Meet: Beau Neilson – Creative Director of Sydney’s Magnificent Phoenix Central Park

Beau Neilson

The Phoenix Central Park recently launched its Season VI. The program featured an all-femme line-up that spanned diverse genres and ncluded both local and global talent. In September, Backseat Mafia attended a spellbinding performance by Andrew Tuttle in this magnificent venue.

We went behind the scenes and spoke to the Phoenix’s creative director, Beau Neilson about her vision for the venue.

Thanks for talking to Backseat Mafia, Beau. I attended the recent performance by Andrew Tuttle at the Phoenix Central Park and I was really impressed by the beauty of the place. Can you tell us about how the Phoenix Central Park came to be and the role of your mother, who is a well-known philanthropist in the development of this unique space?

My mother Judith Neilson is best known for her collection of contemporary Chinese art, housed down the road at the White Rabbit Gallery. Phoenix Central Park represents her continued connection with Chippendale, and a sincere desire to rejuvenate a neighbourhood which she holds dear. The building was once a burned-down martial arts studio and is fast becoming a vital tentpole in Sydney music scene.

I admire that her philanthropy is conducted with focus and intentionally. When she connects with a cause, she does so deeply. Judith has long understood the importance of carving out spaces for artists and the presentation of their work. In the case of the Rabbit, it was giving overdue profile to Chinese art, having observed its underrepresentation in Australia. With Phoenix, she has created a unique marriage of architecture and live performance, bringing together two of her other passions. The result of her vision is a truly unique space for musicians and audiences alike.

I have been privileged to build the team that has brought Phoenix to the public. While the structure has been complete since the end of 2019, we have only been regularly welcoming audiences through our doors this year – and in that time I am proud to share more than twenty-thousand tickets have been allocated. Before that time, when COVID limited our ability to operate, we ran various digital initiatives to support hundreds of musicians.

What is your background Beau, did you study art?
The arts have been a central focus of my life since I was a child, and I owe a lot of that to my parents who are deep lovers of visual art and music themselves. While I studied the law, I spent time throughout my studies working at White Rabbit Gallery during its formative years. My professional experiences have been focused on cultural institutions including Sydney Dance Company, The V&A Museum and social change initiatives such as Link Up.

I love the concept of concert tickets being made available via a lottery as I think that this ensures that true fans get to see the artists that they love. Who came up with this idea and has it been successful to date? Have you had scalpers take advantage of the system yet?

My colleague and friend Angus came up with the genius idea of the ticket ballot. We have been very fortunate that it has been so well received and helps the audience understand the value and scarcity of their tickets. Like the building itself, the ballot system has a humbling effect on our audiences – it’s a special thing to be drawn and there’s no preferential treatment in the process. Rest assured, we have strict rules in place to ensure scalpers cannot profit from our free tickets!

Beau Neilson

Who designed the Phoenix and where did they take their inspiration from for this beautiful space?

Phoenix was always intended to be a place where the visual and performing arts can exist in dialogue, hence the two wings – the performance space which we call The Nest and a gallery space. The Nest was designed by Sydney architecture practice Durbach Block Jaggers who derived inspiration from sources as eclectic as the Globe Theatre and drawings M.C. Escher. Meanwhile, the Gallery side with its grand presentation spaces, was designed by John Wardle.

I believe that the Phoenix opened in early 2020 and was forced to almost immediately shut down because of Covid? This must have been devastating for you, can you tell us a bit about that time?
From every challenge comes an opportunity. Like many cultural institutions, the lockdowns of 2020 gave us a chance to take stock, and plan and sharpen our skills in digital documentation and distribution of artists’ work. Our Behind Doors series, for example, captured 80 performances by at least as many musicians with a focus on classical repertoire. Come the lockdowns of 2021 we turned our focus to contemporary music, which gave rise to the HALO series. This time, we launched an open callout for Sydney musicians, offering the opportunity to make a 15-minute concert film with high production values at Phoenix. From 500 applications, we selected 20 distinctive acts to appear in the series. We are hugely proud of both initiatives as they offered practical, creative and financial support for musicians during a very precarious time.

Can you tell us how the space came to be named?

A martial arts studio was once to be on the site of Phoenix Central Park. The well-loved space burnt down, and Phoenix rose from the ashes.

You have said that the Phoenix VI Programme seeks to address the issue of gender inequality in music. How did that idea come about? Will the Phoenix continue to present Programmes, such as this one, that present art with a “social message”?
A key focus of our programming at Phoenix is connecting with and representing a broad range of subcultures and creative scenes across Sydney and Australia more broadly. We hope Phoenix will always be a safe space for minorities and we want to ensure, as an increasingly high-profile platform, that we are programming with a great deal of curatorial care.

Season VI’s programming framework emerged from a persistent and unjust feature of the music industry, and that is an under-representation of women artists. So, we thought, why not flip the script and program an all-femme line-up?

It’s one thing to read the reports and listen to the anecdotes of gender inequality, and another to act. We must not shy away from these issues. All members of the industry have a duty to bear these issues in mind and act to improve the situation in their own way.

Can you tell us a bit about the programming for the Phoenix? Is it mainly music that is presented there, what else does the venue host?
At present, our focus is on presenting the best in contemporary music on offer in Australia, but we always stay hungry and are scoping interesting multidisciplinary presentations in the future.

Since Backseat Mafia is a music site, I must ask you what type of music you enjoy and who your favourite musicians are?
A feature of my work is listening to a very broad range of music – it’s always hard to have a favourite. Lately, I have really been enjoying Tom Snowdon, SAULT and Carla Geneve.

Can you give us any insights into what is planned for the Phoenix next?

We recently announced a very exciting album listening experience and solo piano performance with none other than Jon Hopkins – that is sure to be one of our most popular events. As for next year? There are exciting things in the works. You’ll have to keep an eye on our Phoenix socials for updates!

Thanks for talking to us Beau, we wish you and the Phoenix all the very best for the future and we can’t wait to see what will be on offer in 2023 and beyond!

Season VI runs until December 17 – tickets available here.

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