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CARRIAGEWORKS: SYDNEY’S CONTEMPORARY ARTS CENTRE – QANTAS TRAVEL INSIDER

August 7, 2014

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By Deborah Tarrant

Carriageworks in hip inner-cty suburb of Eveleigh has taken up the challenge of making art its business.

If there is one word that describes Sydney’s vibrant contemporary arts centre Carriageworks, it would be “awesome”. The first impression is one of vastness and history: the 12,000sq m space is the former Eveleigh Rail Yards, built in the 1880s, now re-contextualised in an extraordinary way.

Then you feel the buzz. Despite its undoubted magnitude and architectural brusqueness, the space in Eveleigh-Redfern, on the city’s now hip inner-city fringe, is alive. An enormous variety of events come and go in the multiple performance spaces,  ranging from international art exhibitions and performances to pop-up restaurants and music shows. In June, Pet Shop Boys and Sydney’s Porteño restaurant headlined Modulations, a four-day music and food collaboration as part of Vivid Sydney 2014.

Upstairs, in a glassed-in office, Carriageworks director Lisa Havilah explains the centre’s three-year transformation into a multi-disciplinary institution that is becoming as recognised for its dedication to regionally significant artists as it is for putting a grungy part of Sydney on the map. The centre is developing a new generation of audiences and arts patrons.

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Its transformation is due to the vision of Havilah, who grew up on a beef cattle property in southern New South Wales and studied visual arts at Wollongong University. Her career as an arts administrator began as co-founder of an artist-run space in Wollongong in the 1990s and evolved with roles at two outer-Sydney centres, Casula Powerhouse and Campbelltown Arts Centre. In late 2011, Havilah recognised Carriageworks’ potential and successfully applied to run it. Seeing the opportunity to  turn what was essentially a venue-for-hire into a distinctively new cultural institution “with its own artistic integrity and intellectual property”, she kicked off with a new strategy, a new organisational structure and a new board.

“Our artistic programming model, identified in the strategy, was very much about place,” Havilah explains. Eveleigh-Redfern has long been the heart of an urban Aboriginal community. A mainstay of Carriageworks is a strong Indigenous arts program that spans contemporary dance, visual arts, music and performance, for which a committee of key stakeholders from the local Indigenous community advises on protocol.

Its other focus is the Asia-Pacific, through a contemporary program that not only engages with the region, but also aptly reflects Sydney’s culturally disparate demographic. Havilah enthuses about a 2015 project with Michael Tuffery, a New Zealand artist of Samoan, Rarotongan and Tahitian heritage. The Samoan prime minister, Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Sailele Malielegaoi, has given permission for the country’s police band to come to Sydney to be part of the show.

Evidence that Havilah’s plan matches the zeitgeist is emerging. Audiences have doubled annually since 2011 – last year 400,000 people engaged with Carriageworks’ programs. At the same time, globally lauded artists such France’s Christian Boltanski have become involved. Boltanski’s immense scaffolded work, Chance, packed them in early this year, intriguing with its scale and provocative notions of the haphazard nature of human mortality.

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Partnerships have also been forged with landmark events including the Sydney Festival and the Biennale of Sydney. Last year saw the arrival of event impresario Tim Etchells’ Sydney Contemporary 13 art fair, bringing in 29,000 people over four days, and this year the luminosity of Vivid, the annual collaboration of light, music and ideas, shone on Carriageworks.

Havilah’s quest is to bring the life of the city in, as well as to integrate Carriageworks with the rest of the city.

“That has really helped to build capacity.” Capping ticket prices at $35 for all works has helped, particularly in winning younger audiences (25- to 45-year-olds). The program’s cultural diversity is also proving successful at inspiring next-gen arts aficionados.

The artistic program is the essential core, but Havilah and a team of 30 have also put much hard work into building a major event strategy. A big coup has been the signing of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia.

Vital for every arts organisation is commercial success. “We self-entrepreneur 70 per cent of our turnover, so we’re only 30 per cent government-funded,” Havilah says, emphasising the interdependence between artistic growth, collaboration and sponsorship. “All of our commercial income has to intersect with our brand – it goes straight back into the artistic program.”

On Saturdays, the Carriageworks precinct keeps it local by satisfying discerning palates with more than 70 stalls at Eveleigh Farmers’ Market.Clearly, Havilah – who admires the programming of big international venues such as Park Street Armory in New York, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Palais de Tokyo, as well as Alex Poots’ work on the Manchester International Festival – is enjoying the obvious early traction, two-and-a-half years in, of her five-year strategy. She is excited by what has been achieved, the development of a multi-arts venue with a “more immersive” experience than any traditional art gallery or museum. Scale is definitely on Carriageworks’ side – as well as its still very evident industrial history. “We’re very Instagrammable,” says Havilah.

However, there is one ever-present challenge for the Carriageworks team. “By its nature, a contemporary art institution has to be contemporary – its only constant is change.” That’s why Havilah is already shaping a new strategy. “Our growth will come from being relevant and important to people, and the communities are changing all around us.

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