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Newsletter 337

Published May 11, 2020
Carriageworks: under the paternal care of the Opera House, or a real estate opportunity?

This week we learned of the first major casualty of the coronavirus in the Arts sector, as Carriageworks went into administration. It seems they had little choice, as 75% of the venue’s income is event-related and the NSW Government declined to commit to a bail-out. One wonders, ironically enough, if this would have happened if Don Harwin had still been Arts Minister? Despite his  championing of the gruesome plan to dismantle the Powerhouse Museum, Don was an effective advocate for the Arts. At present the portfolio is wthout a minister in an hour of need.

Carriageworks, which rose from obscurity to become a popular venue under Lisa Havilah’s directorship, has become part of Sydney’s arts eco-system and desperately needs to be preserved. Its loss would be a major blow to the performing and visual arts in this city.

The only plan the government has put forward so far would put the venue put under the administrative umbrella of the Sydney Opera House. This may not qualify as a fate-worse-than-death but it progresses that long-cherished plan of pushing cultural institutions into large, hierarchical conglomerates that would supposedly create greater efficiencies. As we know from experience this is hardly more than a cover for further funding cuts. The other advantage for the government – especially a government wary of the leftish tendencies of the arts community – is that it allows the appointment of a few sympathetic people at the top of the tree who may be depended upon to keep the rebellious troops in check. It doesn’t matter if these controllers have scant experience in the arts, or no understanding of the institutions they rule.

The only worse result would be a little creative rezoning to allow Carriageworks’ cavernous heritage buildings to be transformed into the residential and retail spaces that Gladys’s government finds so seductive. It’s not an impossible scenario, but it should not come down to a simple trade-off in which the Opera House takes control or the whole thing is sold off.

There is, of course, a very simple solution that Sydney Mayor, Clover Moore has already raised. In a rational world, in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent economic apocalypse, the Government would abandon the costly, counter-productive Powerhouse project and devote the projected $1.5 billion (more like $2 billion) in costs to building a new arts venue in Parramatta and saving Carriageworks. This would be a sensible response to the actual needs and desires of people in Parramatta and greater Sydney, and a repudiation of the secretive schemes cooked up by Ministers and property developers. There’d be enough change to help out arts venues across the state.

We keep hearing that the coronavirus will change everything. The great fear is that it will inflict disastrous changes on the arts, which will be viewed as the lowest of priorities by politicians. One suspects this is already the majority opinion on both sides of the House, aside from a handful of enthusiasts, including Don Harwin. No matter what happens, budgets will be slashed, programs truncated, and lots of casual jobs sacrificed. For the commercial galleries it will be difficult to sell works, as collectors will be far more cautious with their funds. Philanthropy will be even harder to activate.

Is there an up-side? There could be if the Powerhouse project were abandoned and the money used intelligently.

For the next art column I’ve delved further back into the past than usual, looking at the images generated by the Black Death which swept through Europe from 1347-1351, killing a third of the population. While this might make us feel how soft we’ve had it with own pandemic, it also allows some reflection on the changes wrought by the plague, which saw the beginning of the end of the feudal system; a new popular contempt for the Church, followed by a reassertion of its status; and the establishment of a climate of anxiety and insecurity that would last for at least two hundred years. Some of the artworks that emerged from that period are among the greatest of all time.

There’s a viral touch to the film column as well, which reviews Colour From Space, a new sci-fi horror flick based on a tale by H.P.Lovecraft. It’s the story of a meteor that arrives from space and gradually spreads death and disaster on a secluded property in New England. Lovecraft has never been well served by his cinematic interpreters and there are many aspects of this film by Richard Stanley that keep up the bad work. On the other hand the movie is more faithful to the spirit of the author than most of the unspeakable junk that has been foisted on him in the past. Lovecraft is in that position, so common to writers of imaginative fiction, that they don’t need to be rescued from their critics but their admirers. It’s a bit like Carriageworks and the Opera House.