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Sydney-based art curator Aarna Fitzgerald Hanley has specialised in commissioning site-specific works over the last decade, including supporting renowned curator Barbara Flynn to realise large-scale commissions in Sydney’s public domain. Now senior curator of visual arts at urban cultural precinct Carriageworks in Eveleigh, Hanley’s recent projects include co-curating the 2023 edition of The National: Australian Art Now, a biennial survey of contemporary Australian art exhibited at Carriageworks, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia and Campbelltown Arts Centre. Here, Hanley shares her top places to dive into Sydney’s arts and culture scenes.

Drop into Carriageworks

“I would always come to Carriageworks even before I began working here,” says Hanley of the multi-arts venue housed in the former Eveleigh Railway Workshops in the inner-city suburb of Eveleigh, between Redfern and Newtown. “This old industrial railyard is a unique site for artists and performers to respond to, but it also hosts cultural events like the Sydney Writers’ Festival, alongside the weekly Saturday Farmers Market, which all happens in the same precinct.”

Experience big hitters anew

“The new Sydney Modern project at the Art Gallery of New South Wales is an exciting addition to what is happening in Sydney,” says Hanley of the recent opening of the extension of the city’s landmark gallery next to the Royal Botanic Garden in central Sydney. “It’s a beautiful, porous building, and I’m excited to see how the space will be used, including the commissions that will be presented in the former oil tanks downstairs.” Hanley also recommends checking out the gallery’s cinema program. “Its series and one-off events, presenting contemporary moving image works and also historical cinema, are really great,” she says.

Get a taste of performance art

Art is accessible in many forms in Sydney, with Phoenix Central Park in inner-city Chippendale highly recommended by Hanley for an inspiring night out. “It’s a beautiful intimate performance space presenting local and international acts,” she explains. So popular are the boundary-pushing performances at this philanthropic initiative that tickets, which are always free, are issued at random to those who have entered the online ticket ballot for the particular show.

Don’t miss the city’s smaller arts spaces

Sydney’s smaller neighbourhood galleries, says Hanley, can pack a rousing punch, showcasing a diverse range of works by artists both emerging and established. “On Llankelly Place in Kings Cross there’s The Cross Arts Projects, which is a small space but it shares interesting contemporary practice that is often focused on socio-political issues. I first saw the bark works of [Yolŋu artist] Naminapu Maymuru-White in that space, and Naminapu was in The National 4 this year at Carriageworks. She created a 42-piece bark work in black and white ochre that mapped the River of Stars, or the Milky Way.”

Seek out Sydney’s public art

Sydney’s famously balmy weather makes it an ideal city for enjoying its public art, and there’s no shortage of it. “There are a number of works across Chippendale’s Central Park,” says Hanley. “Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist has a project there, and Tadashi Kawamata has his Big Nest there. And then close by [in the Greenland Centre on Bathurst Street] there’s a marbled mosaic ceiling by Agatha Gothe-Snape called The Noblest.”

Hanley also recommends checking out Badger Bates’ Gates by Barkandji Elder and leading Aboriginal artist William Brian ‘Badger’ Bates at Yirranma Place in inner-city Darlinghurst, featuring three intricate panel gates – blacksmithed by Bates working with Matt Mewburn of Eveleigh Works – that illustrate stories critical to the life and worldview of the Barkandji people. A new work on her own list to see is the George Street Plaza and Community Building, a collaboration between another renowned Aboriginal artist, Daniel Boyd, and Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, which takes the form of a perforated canopy in the city centre.

Indulge in a local art purchase

Sydney’s rich array of commercial art galleries offer the perfect opportunity to take a piece of Sydney’s art scene home with you. Among Hanley’s top picks is Fine Arts, Sydney in Paddington, and The Commercial in Marrickville, which “represents [Kamilaroi and Bigambul Aboriginal artist] Archie Moore, who will represent Australia at the next Venice Biennale early next year,” she adds.

Inspire budding creatives

Many of Sydney’s arts and cultural spaces have dedicated programs and other offerings for kids, while others invite children to interact with the art itself. Among them is New Zealand-born artist Mike Hewson’s St Peters Fences in the inner west suburb of St Peters – a children’s playground made of replica fences from homes demolished to make way for Sydney’s largest motorway project. “It’s a great outdoor space for children — and parents — to play,” says Hanley.

Immerse in Sydney’s arts events

You don’t even need to enter a gallery to get a taste of Sydney’s rich arts and culture scenes. “Sydney hosts a number of cultural events throughout the year, from the Biennale of Sydney to the Sydney Film Festival, and I think it’s important if you are visiting to seek out those events,” says Hanley.