Booking for sustainability – building a relationship with a venue

Carriageworks Director, Lisa Havilah says that building long-term relationships with artists, and ensuring they have a purpose, is key to the sustainability of an institution.
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Ryoji Ikeda, The Planck Universe [macro] (2015), 3 DLP video projectors, computers, speakers. Image Martin Wagenham, courtesy of ZKM Karlsruhe.

This month Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda returns to Sydney’s Carriageworks for the third time to premiere the micro | macro exhibition. Later in the year, American artist Nick Cave also returns to create the multi arts venue’s most ambitious project over its six years of programming.

That major international artists have chosen to build a relationship with Carriageworks is a curious coup, one that goes well beyond the attraction of an iconic industrial building. ArtsHub spoke with Carriageworks Director, Lisa Havilah on what it was that draws international artists back to the space, and how those relationship add to the sustainability of a venue.

‘What we try to do in terms of those relationships is to ensure that they have a purpose. One of the intentions, for our audiences, is to develop these long-term relationships with artists. In Australia a lot of the time an international artist will come once, so we wanted to look at a program where the experience an artist’s body of work will grow over a long term,’ said Havilah.

‘It is also about how those relationships can give back to the institution, in terms of scale and major works in an artist’s body of work over a lifetime,’ she added.

Havilah said that for her personally, is was a relational way of working with artists that has always guided her vision.

‘A lot of artists these days find institutions that are more like “homes”; they have more artistic associate relationships with them – there’s a familiar respect. These are the kind of relationships we are trying to build,’ she told ArtsHub.

Havilah believes that building an audience and building relationships with artists goes hand-in-hand. In the case of these international relationships, there is an added outcome that is a very smart, strategic play.  These artists carry the Carriageworks brand internationally, helping to position the institution globally through the positive experience of those relationships and its ambitious vision. 

Havilah explained: ‘We are absolutely judged by the experience that those artists have and carry out into the world –  that is the reputation of any institution – how an artist talks about it. Through both these artists, Ryoji and Nick, I think the profile of Carriageworks continues, and as they work with like-minded institutions it helps us to informally grow a network as well.’

Installation detail Nick Cave UNTIL to be unveiled at Carriagworks November 2018; image Carriageworks

Relationships fuel ambition … and audiences

On 5 July, Carriageworks will unveil Ryoji Ikeda’s latest works – two monumental audio-visual works that were developed during a residency at Switzerland’s CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. One work reaches ten metres in height and the other 173 metres square, and both explore the intersection of art and science, in this case, the materials that make up our universe.

Read: Our review of Ryoji Ikeda’s Superposition at Carriageworks

It is followed days later by the unveiling of an installation by French conceptual artist Daniel Buren, titled Like Childs Play, while in November this year, Nick Cave will create an installation comprised of thousands of found objects and millions of beads that will spread over 5,000 square meters.

‘These free exhibitions will run in tandem and challenge, in different ways, our perception of size,’ said Carriageworks.

‘When we did the first work with Ryoji we bought him to the space and asked him what he would like to do and there was such a huge response to his work. We don’t have a contract with him over the long term, but we are constantly interested in the next thing he is doing and whether there is an opportunity to present that in Australia,’ said Havilah.

‘The same thing happened with Nick Cave – he had never done a project in Australia before – he described it like dating,’ said Havilah of that relationship-building process.

At the time Cave was presenting HEARD: SYD (2016), he was in the early stages of a new project with MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), and through the success of his experience, Carriageworks became one of the key commissioners of UNTIL.

Read: HEARD:SYD Flash dance, flash mob or just flashy art?

But rather than just installing a massive spectacular artwork, Carriageworks has spent this commissioning period also working on how the installation will be used as a performance space during the exhibition period, activated by music, dance, panel discussions and community forums.

‘Nick Cave is an artist that is undefinable in the way that he can easily move between (art) forms, while also creating a work that has a great generosity to other artists and to our communities,’ said Havilah.

Installation view of  Katharina Grosse’s The Horse Trotted Another Couple of Metres, Then it Stopped at Carriageworks, Sydney 2018; Photo Carriageworks

Co-investing builds sustainability

Carriageworks commits about 80-90% of its budget to the commissioning new work for its program. It also co-commissions a new work each year in partnership with Carriageworks’ resident companies. Havilah sees it as a growing investment.

‘That is where we see our role – commissioning. And it is definitely directly related to relationships. The more relational, and the longer term an institution develops a relationship with an artist or partner, the more possibilities to expand into other partnerships, and the scale and capacity of what you can do, increases,’ she said.

‘That is reason Carriagworks has been able to grow over the past six years.’

Havilah believes that through strong partnerships your funding can grow, and you don’t have to be reliant on hyped box office sales.

‘So many of our things are subsidised and free because we have a really big focus on access. The audience we are trying to grow are new audiences – young and culturally diverse – so we have kept our ticket price at $35 for a really long time and partnering to ensure the precinct works across day and nighttime activity.’

Havilah continued: ‘The other component of that is we self-entrepreneur about 75% of our turnover through commercial partnerships, so we have to find a balance between our artistic programs and our commercial programs and make sure that everything goes through the one curatorial filter.’

‘There has to be a synergy  even our commercial programs are curated and public facing because we want our audience to have a cohesive experience,’ she added.

For example, BresicWhitney is a Major Partner of Carriageworks and the presenting partner of Ryoji Ikeda, while Melbourne art dealer Anna Schwartz supported the recent Katharina Grosse installation in partnership with Carriageworks and the Sydney Festival.

Schwartz committed to a five-year partnership with Carriageworks to support its international visual arts program. ‘We are into year three of that relationship. You talked about sustainability –  one of the key things is the diversification of how projects get supported, and Anna has been key to that,’ said Havilah.

Havilah believes that risk is part of sustainability.

‘We try to be a constantly learning institution. We are such a young institution; we don’t want to be locked down to one thing  we want to be a constantly evolving  and how that is tied into risk and failure is part of the culture of the institution, and how you do that respectively with artists and partners is key.’

She believes that you have to push that frontier to maintain a certain energy – and if not, at the scale of Carriageworks, that static program would reverberate with deadness.

‘You have to, or you can’t sustain it  it just becomes rhetoric. And it is the artists who push an institution forward,’ she concluded.

Ryoji Idea: micro / macro will be presented from 5 July – 29 July 2018

Daniel Buren: Like Childs Play will be presented from 7 July – 12 August 2018

Nick Cave: UNTIL and Flow Blow will be unveiled 23 November 2018 and will be supported by a six-month public program.

All three programs are free.

Carriageworks is located at Everleigh, Sydney

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina