Phoenix rising: philanthropically funded cultural centre in Sydney tests its wings

Kelly Burke
·4 min read

Digital-only performances and live streaming to a virtual audience are set to become a permanent feature of the live performance landscape, long after the Covid-19 pandemic comes under control, and leading the way in this new era of post-pandemic art is a new gallery and live performance space in Sydney’s inner city suburb of Chippendale.

Phoenix Central Park was conceived and funded by philanthropist Judith Neilson, the co-founder and owner of Sydney’s White Rabbit gallery, which houses one of the largest collections in the world of contemporary Chinese art.

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With daughter Beau Neilson as Phoenix’s creative director, the new project, just a few streets away from White Rabbit, continues the family’s commitment to providing creative experiences in the visual and performing arts to the public, free of charge.

Beau Neilson told Guardian Australia Phoenix’s ongoing operations would be wholly funded by a Neilson trust, with no funding from government sources; a financial model highly unusual in the heavily subsided Australian cultural landscape.

Neilson admits the logistics of offering free performances to the public once venues return to 100% capacity have not yet been fully determined.

“I think there are a few different ways we can do it,” she said. “We’re looking at having multiple sessions in an evening – we would still film a component of [the performance] but we will have small audiences, so there might be a six o’clock session for example a nine o’clock session.

“We’re also looking at some walkthrough performances, where audiences could walk through the space and experience different things in different parts of the space, where we could ensure we could manage a steady flow.

“But we’re still working on the practical elements of the details of making all this possible.”

The doors to Phoenix opened in February 2020 with a performance by experimental music group Ensemble Offspring, then promptly closed as the nation began the Covid-19 shutdown.

The project has since filmed a number of Covid-safe audience-free performances and posted them on its YouTube channel.

“At the point restrictions came into place, we were still finding our feet,” said Neilson. “But within a matter of days, we had embraced the full digital possibilities of the space, which, fortuitously, had been considered as part of the building’s design.”

Live audiences are not expected to walk through the venue’s doors again until mid-2021 (Guardian Australia visited it by invitation). But Phoenix’s function and design, which has already collected a slew of architecture awards, has been built around the assumption that performance spaces of the future must be pandemic-proof.

Sophisticated technology to produce high-quality digital and live streaming performances has been embedded into the building’s finely sculpted bones.

It is this principle – that resilience is not enough to ensure future crises will not bring the cultural economy to its knees – that was touched on during a parliamentary inquiry hearing into Australia’s creative and cultural industries and institutions in Canberra last November.

“This is not just about resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same, whereas anti-fragile gets better,” said Kate Fielding, the program director for independent arts and cultural think tank A New Approach, at the inquiry.

“When we talk about anti-fragile, we’re talking about those things which benefit from disruption – that is, they thrive in disruption. They are nimble and responsive and able to adapt to a situation.”

The complex, which reportedly cost $32m to build before a single art work was installed (Neilson would not confirm the building’s cost) earned its designers, Durbach Block Jaggers and John Wardle Architects a number of national and international architectural prizes, including the prestigious NSW Architecture Medallion.

On Friday, Phoenix Central Park will mark its shift back into semi-normal mode, with the digital premiere of a new Sydney Dance Company (SDC) work commissioned by the gallery and choreographed by Rafael Bonachela.

The work, Touch, not only celebrates the first time SDC artists have been allowed to make physical contact with each other in nine months, but also serves as a virtual tour of the buildings’ interiors, which are based on the German concept of “gesamtkunstwerk” – that is, a total work of art.

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The stairwells, dressing rooms, car park and basement, as well as the auditorium with its soaring bell-shaped ceiling have all become sets in the SDC’s short production.

“Phoenix is an inspirational space, which embodies the nexus between architecture and creativity,” said SDC’s creative director Bonachela.

“Working with the Sydney Dance Company dancers to bring to life a creative response to Phoenix Central Park was a delight. Contemporary dance reflects the new, the future, the vanguard and it was incredible to have the opportunity to make a short film driven by the sinuous lines and surprises around each corner of this breathtaking building.”