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

Funded by Judith Neilson, the new gallery and performance space will privately support new works and make them available to the public for free

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 founder and owner of Sydney’s White Rabbit gallery, which houses one of the largest collections in the world of contemporary Chinese art.

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 the Judith Neilson Foundation, 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.”

Party Dozen’s saxophone and percussion duo Kirsty Tickle and Jonathan Boulet perform to an empty auditorium at Phoenix Central Park.
Party Dozen’s saxophone and percussion duo Kirsty Tickle and Jonathan Boulet perform to an empty auditorium at Phoenix Central Park. Photograph: Evo/Phoenix Central Park

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.

Phoenix Central Park was designed by Durbach Block Jaggers and John Wardle Architects.
Phoenix Central Park was designed by Durbach Block Jaggers and John Wardle Architects. Photograph: Evo/Phoenix Central Park

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.

Touch by Sydney Dance Company is filmed inside the Phoenix cultural centre.

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.

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.”


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Global arts crisis: how does Australia’s federal stimulus compare?
As governments around the world bail out battered creative industries, it’s clear there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Does Australia’s stack up?

Ben Eltham

14, Jul, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
Change the conversation: why Australia’s arts advocates need a new approach
With the crisis continuing for the nation’s arts and culture sectors, industry leaders have converged on what needs to happen – fast

Kelly Burke

18, Jun, 2021 @10:00 PM

Article image
Rising festival ‘hits pause’ the day after opening as Melbourne enters lockdown
Organisers of the hotly anticipated arts festival, which has already been cancelled once, say they are not making any ‘knee-jerk decisions’

Stephanie Convery

27, May, 2021 @5:34 AM

Article image
Three women are dancing on an iceberg in the sky. They don’t know how fast it will melt
For the next three days, artists will perform on a 2.5 tonne block of ice suspended above Sydney harbour – an ever-shrinking stage, and a huge logistical feat

Kelly Burke

13, Jan, 2022 @4:30 PM

Article image
Casey Jenkins v Australia Council: when controversial art loses funding, what does it mean for culture?
The artist intended to self-inseminate over a live stream, in a work that could demystify queer parenthood. But after news got out, the grant was revoked

Ben Eltham

16, Oct, 2020 @7:00 PM

Article image
‘It took every cell in my body to the edge’: on Black tenderness in Australian art
It takes a lot of strength to display vulnerability in a hostile world. Shantel Wetherall spoke to artists who are taking that risk

Shantel Wetherall

07, Jun, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Sydney festival teeters 'on a knife-edge' ahead of Wednesday's opening
The first major Australian arts festival of 2021 will be a litmus test for those to come as it navigates shifting sands around the city’s recent Covid outbreak

Elissa Blake

04, Jan, 2021 @4:30 PM

Article image
A tale of two cities: Sydney shows prepare to reopen as Melbourne theatres remain mothballed
NSW is taking a ‘very aggressive’ approach to reopening, but there is ‘no roadmap’ in Victoria, industry leaders say

Elissa Blake

21, Sep, 2021 @9:00 PM

Article image
'Big fat canary in the coalmine': Sydney Theatre Company strives to secure future
‘We don’t know when we’re reopening and we don’t know how audiences will respond,’ executive director says

Stephanie Convery

30, Jun, 2020 @8:44 AM

Article image
'We have broken a lot of hearts': Frozen, Pippin cancel shows amid Sydney Covid outbreak
Magic Mike and My Brilliant Career also have runs affected, but the show goes on for Sydney Theatre Company – as the Sydney festival holds its breath

Elissa Blake

22, Dec, 2020 @3:45 AM