Saved: $2M turns the light back on at 5 Eliza

'So much potential.' One of Sydney's iconic little spaces is about to become much bigger.
independent theatre interior audience

NSW Minister for the Arts Ben Franklin has announced the Newtown School of Arts, which served as an independent theatre and music venue for several years before closing its doors in March 2022, will undergo a major refurbishment funded by a $2 million investment through the NSW Government’s Creative Capital Program.

The funding will see the building converted into a versatile and fully accessible venue with a 200-seat theatre, cabaret, and music venue on the first floor and a 50-seat, street-level black box theatre for the development of new work.

The building, which is just metres from Sydney’s busy King Street strip, will also feature a new café.

‘This investment from the NSW Government will help modernise the internal school space while creating secure employment opportunities for 900 artists,’ said Franklin.

‘The upgraded facilities will allow the school to host spectacular productions and will provide a suitable space for our next generation of creatives to hone their craft and develop exciting new works for the community to enjoy.’

A future for bricks-and-mortar investment?

The School of Arts was founded by Newtown resident Thomas Hold in 1858 with a mission to ‘bring the rich man’s greatest luxury within the reach of the poorest’. The current building, which dates back to 1916, has operated as a subscription library, a lecture hall, a venue for community events (ranging from social dances to pet shows) and as a pop-up hospital during the Spanish flu pandemic after World War I.

Operating as a performing arts venue since 2004, the building came under the artistic directorship of Kerri Glasscock and Cameron Undy in 2015 and was relaunched under the Old 505 banner. It quickly became established as an important space for independent theatre artists and jazz musicians.

But the COVID-19 pandemic and rolling closures of venues severely compromised the venue’s viability and despite a $200,000 grant from the NSW government’s Live Music Support Fund in 2021, Glasscock announced the Old 505’s closure in March this year.

‘I’m not completely convinced independent bricks-and-mortar businesses are ever coming back,’ Glasscock told Guardian Australia at the time.

Even in the wake of the announcement, Glasscock, who is Festival Director and CEO of the Sydney Fringe, has not changed her mind.

‘I still believe the risks are simply too great for any one organisation to carry,’ she told ArtsHub. ‘But this announcement is tremendous in terms of progress; a shared risk model between government, arts organisations and the private sector.’

It is heartening to see an increased focus on the ‘fine-grain’ of arts infrastructure in Sydney, Glasscock added. ‘We’ve seen a lot of high-end development but projects like this is where it really counts. This is the future.’

Read: Can arts funding be self-sustaining?

Greg Khoury, Chair of 5 Eliza’s board of trustees, anticipates the building works will commence sometime in the first half of 2023 (after a yet to be announced production concludes) with a view to reopening in late 2023 or early 2024.

‘We haven’t submitted a DA [Development Application] yet but once we lodge that, we don’t think the refurbishment will take too long – somewhere between six and nine months,’ he said.

The extending of the first floor will effectively double the space available to creatives using the facility, while retaining its heritage features. ‘We see the potential to quadruple the artistic output of the building,’ Khoury explained.

The venue will also provide a viable space for small-to medium scale touring productions, Khoury said.

‘The demand for that sort of space is very significant. Sydney misses out on so many shows simply because there’s nowhere to put them.’

The new spaces will be managed and partially curated by practising artists with a view to keeping the larger part of each season open to hires, Khoury added. ‘Just about all the small spaces in Sydney are curated. It’s very difficult for people to get a look-in. The Arts School was always about making the arts accessible to everybody. There is so much potential here to unlock.’

Acting Performing Arts Editor Jason Blake is a career arts writer, critic and editor. He studied theatre directing at the VCA and NIDA, served as arts editor for the Sydney City Hub, edited subscription TV guides and reviewed theatre for the Sydney Morning Herald from 2009-2017. He was co-founder of and recently publications manager for the Sydney Film Festival. He shares his home office with a possum.