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‘There's this burst of energy in Sydney where people want to experience the world around them.’

Gems in this

Photo>>>Hugh Stewart


Explore Playbook

Feature by Interview: Justin Drape; Words: Pete Kempshall

As the Creative Director of the city’s Phoenix Central Park art and performance space, Beau Neilson stands by an ethos of experimentation and pushing the boundaries — to Beau, there is no ‘right answer’ when it comes to art, and the individual response is paramount.

Born into a family where art was a constant presence, Beau Neilson has followed in the footsteps of her philanthropist mother Judith and established herself as one of the most prominent figures in Sydney’s art world. A passionate believer that art should be available to everyone, no matter what their walk of life, she has championed new and established artists alike to expand their bodies of work, and make it all available to the widest possible audience. We chat with her about the importance of inclusion and accessibility in art, her work at Phoenix Central Park, seeing Chippendale as one the city’s best cultural hubs, and her Sydney Travel Playbook.


On growing up around art

Since I was young, I was exposed to art within the household. My parents were both born in Africa — my mother in Zimbabwe, my father in South Africa — so we were always surrounded by a lot of arts and crafts, beautiful paintings and sculptures. And they brought a lot of that heritage and those stories with them when they came to Australia.

On lessons learned about creativity from your mother

Mom’s strongest position is that whatever you think is right: art can be explained and there are many ways to give context to a particular work, but good art speaks for itself, and you’re allowed your own opinion, regardless of whether it’s in line with what everyone else thinks. Different people can have different understandings of art, and it can resonate with them in different ways. Some art is, even from an objective standpoint, stronger than another piece of art in whatever form it takes, but we should be allowed to experience it in our own way and have our own assessment of it based on our own experience of life. No one can measure knowledge. No one knows how much you know, or don’t know. Art is just for you to go in and experience.

On where creativity has taken you mentally

Creativity comes in many forms, so the more you’re exposed to it, the more opportunities you see. I’m fortunate in my role in that I get to see extraordinary music, dance, performance art and visual art, and it allows me to expand my own horizons and get a different perception of the world around me and what’s possible.

Exceptional ALIEN joined artworld luminary Beau Neilson for a day of exploration through Sydney’s cultural hub of Chippendale. Starting the day at Phoenix Central Park (where Beau is Creative Director), Beau then led Exceptional ALIEN through Chippendale stopping in at The Eveleigh Hotel, White Rabbit Gallery, KINDRED and Kensington Street. Explore more of Beau’s Sydney Travel Playbook via the link at the end of the article. Photography and direction by Hugh Stewart; DOP by Spencer Frost; music by Jitwam. With special thanks to: Beau Neilson, the team at Phoenix Central Park and all featured performers; Judith Neilson, the team at White Rabbit Gallery and all captured artists; City of Sydney; Jin Wu Koon Martial Arts; The Eveleigh; and KINDRED.

On how travel influences your creative thinking

There’s a lot to be said for being uncomfortable. When you travel and you're exposed to different places, it encourages you to freshen up your outlook, and reconsider what you value and what has meaning for you. I think that essentially fuels any kind of creative projects. Travel allows you to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable. It teaches you to be open-minded, flexible, open to new experiences and new people. I think it's the people you meet along the way when you travel that really change you on a more profound level than anything else.

On inspiring places your work has taken you

On the other side of the world, I love going to the British Museum. I love seeing how, throughout history, we have all these different manifestations of creativity and craftsmanship, and how this is such an essential part of being human — expressing yourself through art.

‘Creativity comes in many forms, so the more you’re exposed to it, the more opportunities you see.’

On experiencing digital versus physical art

Physical spaces are really important for people to connect with and experience art. Even though we're able to load up our TVs, our iPads, our phones, with all the arts in the history of the world, it's a physical place that allows you to really understand it and experience it in your body. I think a lot of art is experienced in a very physical, tangible sense — being in a room, surrounded by people, feeling their responses as well as your own. That gives a whole different context you can't get through a digital experience.

On the importance of philanthropy in the arts

Philanthropy encourages inclusion. It allows people to access things on their own terms, without having a huge upfront fee. It supports existing programs that encourage people from different backgrounds who feel there's a paywall, or a cultural access barrier. A lot of people don't feel welcome in big cultural institutions — they feel it's reserved for the rich and powerful and that they themselves won't be able to benefit from the experience. Projects like Phoenix Central Park and White Rabbit Gallery, who allow anyone in — there's no ticket fee, there's no block to your access to that experience — are really valuable in sharing art more widely with the Australian people, in particular Sydney people, and changing their ideas on what they think they might enjoy or be allowed to experience.

To Beau Neilson, the emotional experience of engaging with art is heightened in physical spaces. One such space is White Rabbit Gallery, founded by Beau’s mother Judith Neilson, which showcases contemporary Chinese art. With a rotating series of vibrant exhibits, alongside a tea house serving dumplings and scones, the free gallery enables people from all walks of life to access and experience art. In a very real way, the gallery has also helped transform the neighborhood of Chippendale into a cultural hub. Artworks from the top: first and second right is ‘What Makes Me Understand What I Know’ (2019) by He An 何岸, second left is ‘A Bunch of Happy Fantasies’ (2009) by Shi Yong 施勇, third row is ‘It’s Always You’ (2021) by Sin Wai Kin 單慧乾, fourth row is ‘The Static Eternity’ (2012) by Gao Rong 高蓉, bottom image is ‘Fairy Tales in Red Times’ (2003-2007) by Shao Yinong + Muchen 邵译农 + 慕辰. All images shot by Hugh Stewart.

On the origins of Phoenix Central Park

The building we're in used to be a martial arts studio. It was around for years, then it had all sorts of industrial uses. But less than 10 years ago, there was an explosion — my understanding is that a car drove in and ignited. Following that, when it was developed into a performance space, Judith took inspiration from that experience and called it Phoenix, rising from the ashes. And it has evolved since then. We had some beautiful performances that were classical or jazz in this amazing room that's perfect for chamber music. But I felt that was limiting and that there might be opportunities to push boundaries in different ways. We brought in this amazing set of speakers that have allowed us to do some far more experimental, subtle, yet complex work, involving all sorts of different instruments, as well as electronics; looking at the sound design as part of the experience.

On upcoming projects you’re looking forward to

Something that's very exciting is World Pride; that's coming to Sydney next year, and that's going to be a massive city takeover. We've got a really interesting and unusual project plan for that, which we'll be promoting very soon. But generally I'm excited to give artists opportunities to be brave in this space, to develop and perform their work, and to try something different. Since this is such a small capacity venue, it allows artists to take risks in a way they couldn't with, say, an 800-seater theater. So some artists who are very comfortable and familiar with large-scale venues are allowed to try something that might be a bit uncomfortable for them or for their core audience group. I think that's a really wonderful opportunity to allow them artistic development, and then also allow their audience and new audiences exposure to that work.

On how the city and its culture inspires you

Sydney is a really beautiful city, and I think that's what it's most known for. But as well as the sea, the sun, the amazing beaches and gorgeous gardens, it does have cultural hubs all around the place. Chippendale is one of the finest, with the combination of galleries, some selling, some just for visiting, like White Rabbit Gallery and Phoenix Central Park. There’s also a whole lot of really fun pubs that do a lot for the local music industry, with regular acts a few nights a week. They are a great place to get together with friends or meet new friends. I think at one stage, Chippendale had the highest density of pubs in any small set of blocks. There's the Lansdowne [Hotel] just up the road that is packed every night of the week and has regular band nights with some really excellent acts. We also have the [Lord] Gladstone down the road, which has an excellent offering as well. My personal favorite is The Eveleigh Hotel.

‘Travel allows you to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable.’


On creative experiences you want to share

Chippendale is full of them: the White Rabbit Gallery down the road has two big exhibitions a year, lots of different paintings, drawings, installation works, you name it. It's amazing, seeing the skill of these artists, their attention to detail, and the way they've taken that extra step to create something unconventional, surprising and challenging. I find that a treat. And it has also got a beautiful tea house with dumplings and, as recently reported, the finest scones in Sydney. Also, there’s Phoenix Central Park, this extraordinary space I'm in right now. We have weekly shows, and they're all free access. You just need to sign up to our ballot and then we release the tickets a week in advance. We have lots of amazing performances: folk music, classical, jazz, experimental and everything in between.


Designed by John Wardle Architects, the striking Phoenix Central Park is a creative haven and performance space that plays host to free weekly events. Punters can enjoy live music, dance, theater and art shows from atop the staircase that cascades around an intimate stage. First image of Beau Neilson by Hugh Stewart, second row of performers Liars (left) and Thandi Phoenix (middle and right) by Jordan Munns, third row of Beau by Hugh Stewart, fourth row (from left to right) courtesy of Phoenix Central Park, Hugh Stewart, and Gavin Green.

On your relationship with Sydney

I would describe my relationship with Sydney as optimistic. We've gone through a lot of change over the past few years, with the combination of lockout laws and Covid keeping everyone in their homes for extended periods. Now, there's this burst of energy where people want to express themselves and they want to experience the world around them, and they want to invest in that. Everyone is committed to making it the best that it can be, and investing in art, culture and opportunities. Walking around Chippendale, you see a huge contrast. You see people walking with dogs, you see new buildings, you see all these beautiful little workers’ cottages, and then a vibrant pub scene, as well as little restaurants that have popped up along the way.

On little-known facts you love about Sydney

One of the things I find fascinating in this area is there used to be a huge brewery that had this enormous wall all the way around it. It's on top of a creek, and it would just sort of flush all the junk from the brewery down the road, so a whole lot of these buildings around here have creeks underneath. In this building itself [Phoenix Central Park], we have to have a pump running 24 hours a day to make sure that we don't have a flooded basement. We've got this pump gurgling all the time.

‘Spice Alley closes after 9.30 pm, so after a great show at Phoenix, you can head down there and have a beautiful bite to eat.’

On the best places to eat in town

KINDRED is an amazing Italian restaurant. Make sure you book; they do all their pasta in-house, it's divine. It used to be a very strange Irish restaurant with tarot readers, but it's taken on its next life — been reincarnated, so to speak. They also have an excellent tasting menu. For a mid- or late-week delight, I recommend Ricos Tacos. They opened up quite recently and are sublime for your taco needs. Down the road, there is Kensington Street. It's got bars, it's got lots of people coming and going throughout the day; in the evenings it gets absolutely packed. And it’s got the amazing Spice Alley — as you're walking down the road, you get beautiful wafts of all this Asian cuisine. There's amazing Malaysian food, Chinese, Japanese and everything in between. One of the best things about Kensington Street is that it's open late; Spice Alley closes after 9.30 pm, so after a great show at Phoenix, you can head down there and have a beautiful bite to eat.


On a favorite cultural venue

The Powerhouse is super awesome and has amazing exhibitions, changing constantly. They also have my favorite thing, called Powerhouse Late. It's an opportunity to go to the Powerhouse between 5.00 pm and 9.00 pm on a Thursday night to see some incredible music that they program, and to walk around the exhibits. You can bring a friend, you can have a drink, and you can see things in a different way.


After exploring White Rabbit Gallery and Phoenix Central Park, Beau recommends catching some live jazz at her favorite pub, The Eveleigh Hotel (photographed top, by Hugh Stewart), checking out the exhibits at the Powerhouse Museum (photographed second row, by Haydon Fanning), and grabbing a bite at the buzzing Spice Alley (photographed in the third row, by Hugh Stewart) or cozy restaurant KINDRED (pictured fourth row, by Ana Nielsen).

On a good local walk

On my normal morning, I walk down Buckland Street, up O’Connor and have a nice stroll past a few of the cafés. I grab a coffee at Something for Jess — it's really easy and convenient, and they've got really friendly, lovely people there — and take my pup on a loop around the Central Park green, which is a really beautiful space. It's got lovely pet owners that are very responsible. And it's just wonderful to see the link through to Broadway. Ten years ago, it was this walled-off area that had no connection with the major roads around it. Now they've got UTS right across the road, Central Station a few minutes away, and all these cultural activities in one hub.

On a good way to spend the day in the city

I'd start at the [Royal] Botanic Gardens, having a beautiful walk along the foreshore, looking at the trees and the ocean, and then walking through The Rocks, getting a delicious pastry at La Renaissance. After that, head to Chippendale and have a look around White Rabbit Gallery, and then mosey down the road to look at some of the little commercial galleries in the area. After that, head to The Eveleigh to have a lovely meal and sit as the afternoon sun comes in. One of my favorite things about The Eveleigh is that you can go there, listen to beautiful jazz inside in the afternoons, have a fabulous meal and sit there with your puppy. I love dogs. I love art. I love places where I can experience art with my dog! Following that, catch an early performance at Phoenix Central Park, and after that wrap up on Kensington Street for a light bite and a cocktail.

‘One of my favorite things about The Eveleigh is you can go there, listen to beautiful jazz, have a fabulous meal and sit there with your puppy. I love dogs. I love art. I love places where I can experience art with my dog!’

On a window or aisle seat

I prefer window seat every time, because I like sleeping when I'm on plane trips and I can curl up in the fetal position against a fixed surface.

On a song that best represents Sydney for you

There’s one song, strangely, called ‘IBIZA’ by Shady Nasty; they're an Australian, Sydney-based act. This song is all about getting buff and ready for your holiday, and it's sort of disturbing, but I think it connects to a subculture of Sydney. They speak to male toxicity.

On Sydney in one word


But not just because people come from different backgrounds and different ethnicities. There are so many cultures that are living side by side, subcultures with music and art and different forms of expression.


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