The news that Redfern-based multi-disciplinary arts centre Carriageworks had been forced into voluntary administration by the vagaries of the current crisis sent shockwaves across the nation. A lot of focus centred on the big-ticket events it hosts, including the Sydney Writers’ Festival and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. But Carriageworks is also home to eight resident companies currently scrambling to figure out what this upset means for their future.
Sydney Chamber Opera’s artistic director Jack Symonds feels strongly that what happened to Carriageworks is a symptom of a lack of support for the arts sector more broadly. “It’s a huge blow that represents the short-sightedness of not funding the arts sector through this difficult period, and it could well be the tip of the iceberg for artistic institutions,” he says. “The added instability of possibly not having a residency partner is exactly what these small, fragilely funded companies shouldn’t be thinking about right now.”
He argues the extraordinary range of Carriageworks' resident companies, both in terms of the work they create and audiences they serve, should be celebrated by governments at all levels. “The non-response and seeming indifference to its fate from many in power is very disappointing.
Although the NSW government has floated the possibility of the Sydney Opera House taking over the venue, Symonds cautions that any solution would have to be an appropriate fit. “Carriageworks is a unique place that can’t just be written off as another art institution that could be taken over by anybody. It’s a very specific ecosystem, and the relationships between these very specifically selected companies isn’t one-size-fits-all box-ticking. Any proposed changes, whatever form that might take, needs to be cognisant of the kind of artistic work Carriageworks has established itself making.”
Danielle Micich, artistic director of Force Majeure dance theatre, is alarmed at the prospect of losing the venue. “Carriageworks is a massive part of our identity. It’s our hub, where artists come to us from all over the world to work and train with us. There’s already a shortage of space in Sydney.”
Force Majeure represents a small corner of a close-knit network of dynamic companies, she says. “We collaborate and share artists and resources. It’s a place where we seed and develop work, develop artists, present shows… We do not want to be rebuilding something like that over again.”
In particular, Micich singles out Carriageworks CEO Blair French for praise. “He’s only 12 months into his contract. He’s barely even started, and this happens to him. We believe in Blair, we don’t want him to go. He’s a great leader. Clearly there are problems that need to be resolved, and we just don’t know how that would look, but we would love to have a say.”
Jeff Khan, artistic director of experimental art leaders Performance Space, says the resident companies were already dealing with “the motherlode of shocks with the pandemic,” before the Carriageworks news broke. “We’re all mindful of the health of the whole sector at the moment,” he says. “We’re constantly looking out for each other, checking in, and so the fact that such a large institution has taken such drastic steps was really alarming for all of us.”
The news was particularly shocking because Carriageworks was able to secure multi-year funding from the Australia Council when many went without in a brutal wave of cuts earlier this year. “We’re at a critical moment and some state governments are stepping up and some are lagging behind.”
A big question mark hangs over Performance Space’s Asia-Pacific-focused festival Liveworks, due to open in October. “The last few years it’s attracted over 50,000 audience members, plus international artists and curators, so this year was already going to have to look quite different," Khan says. "How do we react to the way that the pandemic is changing artist practices? In a way, artists are really well-positioned to explore what these new social relationships might be, post-pandemic, and how we can use different forms of gathering as a kind of creative opportunity to rethink who we are and what we mean to each other.”
The added uncertainty over the status of Carriageworks further complicates matters. “The resident companies are the artistic backbone of the building, representing some of the most exciting contemporary and performing arts organisations in New South Wales. We all want to make sure we can make the most positive contribution to the future that we can.”
Indigenous-intercultural dance company Marrugeku’s artistic co-director Rachael Swain offered this statement. “Together we represent the artistic strength, thought leadership and cultural diversity of the small-to-medium and independent performing arts sectors,” she says, adding that as others have suggested, “the lack of a specific stimulus package for the arts needs to be seen not as inadvertent neglect but as a conscious targeting of the position of the arts in Australia. Carriageworks needs more resource to survive and deliver opportunities for artists and audiences.”
It's a sentiment shared by the leadership team of First Nations company Moogahlin Performing Arts. Artistic directors Lily Shearer and Liza-Mare Syron and managing director Ali Murphy-Oates said via email their Redfern home had been a vital anchor. “As one of only a handful of blak performing arts companies in the country, it’s been critical for us to secure a home in the Redfern area, a place of significant change and history for our peoples. Carriageworks offered us a space to grow in our practice, to celebrate our culture and connect to our community.”
Annette Shun Wah, executive producer of Contemporary Asian Australian Performance, says the theatre company had to embrace video conferencing for its artist networking Longhouse events. She does have some concerns about the digital uptake, however. “The creative urge is something that can’t be held back, but the danger of suddenly putting everything up online is that artists don’t get properly paid for what they do, people start taking it a bit for granted, and it’s undervalued.”
The sooner they can get home to Carriageworks, the better. “I don’t know of any other arts precinct like this in Australia that’s so focused on more experimental, edgy work,” she says. “It’s not just a building for us, it’s a rare place that fosters that kind of output." And it’s not just about arts-makers, Shun Wah notes, pointing to the various markets that thrive in the beautiful brick building. “Carriageworks has managed very well to create a sense of community in the local area.”
The current crisis put paid to puppetry theatre company Erth’s planned American and Japanese tours of their Dinosaur Zoo show, but artistic director Scott Wright remains irrepressibly hopeful. “I spend so much time travelling, whether it’s overseas or interstate, so this whole lockdown thing has meant that I’ve been able to be grounded for the last two months, which hasn’t happened for years. It’s allowed us to take a step back and take stock of who we are and what we do.”
The financial hit is hard, however. Erth too has been exploring digital options, but Carriageworks is the rock the company rests on. “People come to Erth’s offices and we talk, blah, blah, blah. But they get really excited when we take them down to our workshop. That’s the heart of what we do, where all the creativity happens before it goes out into the world.”
He says it’s the same for all the resident companies. “When you step in and go deeper, look at who’s here and what they’re creating, that’s where the lifeforce exists. And that lifeforce is strong and passionate and worth saving. I’m embedded into that building. There’s my blood on the floor, sweat in the brickwork, and skin flakes in the dust. You’ll never be able to remove me from it. I’m there to stay.”
Film and television production company Felix Media wasapproached but chose not to comment
Sadly Carriageworks cannot accept donations during voluntary administration, but you can read about its last major commission here.
This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.