Philanthropist John Kaldor AO has been collecting and commissioning art since the early 1960s. In 1969, he initiated what would become the first public art organisation of its kind in the world when he brought Christo and Jeanne-Claude to Australia. The artists produced the then largest-ever single project, wrapping up a section of the NSW coastline with fabric and rope.

Inspired by the success and international acclaim of Wrapped Coast – One Million Square Feet, Little Bay, Sydney, Australia, Kaldor Public Art Projects became a pioneering organisation, transforming public spaces with innovative contemporary artworks.

In 1969, Professor Ian Howard, artist and previous dean at UNSW Art & Design, had just graduated from Alexander Mackie College (now Art & Design) and was posted as an art teacher to Inverell High School in northern NSW.

“Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping Little Bay was so newsworthy that word had certainly reached country towns,” Professor Howard says. “And being the art ‘authority’, as a first-year-out art teacher for the entire north-west district, I was summoned to the Inverell bowling club to ‘please explain.”

“I must've done a reasonable job, because they bought me a couple of beers. Farmers and farmers’ wives are always pretty generous people – and they can think on a large scale. They ‘got’ the square metres required to wrap Little Bay, and I think they felt a bit of sympathy for Christo because of that.”

Over the past 50 years, Kaldor Public Art Projects has presented 34 works by international and Australian artists, including Sol LeWitt, Michael Landy, Marina Abramovic, Jeff Koons and Art & Design alumnus Jonathan Jones. In 1984, Project 8 took Australian art to New York in the exhibition An Australian Accent – 52 drawings and paintings by acclaimed Australian artists Mike Parr, Imants Tillers and Ken Unsworth.

Project 32 in 2016 was the first Kaldor project in Australia by a local artist, instead of being an import for an Australian audience. Art & Design graduate Jonathan Jones created a vast sculptural installation – barrangal dyara (skin and bones) – which covered 20,000 square metres of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. It recalled the 19th-century Garden Palace which burnt to the ground along with the destruction of ceremonial shields, spears and artefacts collected on the colonial frontier.

Making art public exhibition and events

The Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) is currently celebrating the organisation’s contribution to contemporary art with Making art public: 50 years of Kaldor Public Art Projects. Created by British artist Michael Landy, the exhibition features artworks, archival materials and reconstructions. AGNSW is also running a series of related events.

Professor Howard’s film Beyond the tick gate was screened at the gallery in November in Movie marathon: Marina Abramovic Session 2. The 24-minute production, made originally in Super 8 film, has now been digitised and features Marina and Ulay’s interaction with Alexander Mackie School of Art (now Art & Design) students at a bush retreat workshop in 1981.

By then teaching at Alexander Mackie, Professor Howard picked 10 students – from first year to post grad – to participate in a week-long workshop with international performance artists Marina and Ulay. Because he could get easy access, he chose his brother’s cattle property in the tiny town of Whiporie – 700 kilometres and a 10-hour drive north of Sydney – as the location. The title of the film comes from the tick fence that ran through Whiporie, keeping Queensland and northern NSW tick-carrying animals out of the southern regions.

“I chose first-year students through to post grad, the outstanding students, who were doing great performance work,” Professor Howard says.

“We started with a kind of ‘cleansing’ session. On instruction from Marina and Ulay, there was to be no talking and we were to fast. We were getting rid of the city – shaking and jumping about. Then we went out into the bush individually, taking in the new experience of quietness and nature.

“Marina and Ulay ran workshops on sensitivities of the body and creative sound-making, and it all unfolded from there. Everyone just sensed that in the ensuing week they were going to have to create a significant performance work somewhere on the property, which they did. This set a challenge for my wife, Lucienne, and I, as we were trying to film and record each event.”

Professor Howard says he has seen recent workshops Marina has done out of New York and the approach she adopted at Whiporie has become her trusted modus operandi.

“What she was doing way back then has stood the test of time, and clearly works with generations of younger artists.”

Kaldor Public Art Project Digital Archive

Since 1969, mountains of folders and boxes of Kaldor Public Art Project archives have accumulated. As well as correspondence, they contain artworks, photographs, plans, models, documentation of negotiations, logistics and production processes, planning of public and educational programs, and reviews and criticism.

The archives are now being digitised through an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project grant (LP170101175), which will create a permanent record of these temporary projects as well as the development of public art in Australia. The Linkage Project is supported by the Faculty of Arts, Macquarie University, and the Faculty of Art & Design at UNSW Sydney, with Kaldor Public Art Projects as industry partner. Among its researchers are Art & Design’s current Dean, Professor Ross Harley, and Dr Scott East.

“This digitisation will create a lasting record of five decades of temporary projects and trace the development of public art in Australia,” Professor Harley says. “With over 20,000 digitised documents, it is a great and accessible resource for future research and scholarship.”

Find out more about Kaldor Public Art Projects Digital Archive.