Uncertain future for Cockatoo Island – ArtsHub

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Artist impression, Draft Concept Vision for Cockatoo Island. Photo Harbour Trust.
Released this week, the NSW Government kicked off its new summer campaign to get domestic tourists to visit Sydney – highlighting the jewel venues of the harbour city. Notably Cockatoo Island (increasingly known by the name used by the traditional owners, Wareamah) was not included.
The venue was also recently nixed by the Biennale of Sydney, which announced its venues for the 2022 edition of the important, expansive exhibition last month (17 November).
First introduced in 2006 by Artistic Director, Dr Charles Merewether, the past eight curators of the cyclical exhibition have all given it a go at curating installations across the vast raw environment, which is notoriously difficult for invigilation, insurance, and freight.
But hey, it has enabled big spectacular works by international artists such as Ai Weiwei, William Kentridge, Cai Guo-Qiang among others.
The news should be prefaced by noting that venues are never fixed and are chosen at the discretion of the Artistic Director.
In the case of the 2022 exhibition titled, rīvus – themed around the ecologies of rivers and other bodies of water, echoing the movement of people and ideas – that decision fell upon the Curatorium and was not exclusive to Columbian curator Jose Roca.
Read: Curatoriums are the new programming superpower
The news came within weeks of Opera Australia’s announcement (30 September) that it would claim the venue in a first to stage two outdoor spectaculars: An inaugural gala concert for New Year’s Eve, and later in 2022, the production Carmen.
Australia’s leading opera company – which has felt the financial pinch this year – added in a statement: ‘Guests can either book seats on the island and enjoy an array of dining and drinking options on offer or, in a world first for opera, book a mooring for their own boat and watch the live performance projected onto a big screen.’
It is a natural extension to the company’s success with their Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour series, present at Lady Macquarie’s Chair since 2012. Curiously, it came six year’s after the Biennale had already made the bold move to presented harbourside at Cockatoo Island.
The swings and roundabouts around this prized venue are clearly moving, not just as a temporary venue but as a more permanent arts venue.
On 4 May this year, The Harbour Trust unveiled an ambitious concept to transform Cockatoo Island into a world-class public destination.
The Trust states: ‘The announcement follows the Federal Government’s work with the community in establishing the landmark review of the Harbour Trust, as well as the Government’s commitment to keeping sites in public hands and its broad agreement to the recommendations in the 2020 Independent Review of  the Harbour Trust, which highlighted the need for a masterplan for the future of Cockatoo Island.’
One can’t help noticing the words ‘public hands’ boldly in those lines. It has to be remembered that it was only a year earlier, March 2020, that Cockatoo Island was seemingly up for grabs as there was news of a private consortium offering $80 million to turn Cockatoo Island into an arts venue.
So what really, is going on?
Cockatoo Island has been open to the public for over a decade, a bold move led by the Biennale of Sydney. It planted a seed that has germinated in the minds of many.
In March 2020, Cockatoo Island Foundation Limited – a consortium of business men and arts patrons – had the vision of making this a permanent arts site, what some described as an equivalent to Japan’s Naoshima art island that would be a cultural tourism destination. The idea was contested and quickly shut down, with many questioning the idea of a public asset being turned over to private enterprise.
It could be argued that this was the catalyst needed for the Harbour Trust to push forward with their own plan, languishing in the too-hard basket for too long. One reason, was perhaps because this site is so difficult.
Difficult in terms of access, history, heritage, trauma, cost … and the list goes on.
Roca and his Curatorium chose a variety of other venues over Cockatoo Island: the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Barangaroo including The Cutaway, Circular Quay, Information + Cultural Exchange, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, National Art School in partnership with Artspace, The Rocks and Walsh Bay Arts Precinct including Pier 2/3.
They described their choice of venues as one that would ‘encourage visitors to flow between locations on a course that is inclusive and accessible by walking, biking, wheelchair and other mobility devices, and via public transport.’
Clearly, that rules Cockatoo Island out.
One might also question whether it is in part a financial decision. In 2020, lockdowns forced the Biennale online just 10 days after opening. We are still planning events of scale in precarious times. But also good artistic planning is finding the right fit – and off the back of such strong climate conditions and financial pressures, it could only be celebrated as a sound decision.
Rather, their focus has turned to reinvigorating experience (which we are all hankering for) through projects like, Space In-Between, a series of self-guided walks and site-specific exercises created by rīvus participants and extended national and international thinkers, researchers and makers – including Julie Gough (Australia), Pablo Helguera (Mexico/USA), Astrida Neminas (Canada), José Roca (Colombia), Hanna Tuulikki (Scotland) and Tais Rose Wae (Australia).
Interesting, in a swing around, Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay has long been another Biennale favourite venue, but has not been used since 2012. It will return again in 2022 after a hiatus of four editions, perhaps in part due to cost as well as theme.
The decision offered an open door for Opera Australia, and perhaps an obvious next step on from its Handa Opera on the Harbour series. OA’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini AM is confident both productions are exactly what culture-starved Australians will be looking for and will be big drawcards for the Company’s 2022 season. ‘These two events represent a tremendous opportunity for audiences to enjoy unique Sydney experiences,’ he said.
‘We wouldn’t be able to do these events without the support of the NSW Government through Destination NSW,’ he added.
Minister for Jobs, Investment, Tourism and Western Sydney Stuart Ayres said, ‘These unique events are exactly what we need to support our goal to be the events capital of the Asia Pacific and reinforce the commitment to showcase our strengths such as the city’s artistic, cultural and natural assets.’
The Draft Concept Vision of the Harbour Trust presents a 10-year vision for Cockatoo Island /  Wareamah, what Joseph Carrozzi, Chair, Sydney Harbour Federation Trust describes as an ‘ambition to work towards’.
‘The vast nature of the island and the many precincts means that it is likely to be delivered in several stages over the coming decade,’ he added.
Part of the plan is to create harbour walks, a tidal terrace for dining and events, a creative hub, an outdoor stage and event site, plus areas for artists in residence.
Read: Cockatoo Island Draft Concept Vision
Carrozzi said they cannot achieve this vision alone. ‘We will look for support from governments as well as from committed corporates and benefactors, who are  attracted to the opportunity to deliver some of the unique precincts outlined in this Draft Concept Vision, in partnership with the Harbour Trust.’
While the 2020 review recommended against long-term leasing plans, it said leases longer than 35 years should remain. This prompted the community-run Headland Preservation Group to campaign against such a scenario being allowed to take place.
Upon her appointment, Carding has said she is aware of the sensitivity of dealing with the site. While the Vision Plan was tabled for consideration this year, no timeline has been defined or committed to. In July, however, former Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Director, Janet Carding will be the new executive director of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, to lead the overhaul.
The Sydney Harbour Federation Trust is due to be wound down by 2033.
The 23rd Biennale of Sydney will be presented from 12 March to 13 June 2022.
New Year’s Eve on Cockatoo Island, with Opera Australia, 31 December.
Carmen on Cockatoo Island: 25 November – 18 December 2022 Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour.

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
Dec 7, 2021
Dec 7, 2021
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