News

With the Covid-19 lockdown forcing Sydney arts precinct Carriageworks into voluntary administration, the embattled cultural sector is bracing for worse to come. By Steve Dow.

The collapse of Carriageworks

First came the lockout for the creatives and audiences at Sydney’s Carriageworks, the former trackside railway workshops reborn in 2007 as an arts precinct. Performances and exhibitions were cancelled at the end of March and onsite artists forced from their studios, soon after the Covid-19 isolation requirements were announced.

The Sydney Writers’ Festival, due in May, was scrapped for the year and relaunched as a series of podcasts. Carriageworks’ famed Saturday morning farmers’ market first thinned, then vanished, and with it another source of income crucial to the venue’s lifeblood.

Then, on Monday, KPMG was called in and Carriageworks was placed in voluntary administration – the most high-profile collapse of the lockdown, after Virgin Australia.

Jack Symonds, the artistic director of Sydney Chamber Opera, a resident Carriageworks company, charts the carnage. “It’s the only venue of such scale in New South Wales that will take a risk on experimental and new and emerging art,” he says. “It is home to eight resident companies, who are a cross-section of where the contemporary arts are at.”

Uncertainty hangs over where these eight resident companies will be based once the lockdown is eased. A spokesperson for the NSW government told The Saturday Paper that Carriageworks has received six months’ rent and outgoings relief, and the support package, backdated to April 1, has been passed on to the resident companies. The venue has also received state funding for 2020, including a yearly grant worth about $2 million a year.

Little detail has been offered thus far about Carriageworks’ current financial position. For the year ending December 2018, the arts precinct had racked up a $559,236 deficit, according to financial reports, following a $205,778 surplus in 2017. The precinct receives only about a third of its income from government grants, and relies on ticket sales, venue hire and other commercial ventures for the majority of its revenue.

An insider says that, until the pandemic hit, there had been consistent cash flow, and the situation was not as dire as these accounts indicate: “When you’ve got statutory accounts where you’re writing down the value of assets, that appears as losses. But it is, in fact, a paper loss, not a financial loss.”

KPMG restructuring services partner Phil Quinlan said administrators were “exploring the possibility of a Deed of Company Arrangement” between Carriageworks and its creditors, an agreement that would allow operations to continue, but the possibility of liquidation was not ruled out. “All options are on the table for consideration,” Quinlan said.

“I’m absolutely devastated,” Cherine Fahd, a resident Carriageworks visual artist presently locked out of her studio, says of the venue being placed into administration. “It’s an indictment of how little value is placed on arts and culture in this country.

“There is this incredible silence and apathy. During Covid-19, we as a community have waited and waited. We’ve seen the Victorian premier come out and pledge money and other states doing the same. In NSW, nothing. We don’t even have an Arts minister.”

Create NSW has announced measures including $1 million-plus in accommodation assistance and grant programs for online platforms and small projects, but the state’s arts workers universally say these initiatives are far from enough.

 

Power games appear to be in play in NSW. On April 10, Premier Gladys Berejiklian accepted the resignation of Don Harwin as Arts and Indigenous Affairs minister after he was found staying at his Central Coast holiday home and fined $1000 for breaching a Covid-19 public health order.

The media tipoff about Harwin’s whereabouts was regarded by some as a factional hit by the NSW Liberal Party’s centre-right on its moderate wing. Berejiklian, a close ally of Harwin, added the arts to her own duties as premier.

Walt Secord, NSW Labor Arts spokesperson, says the voluntary administration is “devastating”, and highlights the “complete lack of support from the Berejiklian government for the arts and entertainment sectors in its various Covid-19 packages”.

The opposition speculates the NSW Treasury seized the opportunity of Harwin’s departure to rein in arts spending by the government’s progressive arm.

According to a NSW government spokesperson, “Carriageworks had already received its 2020 calendar-year payment. Carriageworks had requested it receive its 2021 payment in advance, however this was not provided.”

On Wednesday this week, two days after Carriageworks was placed in receivership, news broke that the NSW government was considering a Sydney Opera House takeover of Carriageworks – a proposed amalgamation apparently driven by the state government.

The NSW government has framed the engagement with the Opera House as only at the “consulting” stage.

Sydney Festival director Wesley Enoch says Carriageworks “needs more resources to play its role in the arts ecology”.

“It is a breeding ground for new work and alternative visions and has created a very strong visual arts following and event space,” he says. “Covid-19 and the lockdown has exacerbated the problem – [most] of their income they get through commercial sources, so it makes an arts venue incredibly vulnerable.

“What we need is a strong advocate for the arts. This is not a time to be playing politics back and forward; we’re talking about the livelihoods of thousands of people in the arts and creative industries.”

Carriageworks chief executive Blair French, who took up the role in August 2019 after his predecessor, Lisa Havilah, left to run the troubled Powerhouse Museum, declined to be interviewed.

 

The optimistic news stories from March 2016 now make for heartbreaking reading.

Carriageworks was then aiming to “rival the Sydney Opera House” with a $50 million redevelopment plan that included a 5000-seat live music venue, 200-seat cinematheque and large public exhibition space, along with new cafes, bars and restaurants.

The unsolicited proposal taken to the NSW government had five partners, including Mirvac and the Commonwealth Bank, with Google as an anchor tenant in the site adjoining Carriageworks, and would have been fully funded by the private sector.

The scheme aimed to unite the suburb of Eveleigh while connecting better to Redfern railway station. Hopes were high for a whole new cultural precinct, but Transport for NSW, responsible for the overall site, rejected the proposition because it failed to pass a “uniqueness test” under which developers must prove their development can’t be delivered by competitors. The government resolved the land should be redeveloped only after a competitive tender process. A Carriageworks insider, however, argues the plan was a “very finely calibrated resolution of the site”.

Now, four years later, the Opera House is being positioned to swallow Carriageworks.

Chrissy Sharp, chief executive of Sydney Writers’ Festival, insists the two venues are “very different beasts”.

“The Opera House, its cultural offerings rely on its resident companies, it doesn’t really have a huge program of its own curated events, which is what Carriageworks is all about,” she says. “The Opera House is a huge tourist icon; you can’t set up in an old [railway workshop] in Redfern and get the same kind of passing traffic. They are chalk and cheese.”

Some arts figures cast doubt on whether the Opera House alone has funding to spare to pay Carriageworks’ creditors.

A spokesperson for the Opera House confirmed the venue has “been approached by the NSW government to consult on the long-term sustainability of Carriageworks as an important cultural venue”.

“The Opera House will provide its support in this process at the appropriate time, once the outcomes of the voluntary administration process are known,” she said.

Former opera house chairman Kim Williams wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that the Opera House “has been literally prowling, aiming to take over Carriageworks in an egregious piece of empire-building worthy of robber barons from the time of Carriageworks’ 19th-century construction”. 

Jack Symonds suspects the Opera House is less interested in grassroots arts companies.

“You just look at the Opera House’s resident companies, they are the opposite end of the scale to Carriageworks’,” he said. “Both are equally valid and important in producing, but they operate under a very different understanding of the interrelationship between arts and business.

“Carriageworks has so cleverly been able to leverage its space for deriving so much of its income from commercial and external events in order to support risk-taking art. That’s why it’s not so surprising that Carriageworks is insolvent: all those events that pay for the art now can’t take place, which is guaranteed to dry up all the cash.”

Visual artist Giselle Stanborough, whose sensory work Cinopticon was set to be exhibited at Carriageworks from late March to mid-June, says the venue allows for happenstance encounters between artists, art forms and audiences. “It’s beautiful, because there’s not a strong culture of art in Australia,” she says. “If we can make art as accessible as possible, that is going to expand its relevance and its audience.”

For many in the casual arts workforce, largely ineligible for the government’s JobKeeper scheme, Carriageworks’ announcement this week, and the decision by the NSW government not to step in, seemed a harbinger of wider troubles to come across the sector.

Cherine Fahd wonders whether fear of critical thought is at play. “Artists tell stories, and sometimes those stories challenge the status quo and how we might want to be seen,” she says. “In a democracy, that’s a really important role that artists play.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "Performance anxieties".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley Arts Journalism award recipient.