approval should the information required be provided.”
Manly Observer then asked, “Are you able to further expand on why this wasn’t an issue the previous three years and whether this requires a process that incurs any significant cost?”
The NPWS spokesperson replied, “The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) has previously informed the site operators around the requirements for environmental assessments and approvals required for the event. Part of this has been ongoing conversations regarding the impacts for threatened bandicoots in the area.
“NPWS remains open to assessing the event should the information required be provided. The assessment process for an event of this type includes a fee of approximately $300 for assessment and approval.”
On learning that there may be a way that the exhibition will be given a last-minute reprieve to the cancellation order, co-founder Tania McMurtry said, “This is great news, and we are excited that the community coming together has encouraged a move forward. If there is any further information that we can provide we are more than happy to do so.”
Both Zali Steggall, Independent member for Warringah, and James Griffin, Manly MP since 2017, expressed their disappointment at the cancellation of the sculpture exhibition.
Mr Griffin told Manly Observer, “The Q Station is a terrific space that should be appropriately activated. The Les Sculptures Refusées event is entirely in keeping with how the area should be used to encourage visitors. The strict lease conditions put in place, largely driven by community concerns a decade ago about commercialisation of the venue are no longer fit for purpose and should be relaxed. This instance is a great example of why.
“The event organisers have expressed an interest in using the vast land of nearby at North Head. If NSW National Parks are unable to do what is needed to make this event proceed, then I’m sure the Sydney Harbour Trust will be interested.”
In an interview at the Q Station, Ms Steggall told Manly Observer, “This has been a fantastic event for the last few years, supporting local businesses showcasing fantastic art, giving opportunity to young and upcoming artists, showcasing our beautiful environment as well and the incredible history and culture of North Head and Q Station.
“For over the last four years, National Parks has not had any concern about the interaction between the natural environment, the National Park area and native animals and the sculptures.
“It has had ample opportunity to come and consult, to discuss better ideas for the locations of sculptures with the organisers, rather than this very drastic move of imposing quite unreasonable conditions on them at the at the last minute.
“These new conditions make it impossible for so many sculptures to go ahead… It’s a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist. And we’re calling on the government to urgently ensure that Sculpture Refusées go ahead.”