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Full steam ahead as artists do the hard yards

One hundred years ago, the Eveleigh rail yards were filled with train carriages and noisy machinery. These days, visitors are more likely to encounter break dancers, dinosaur puppets or a studio audience for So You Think You Can Dance Australia writes Louise Schwartzkoff in the SMH of March 6, 2008.

Last year almost 50,000 people visited the former railway maintenance shed, now home to Sydney's newest arts centre, CarriageWorks. But if the centre is to survive once government funding is withdrawn in two years, it will have to grow even more.

The venue's 2008 program, launched yesterday, aims to draw larger crowds, with a series of festivals and contemporary dance performances.

CarriageWorks' chief executive, Sue Hunt, hopes to lure new audiences with five festivals during the year, including a hip-hop festival, the Destination Film Festival, and the new Sydney Children's Festival. In May, the complex will host several events for the Sydney Writers' Festival.

CarriageWorks' open spaces and sprung floors have been popular with dance groups. The Sydney Dance Company has programmed two of its shows there this year, and the choreographer, Meryl Tankard, will stage her work, VX18504, in one of the smaller theatres. The NSW Government has spent about $49 million on the rail yard transformation, and will continue its financial support until 2010, when the centre is expected to become self-sufficient.

To meet maintenance costs and fund arts programs once government funding is withdrawn, Hunt plans to commercially develop a 14,000 square metre space on the site adjacent to the performing arts complex.

"What we've got here is prime real estate that could generate significant return," she said. "We hope it will be a creative community with CarriageWorks at its hub. We'll try to find tenants and developers who will help attract audiences to the area."

To support the venue's artistic activity, the commercial hub will need to attract an annual income of about $2 million.

Self-sufficient arts organisations are rare, and it will be a challenge to raise the necessary revenue by 2010.

"If we bring it off, it will be the first time an Australian group has been able to do it," said Hunt. "I'm confident it could happen. We're sitting in an amazing location, and there's been a lot of interest."

Photo: Steven Siewert - Stepping up … break dancer Yeahummin performs at the launch of CarriageWorks 2008 program yesterday.