April 18, 2016

By Lissa Christopher, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 April 2016

Fear is a welcome guest in Lisa Havilah’s professional life. Success is welcome, too, but subject to some fairly intense scrutiny at the door.

“I think, if you’re not scared, you’re not doing your job,” says the 44-year-old director of Carriageworks, a woman much admired for her entrepreneurial approach to the arts. “I don’t mean scared as in terrified, but I think you should be … concerned.”

Then, after one of her distinctive low chuckles, far more baritone than her speaking voice, she adds, “I’m scared all the time.”

Carriageworks has been going through an “extraordinary period of growth” and while Havilah is pleased about it – and indeed largely credited with generating it – she is also concerned about ensuring the organisation doesn’t lose its derring-do.

“Right now I’m thinking about how we maintain that [growth] without becoming too institutionalised, how we remain risky and brave, and open to new ideas,” she says. “Sometimes, the bigger and more established a place gets, the more it shuts down … You don’t want to be doing the same things you did last year because that worked well.”

Later in the conversation she underlines her caution about self-satisfaction. “As an institution, but also as an individual, it’s important that you continue to be self-critical. It would be easy to just go ‘Fabulous. Fantastic. Continue.'”

Carriageworks – which is located on the vast site of the former Eveleigh rail yards – covers a lot of ground, literally and in its creative endeavours. It supports contemporary theatre, dance, visual art, music, film and fashion. It hosts corporate events and a farmers’ market.

It commissions new works from unknown artists, and collaborates with established artists, festivals and companies, both local and international. “We do maybe 80 to 100 projects a year and then there are all the partner projects we do on top of that,” says Havilah.

Visitor numbers have doubled every year for the past four years. Since 2011 when Havilah took over, they have climbed from 110,000 a year to 790,000 people a year in 2015. Plans for the site over the next six years include building a cinema, a 5000-seat music venue, more cafes and bars, and additional exhibition, studio and rehearsal spaces.

While she clearly has a grand vision for Carriageworks, you don’t have to spend too long talking to Havilah to realise she has no interest in self-aggrandisement.

Sentences that might start with an “I” turn quickly to “we”, meaning the Carriageworks team. Great big, arms open and yelling opportunities to highlight her personal and professional merits are met with that low chuckle and a modestly-worded response.

“What have I brought to Carriageworks? Experience. Practice. Twelve years of community-based arts practice in Wollongong and Western Sydney … ”

What about personal qualities? Silence. “I don’t know.” Brief laugh. “That’s not a very good answer, is it?”

Before taking the helm at Carriageworks, Havilah was the artistic director of the Campbelltown Arts Centre and during that time Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, the longstanding director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), said Havilah had “put Campbelltown on the national, if not the international, map for contemporary art”.

Last year, NSW Deputy Premier and Arts Minister Troy Grant described Havilah as “the driving force” behind Carriageworks’ success. She is, he said, “doing an exceptional job”.

So, really, no, really, what is it that you, Lisa Havilah, bring to the Carriageworks success story? Long, thoughtful silence. “I guess I always feel like I am working in the service of others. I work in the service of artists or communities, to deliver their ambitions … I think the whole team at Carriageworks, we are working together in the service of others. I think that’s a philosophy or type of practice that could maybe be seen as distinctive.”

Havilah at least concedes that the service ethic she describes is part of who she is as a human being; it’s not a professional facade or a theory. “I guess it is personal. You have to bring yourself fully to a role like this. You can’t pretend. You wouldn’t have the stamina,” she says.


Carriageworks presents the world premiere of the play Lake Disappointment from 20 until 23 April 2016. Buy tickets