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nsw infrastructure

a home for contemporary cultures

keith gallasch: sue hunt, ceo carriageworks

Sue Hunt Sue Hunt
photo Keith Saunders

On a recent Friday, the huge Bay 17 housed a contemporary classical music concert by Chronology Arts, Bay 20 a production of Richard III, while in the so-called Tracks, Tess de Quincey performed Ghost Quarters and, next door, spoken word and hip hop artists presented a version of Alice in Wonderland. The vast foyer, at the same time, was crammed with Finders Keepers Market stalls displaying clothing, jewellery, publications and art works by dozens of largely young artisans selling to many hundreds of curious, eager purchasers. This was CarriageWorks, and its cafe and bar, working at full capacity. Its many different audiences (including those for the regular recording of So You Think You Can Dance) and users certainly know where it is.


The enormous task of opening CarriageWorks, six months on from her appointment in mid 2006, fell to the indefatigable Sue Hunt. With a background as a stage manager and as technical director for the Victorian State Opera for six years, she became the general manager of the Geelong Performing Arts Centre (1995-99) and was senior executive responsible for the business management of the Queensland Theatre Company (1999-2003). She was subsequently Director of Performing Arts for the Sydney Opera House (2003-06).

Asked if she thought her work prior to the CarriageWorks appointment prepared her for the monumental job it became, Hunt replies in the affirmative. “I think I was prepared for this job, in lots of ways. I’d done a number of building projects before if not of this scale. When I was at Geelong Performing Arts Centre, we did a re-fit of the building and I essentially project-managed that. At Queensland Theatre Company, we were funded to find a new home for the company, so I did all of that. I was certainly able to step in and say, I know what a client is, I know what the builders are talking about. I’ve run large and small organisations now and I think that gave me the ability to say, well, I’m creating a small organisation. And I’ve done a lot of work in my practice about organisational development and business improvement. I’ve also done a lot of work with theatre companies, opera companies, in management and production management and producing roles. Working with artists is my first love really—particularly having spent a lot of time as a production manager and technical director, making people’s visions happen, taking the vision of a creative team and fitting that with a budget and a schedule and a theatre and all of that kind of stuff. I always say stage managers are born and I was born a stage manager. And you know, I think stage management prepares you for almost anything!”

In her third year with the organisation she’s still bright eyed: undaunted and optimistic about CarriageWork’s future. Yes, she would love to have more funds to invest in Australian work and attract international productions, but, as with the building of a committed audience, these are long-term goals: “Unless you take a generational view, unless you think 25 years, you’re not going to think of the full potential of a place like this. And that goes to the level of investment that’s been put into it now and needs to be put into it in the future as well.”

the spirit of the place

Hunt thinks that central to the challenge of making the centre work is having a clear sense of it as a unique place: “Our vision for CarriageWorks is that it’s a place for creativity and innovation with a unique spirit. We spend a lot of time thinking about that. What has to be developed, and nurtured, cared about and loved is that spirit, and it comes with artists, resident companies and other users. So CarriageWorks Limited, who run the venue, needs a unique spirit as well. When Arts NSW first showed me through CarriageWorks I was absolutely taken by the size and scale but the thing that struck me most was what was possible for the contemporary arts sector.

“But how do you create something that doesn’t exist anywhere else? I’ll never forget, before we’d even opened, someone asked me: “What model are you basing CarriageWorks on?” I think there was a sense of, ‘Oh well, she’s come from the Opera House; is she going to create another Opera House?’ No. But there isn’t a model for it. There is CarriageWorks with its own sense of place and its unique spirit and geography.”

In terms of geography, Hunt recalls the thoughts of the architects, Tonkin Zulaikha Greer, that came from talking with the reference group, including Performance Space and other resident organisations. “There was a sense of bookending the city. You’ve got the Opera House at one end, which is large and grand and in the place that everyone thinks of as Sydney—the harbour. Generally the Opera House is for more traditional artforms and bigger companies. At the other end you have what will become a hotbed of invention and discovery and creativity. It is already, of course, but it will become known as that. I’d like to see it in the psyche of Sydney in the same way that the Opera House is and I’d like to see it internationally placed.”

audiences and community

Hunt is more than pleased with CarriageWorks’ progress: “Overall we’ve been very successful. We started with virtually no audience. No-one knew us. No-one had profiled CarriageWorks before it opened. So we were starting from zero. For a young organisation, we’ve done quite a bit of market research. We’re thrilled to know we do have a traditional audience that comes with Sydney Festival or Sydney Dance Company shows, but we do have a significantly different, younger profile, which is exciting—children, young adults and through to 35. It’s an audience that a lot of arts companies would kill to have. It comes with a great sense of community. We’re operating at over 80% capacity, and close to 90% activity most months.

“We’re up to nine organisations, including ourselves, that have offices in CarriageWorks. The café is starting to draw people who don’t have any other reason to be there. The diversity, whether it’s Sydney Children’s Festival or the Hip Hop Festival or Underbelly, which we had for a couple of years, or Performance Space’s work in its multifarious ways of being, these all build community.”

strategies & challenges

Hunt’s aim from the beginning, she says, “was to come up with a creative organisation, in and of itself—not a group of centre managers as was suggested to me, or a venue for hire—which assists companies and artists to be creative. What’s important to me is that the organisation learns as well and grows and develops, is adaptive to change and can operate differently. So I think the role of the CEO is to provide that vision and leadership, to keep people following that direction. I let my staff get on with what they need to do.”

A major challenge for CarriageWorks had been its responsibility for developing a commercial strategy for the undeveloped half of the site, but now the State Government has taken that over, which, says Hunt, “makes our job less labour-intensive. We can focus on getting the art space right and it means that we’re no longer responsible for being self-sustaining. We’re responsible for running an arts centre and money will flow to us for that, but the conversation is about how to continue to support and supplement what CarriageWorks needs while the other part is developed, the whole of the North Everleigh precinct and so on. All of that is very exciting. And we’re still deeply involved in the conversation.”

Securing a steady flow of hirers is critical, says Hunt. “Beyond Performance Space, there aren’t a whole lot of regular hirers as there are with venues like the Opera House and other arts centres. So you actually have to generate a lot of activity yourself. We have a producing team of one and a half—an executive producer and a part-time person. They work closely with marketing whose job is about not only shows or festivals we’re presenting but also helping to sell the building as a facility. Then there’s an operational team, which is really about taking bookings, contracting, planning all the events and delivering them, whether that’s front or back of house. Then there’s a finance person. So there are 14 or 15 people now and that’s about the level that we think will be sustainable. It took us the best part of 2007 to put in place the basic team. We’re really only just getting stable now and thinking what is sustainable, that means people don’t have to work 60 hours a week. The team feels like it’s a team.”

CarriageWorks CarriageWorks
photo Keith Saunders
programming & investing

With its four annual seasons occupying the second of the performing spaces, Bay 20, the gallery and the rehearsal/workshop Tracks, Performance Space is a key resident—”the kernel of CarriageWorks’ contemporary arts focus”, says Hunt emphatically. From the beginning she thought that “what was important was not to double up on what Performance Space was doing, not to risk their program in any way. So then, we asked what’s an audience interested in within contemporary culture? What does an audience, rather than an artist, want to see in this place? Then, where’s the next bright thing coming from? So although we don’t have the ability right now to present a lot of work, we’ve been able to put in place some capped investments. Virtually every time we’ve said to those artists, you keep the box office, because their ideas and work came to us unfunded. We partnered companies and events that no-one had heard of at the time: The Rabble, Rinse Out Incorporated, Underbelly, Street Art. Hopefully, one day we will be able to support more works, bring in shows from Brisbane and Melbourne and overseas—because that’s an important part of getting an international focus. But right now we’re into a staged approach, with growth from within. We’ve been able to commission resident companies. We were able to put some money into developing ERTH’s Petting Zoo from an outdoor show to a theatre show; we’ve co-presented with Force Majeure; we’ve been able to present Stalker’s Stiltbreak as part of the Hip Hop festival and we’re co-presenting Marrugeku with Performance Space later in the year.”

In 2008, CarriageWorks generated an impressive 65% of it revenues, with the State Government providing the balance. “It’s pretty amazing for the second year of operation. Funding doesn’t cover all of our base fixed costs, so we’ve got to top that up and then what we’ve got left, we’re able to put into programs.” Hunt says that CarriageWorks “is a little over-dependent on So You Think You Can Dance in terms of venue rental” but, on the other hand, she’s glad that the organisation “is not reliant on box office in a big way” or on major sponsors, especially given the vulnerability of both areas in a recession, she says, recalling the devastating impact of the early 1990s downturn and the likely impact of the current one. “We’ve got to ensure that that level of venue rental keeps going. Otherwise, that’s when you start to worry.”

Hunt is emphatic that CarriageWorks operates as a state-subsidised organisation: “And that’s as it should be if you decide you want something like this. There’s not one arts centre in this country that isn’t supported by a government. There might be commercial theatres but they’re not art centres. So, being subsidised, that’s as it should be. It’s not a commercial house. It doesn’t have an 1,800 or 2,000 seat space. It doesn’t have a shopping centre above it. It was established for a particular sector and with particular community outcomes in mind—and I use ‘community’ in the broadest sense, of artists and their public.”

the future

Clearly the dream of being a commissioning and producing house rather than a venue for hire, if a strategically curated one for contemporary arts, is deeply attractive to Hunt: “If we were able to be the Sydney presenting home of our resident companies, that would be awesome. I’m sure we’ll get that sort of presentation money together over time; that’s when it will start to feel like it’s the real thing, and if, for example, Force Majeure’s new work premiered at CarriageWorks, then we could set it up to tour around the world. But, as I say, that’s in the long term.”

Hunt is also alert to the challenges faced by artists trying, with limited means, to make the most of CarriageWorks’ large spaces and technical and safety demands, a point strongly made by Fiona Winning in her 2009 Rex Cramphorn address. Early on came the realisation, says Hunt, that costs would be beyond some groups and that partnering would be essential, and there was a lot of it, she points out, in 2007 and 2008. Some artists—Tess de Quincey, Joey Ruigrok Van Der Werven, Song Company (for their bracing Easter performance, Tenebrae, have excelled at exploiting the massive foyer; and Alan Schacher transformed Bay 20 for The Bland Project. As Sue Hunt keenly points out, CarriageWorks uniquely offers opportunities for artists that yield audience responses like, “Oh my god, I couldn’t have seen that anywhere else.”

With its distinctive programming strategies, including a broad contemporary culture ambit (embracing hip-hop, huge street art creations, experimental music, works for children and special events like a photo exhibition “giving youth a say about Hepatitis C”), CarriageWorks, together with Performance Space’s radical explorations, indeed provides a home for diverse contemporary practices and audiences. Of course, neither organisation can meet all the needs of the growing numbers of rarely well-funded innovative artists, so it’s not surprising that new, smaller creative spaces are opening up, not least in Sydney’s inner-west (see p21). But it’s CarriageWorks above all that provides an invaluable, supportive gathering point for embracing and promoting contemporary culture in a city brimming with it.

CarriageWorks, Sydney,

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 20

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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