An unfunded discovery platform: inside Phoenix Central Park

Phoenix’s financial freedom allows the team to focus on curating a mindful audience experience. Patrons are invited in for one purpose: to immerse themselves in the fleeting moment.
Phoenix. Image is a keyboard player, a drummer and a guitarist playing on a dark stage with two strong lights at the back.

Phoenix Central Park is a one-of-a-kind live music venue in the centre of Sydney. Elusively off-sale, tickets to Phoenix are free of charge and exclusively available by ballot. Aside from the beautiful award-winning architecture and the philanthropy of the founding Neilson family, little is known about the model and inner workings of Phoenix Central Park. 2023 marked Phoenix’s 10th season of programming and its second year of continuous programming after completing construction in 2019 and later opening to the public.

Manicured cacti, smooth cement and vaulted ceilings instil a church-like hush throughout the Phoenix. Built on the site of a fire-ravaged martial arts studio, just down the road from the White Rabbit Gallery also opened by the Neilsons, Phoenix’s founding vision was to create ‘an artistic hub where visual and performing arts are in constant dialogue with one another’. The space is stunning. The building’s two wings were designed by John Wardle Architects and Durbach Block Jaggers. One wing (containing performance space The Nest) is devoted to live music while the other – not yet open to the public – is a heavenly multi-level art gallery. The Nest is an intimate performance space equipped with state-of-the-art technical equipment, two pianofortes and a custom PA system. With largely standing room and no back of house, it is clear the venue was originally designed for private use.

Conceived by Judith Neilson AM as a private performance space, the Phoenix opened its doors over the past few years under the helm of Judith’s daughter, Beau Neilson as Creative Director. During the pandemic, Beau worked within lockdown restrictions to commission three site-specific video series, including a dance work in the Phoenix car park and a piano performance in the Phoenix lift. ‘I thought, how can we make the building a co-collaborator in these performances?’ she says.

Phoenix’s financial freedom allows the team to focus on curating a mindful audience experience. Patrons are invited in for one purpose: to immerse themselves in the performance. Unlike commercial venues, which do their best to attract patrons pre- and post-show, audiences are in and out at Phoenix. The pressures of lurching between funding rounds and generating revenue – through ticketing, merchandise, venue hire and bar sales – float away. No bar means no distractions. The space is not available for hire and, says Beau, never will be. The commercial kitchen has only been used once. The 45-minute duration optimises focus. ‘Our shows are short – people come to be present and in the moment. That’s what we want,’ says Beau. Very few arts (if any) organisations in the world can say that 100% of tickets are free. Beau is conscious that this is a luxury: ‘Judith [Neilson] is the sole funder, which is pretty amazing… and allows us a lot of creative freedom.’

The programming is prolific. Performers are typically allocated one day, two performances. There are 140 patrons per show, with standing space and limited seating available. Roughly 37,000 audience members have attended a performance at Phoenix over the past two years. Beau Neilson’s advice for curators and programmers: ‘Be receptive to the audience. It’s not about you. It’s about who you’re inflicting your taste on. Who is it for?’

Phoenix has a unique relationship with its audience. With tickets being free, the target demographic is loose: ‘At every show, we’ll have a child under the age of 10 and someone over the age of 80,’ notes Neilson. ‘The demographic varies slightly depending on the show. But people trust our programming enough to think it’s going to be a good experience regardless of whether they are familiar with the artist or the work.’

Phoenix’s mission is to be a live discovery platform. Digital discovery platforms that generate algorithm-based playlists ‘feed [an audience] what it thinks they’ll like rather than what is actually possible and what else is out there,’ says Neilson. ‘What distinguishes us from so many music and art experiences is that it’s live performance first… I think that’s something that needs to be foregrounded in an age where it’s so easy to get these digital but compromised experiences of art and music. It’s a moment. A fleeting moment.’

The results speak for themselves. A recent survey completed by over 1000 Phoenix patrons indicates that 76% of patrons engaged with the artist’s music following the performance.

The team use a custom piece of technology to streamline and randomise the ballot process. Lucky audience members are notified one week prior to the performance. The team trialled a few different ticketing models, including industry RSVPs, prior to landing on the randomised public ballot. ‘We realised we need to invest in a process where people value their ticket and show up,’ explains Neilson. ‘It’s been really successful. We have really high attendance rates and huge interest when we release the ballots. Most people only sign up for a few acts, which shows they’re invested.’

As word of mouth has spread, so has demand. Upon launching Season X, Phoenix received enough ballot entries within the first 24 hours to fill every seat of the season. Phoenix takes the audience experience seriously and invests resources in analysing audience trends and behaviours. Over time, the focus of feedback has reportedly shifted from architecture to the quality of the programming and the passion and professionalism of staff.

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As President of the The Chippendale Collective, Neilson is keenly aware of her operating environment. She is focused on building up Sydney’s ecosystem of performers, venues, audiences and technicians. ‘The music industry is an ecosystem. We need to give musicians opportunities to perform in different spaces, to different audiences, to hone their craft. Musicians don’t just suddenly pop up at a stadium show.’ Likewise, ‘you can’t have a show without sound or lighting… We need to collectively invest in pathways for all those different groups so they are equipped to amp up the sector’.

One of the ways Phoenix aims to support emerging artists is by offering free rehearsal and development space to acoustic performers.

In harmony with the architecture of Phoenix – half live music, half visual art – Neilson is passionate about the interplay between art forms. She hopes to bridge audiences between live music and visual art by curating weekly music programming at the White Bay Power Station in the 2024 Biennale of Sydney – the first time the iconic precinct (and its 48-metre high ceiling) will be open to the public. The music program is curated to respond to the visual art exhibition Ten Thousand Suns. ‘I am excited about the blend of music and art, and seeing how those worlds connect to show how complementary they can be,’ says Neilson.

The Phoenix x Biennale partnership follows this year’s partnership between Phoenix and South by Southwest. Moving forward, Neilson is focused on building further partnerships and collaborations across the arts sector: ‘We are open to collaboration. We don’t treat music like it’s in a silo, but more holistically as part of Sydney’s cultural offering’.

Season XI at Phoenix Central Park runs from 11 January to 18 April 2024. Enter the free ticket ballot here.

Phoenix Central Park is curating music at the White Bay Power Station in the 2024 Biennale of Sydney. Enter the free ticket ballot here.

This article is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Madeleine is an arts manager and independent producer with a background in law and policy. She has worked on major commercial musicals and is the co-founder of LGBTQIA+ theatre company Fruit Box Theatre in Eora, Sydney. Madeleine has previously written for Reuters, the International Press Institute and the European Journalism Centre.