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Staging place - A workshop for creative regeneration

Sydney's newest performing arts venue celebrated its first birthday last month. The challenge now is to develop an adjacent commercial hub that will fully fund its activities, writes Katrina Strickland in the Australian Financial Review of Thursday 14th February 2008.

Ask a taxi driver to take you to Sydney's newest performing arts venue, CarriageWorks, and chances are he will ask you how to get there.

A wonderfully evocative venue which opened a year ago at the old Eveleigh railway Workshop, funded to the tune of $49 million by the NSW government, its industrial aesthetic charms people the moment they walk in the door. The tricky bit in its first year of life has been getting them to do so - then tell their friends, and taxi drivers - without the help of a massive marketing or programming budget.

The challenge in the next couple of years will be to develop commercially a giant 14,000 square metre space on the site adjacent to the performing arts complex. Under an ambitious master plan, the commercial development will fully fund the performing arts activities by 2010, giving it a revenue stream of about $2 million a year with which to run its arts program.

The time frame might prove unrealistic, and if it's like any other new development the government will be asked to cough up more money before cutting off the drip.

But the idea is good and timely, and one which fits with a global push for the arts to become less reliant on the government purse, along with growing recognition that creative industries can add a lot to a city, both economically and culturally.

Overseeing the development will be the job of CarriageWorks chief executive Sue Hunt, who left a plum position as director of performing arts at the Sydney Opera House to take CarriageWorks from a concept through to its January 2007 birth and beyond.

Hunt says a weekend market will open soon, and in June-July this year Melbourne gallery owner Anna Schwartz will become the first commercial tenant when she opens a large warehouse-style art gallery.

In the short to medium term Hunt will encourage "activity-led and low-impact development" - that is, film shoots, scenery construction, storage, and so on - with more permanent development to come as the surrounding area, which is fast gentrifying but not fully there yet, catches up.

"The area is marked for urban renewal and we believe that Carriage Works can be a force for that urban renewal by putting in place a development that attracts industries that will make the building a public hub," Hunt says.

"It might include offices for creative industries and learning; it might have retail and food and beverage to encourage local residents to eat and shop here, and it will hopefully assist in the audience development and traffic flow into the arts centre part of the building."

Hunt breathed a sigh of relief when the performing arts part of the site celebrated its first birthday last month. Asked what its biggest achievement in year one was, she says simply, "Getting through it."

She expects to post a surplus for the venue's first year of operation, based on venue rentals which were about 60 per cent ahead of expectations, and tight cost control.

"For me, it was really important that we not over-promise and underdeliver; we needed to be able to make the mistakes we had to make in our first year and to get everything consolidated," she says.

"We had no trading history; we didn't know what it would cost to operate, so I was very conservative in my budgets."

There were complaints during its debut Sydney Festival season about the seats and a year later there were still complaints about the seats.

In both cases, Hunt points out, they were temporary seats brought in for the festival. That aside, however, the venue appeared to come into its own this year, thanks in part to its hosting of one of the 2008 festival's headline acts, the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch, in its 800-seat venue Bay 17, and a second NITS play, Aalst staged in the smaller 300-seat venue, Bay 20.

A temporary noodle and laksa bar was set up in the foyer, the drinks bar was fully operational, and aside from the lack of a proper cloakroom, the venue had all the hallmarks of a fully operational arts complex.

Hunt's strategy in year one was to get as many different types of audience into CarriageWorks as she could, and to develop a revenue stream from commercial hiring which would help fund its arts events.

Hence, the venue hosted everything from the National Australia Bank's annual dinner to a Gucci fashion parade, a Myer season launch, the Australia Business Arts Foundation's annual awards dinner and plenty of commercial photo and video shoots. FremantleMedia is currently shooting the new Ten Network program So You Think You Can Dance there.

Hunt says across its two main theatres and rehearsal rooms the venue was about 60 per cent full last year, and that with hiring revenue outstripping expectations she was able to plough $134,000 into programming, up from the $75,000 she had planned to spend.

She concedes that CarriageWorks is still not as well known as it could be, but says awareness is in evolution, linked in large part to the development of the area.

This year she expects occupancy to be closer to 90 per cent. The focus will remain on cutting-edge and emerging artists - the Performance Space is a resident company - but larger organisations like the Sydney Dance Company, which has programmed two of its three shows there this year, will bring new audiences.

"Sure, we could have spent $500,000 on a branding exercise to get that [sense of excitement] across in year one, but we don't have that kind of money," she says simply.

"We're a contemporary art centre, we're not just a venue for hire, so we have to keep the balance right and not lose sight of why we were created."

"We believe CarriageWorks can be a force for urban renewal by putting in place a development that attracts the industries that will make the building a public hub". Sue Hunt, CarriageWorks CEO