Lisa Havilah,
Carriageworks

The Making of a Modern Icon

The story of Carriageworks is a great one. It was born like all cultural institutions: through valiant battles, through triumph and failure. It is a place that is grounded in its context. One of the very few cultural institutions in Australia to be imagined and created in this century.

Formerly known as the Eveleigh Railway Yards, Carriageworks was established in 1880 by John Whitton, Engineer in Chief of the NSW Government railways. From the time of its establishment more than 6,000 workers worked in Carriageworks every day. Those workers shaped our union movement and contributed to the development of our city for over 100 years. It was from within the walls of Carriageworks in 1917 that the Great Strike started, a nationally important historical event which saw thousands of rail workers march on NSW Parliament and, through sheer power in numbers, shut it down. It was the politicised workforce that was formed within these walls that created a generation of politicians including premiers and prime ministers.

Carriageworks has a long history of equity. It is one of the first places to employ Aboriginal people on an equal basis in NSW and it is the place where generations of new migrants were first employed. Worker Richard Butcher described Carriageworks as, ‘A place with heart and soul—that forged friendships that would last a lifetime for the men and women who served there. To these everyday people she was an inspiration for another day—a gentle giant who under her old wrought iron roof sheltered and protected as well as united us from all walks of life. She provided the fabric to be creative; to give strength to allow them to give in turn.’

Carriageworks is located on Gadigal land in the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern; a place widely referred to as the Black Capital of Australia. A place of resistance and change. It wasn’t far from Carriageworks that 20 years ago, Keating made his famous Redfern address stating, ‘How well we recognise the fact that, complex as our contemporary identity is, it cannot be separated from Aboriginal Australia. Redfern is a good place to contemplate these things.’

The creation of Carriageworks as the next generation of Australian cultural institution emerges from these histories. It has a responsibility to the cultural and social legacy that is embedded within it. It carries with it the history and future of urban Sydney.

The story of creative, entrepreneurial urban/suburban Sydney is not often told. Sydney’s identity has for too long been dominated by harbourside views, sandstone perspectives and seafood dinners. Contemporary Sydney is a much more interesting, diverse and complex place than that. It lies with the everyday practice of the artists, the creatives, the designers, the chefs and the producers. The people that are constantly thinking and re-thinking what Sydney is—in its constant state of change, like all international cities.

Within urban Sydney, Carriageworks is a step forward from the great harbourside sandstone institutions. Red brick, more suburban than civic. An entrepreneurial hybrid, a place that demands a program that is engaged with, and reflective of, the fast-changing communities around it. Like in life, art is no longer siloed in the same way that our homes, our screens, our work has merged, the practice of how art is made and is experienced has also shifted. Sydney’s young, culturally diverse audiences are seeking out large-scale immersive experiences not defined by form. Carriageworks commissions artists to make work that engages with contemporary ideas, ideas that move across disciplines and form.

Carriageworks audiences, our future communities, the ones we imagine and the ones that are yet to exist, are looking for the detail, for the relationship, for the fine grain, for the experience. As the next generation of cultural institution, we are in the middle of the great age of creative entrepreneurship. No one understands this better than artists who are now turning away from the mega stadiums and from the megalopolis museums that are replicated in the same ways but in different forms across the world. They as artists, like all of us, are looking for community.

Cultural institutions should be radical and participatory. They should lie in the heart of their communities, providing moments of great joy and wonder, they should provide pathways, lead social change and create and deliver on our individual and collective ambitions. We as a community and as individuals should demand a lot of our institutions. They must reflect our everyday lives and also allow us to step outside of ourselves, if just for a moment.

Collaboration is core business at Carriageworks and the commercial and the public are constantly colliding. Institutions need to be places that are entrepreneurial, expansive and multi-centred. Carriageworks’ growth has emerged from the establishment of an innovative business model in which we derive 75% of our turnover through the application of a curatorial framework that brings together the Artistic Program, Major Events and Commercial Programs. This is a circular model, which is complex in application but simple in form. Carriageworks invests into its Artistic Program, which grows its profile, which in turn grows its Commercial and Major Events programs. These commercial returns are then invested back into the Artistic Program. As a result Carriageworks audiences have been doubling every year with over one million people engaging with Carriageworks programs in 2016. Growth has further been achieved through increasing investment into our Artistic Program, which has grown by 400%. Carriageworks supports over 850 Australian and international artists each year.

In its short life as a cultural institution change has been a constant for Carriageworks. The next significant change will be the implementation of the NSW Government’s development corridor, Central to Eveleigh, which Carriageworks sits within. Over the next 10 years the re-invention of this critically important part of inner Sydney will face many challenges, increased density, demographic and social change. Lucky for Sydney it is full of creative, resilient entrepreneurial communities. Carriageworks as a cultural institution within this change has an even more important role in connecting new communities with place, communicating our histories and making sure that we remain inclusive and connected.

Zhang Huan, Sydney Buddha, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo credit: Zan Wimberley. Courtesy the Artist and Pace Gallery, New York

When the next generation of cultural institutions emerge we need to make sure that they are provided the space, the support and the resources to be as ambitious, as difficult and as risky as the artists they support. I hope that we as a city can support and sustain our artists, our organisations, our cultural institutions, to be places that we all hold in our collective memories, places that reflect our communities and deliver on our ambitions.