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An inadvertent icon: the making of MONA

Hobart’s wildly contemporary Museum of Old and New Art has become one of the most talked about attractions in the country. In an essay for GriffithREVIEW, founder David Walsh explains why he built MONA in his home town.

The Hobart of my youth was mostly working class Glenorchy, the satellite city of Hobart that is neither a city nor a satellite, at least in the sense of willing subordinate. The denizens of Glenorchy believed it to be a place where a life could be lived completely, mostly without ambition, but also without its attendant desperation. In Glenorchy and, I later found out, in Tasmania, we believed in shades of grey. People weren’t black or alcoholic or rich (actually I think nobody was rich except Claudio Alcorso, my predecessor at Moorilla, where the Museum of Old and New Art now resides). Everybody was just somebody. Most people weren’t even bothered by weird, demented, internal me.

We believed in shades of grey because our forebears were convicts, and we were in no position to judge. And we believed in shades of grey because we were the stunted cousins of the larger, flashier cities that the descendants of those felons transported to the mainland produced.

How could a culture prepared to call the other states of Australia, collectively, “the mainland” see the world in terms of absolutes? We were, by some misapplication of complementarity, necessarily a minor land. We had western privilege without western ego. The cultural cringe that overwhelmed the Tasmanian sense of identity was a tremendous benison to me. We Taswegians knew that we weren’t special but, paradoxically, thought we had something to prove.

So it seems obvious that I returned to Glenorchy because so much of the attitude embedded in the community is mirrored in MONA. Obvious, but inaccurate. MONA ended up in Glenorchy by chance, through a chain of events that I was complicit in but not the author of. History (is the genesis of MONA history?) takes on the sheen of certainty in retrospect. Motives are a repulsive force, like dark energy they become more compelling as they recede. To paraphrase a song you’ll never hear “they are brighter when they’re further away”.

Here’s how MONA happened, and how it happened just up the road from the place where my childhood played out.

Leaving Glenorchy was important. I went to a school that had a computer. I already knew I liked computers even though I had never seen one. I was a nerd, on the cusp of nerd-dom being fashionable, a decade or two before nerds got s-xy. So I met some guys who knew a guy who liked gambling. My dad trained greyhounds; I liked gambling too. But the guy that the other guys introduced me to, he wanted to win. Later the fortunate proximity of the university to Australia’s first legal casino gave us the opportunity to learn stuff that we needed to know.

So a few years later I bought a fancy house at Otago Bay, on the bank of the Derwent River opposite (geographically and socio-politically) the present location of MONA. And I started buying things rich people buy, like art. That was also an accident.

Our team made money in South Africa playing blackjack, we were beneficiaries of the chaos that followed the collapse of apartheid. We couldn’t take out more money than we took in. But, remarkably and incomprehensibly, art could be exported. We had about $20,000 too much. I had seen and admired a hundred-year-old Nigerian palace door in a gallery near Johannesburg. I asked its price — $20,000 — and became an art collector.

My fancy house had a peculiarity. It was three storeys tall, but very narrow, so those who dwelt within suffered through summer and winter every day. Most people would never have bought such a house, but I was labouring under a romantic notion. Years before, when I was ten or eleven, I had read a Robert Heinlein novel called The Door into Summer. The protagonist had a cat that wouldn’t believe it was winter outside his house until it had tried all 11 doors. The cat was seeking the door into summer. I decided then that one day I would get a house with eleven doors. My Otago Bay house, three storeys on a slope, had eleven doors.

So MONA is a museum of science, and a yacht, and a factory, and a piece of cardboard under which I sleep, and a tumour sapping my will on the way to claiming my life.”

But it wasn’t just the occupants who suffered through four seasons each day. So did the art, and clearly that was not a good thing. But across the river there was a lovely peninsula, with houses designed by an expert, Roy Grounds, and they had tolerable internal climates. The owner of those houses and the winery that surrounded them, Claudio Alcorso, was going broke.

So I bought the whole peninsula from the bank and built a little gallery. That wasn’t my intention initially; I just wanted a more appropriate building to use as a warehouse. But I needed to do some renovations, and it soon became clear that turning Claudio’s old house into a gallery wouldn’t be that much more expensive. Thus was born the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities.

And it was beautiful, it really was. Clean lines, minimalist cabinetry, white walls — it looked like every other art gallery in the world. I didn’t want it to. I had no investment in museological notions such as presenting art in a neutral matrix. I just wanted to put my art on the walls.

I bought more art, antiquities and modernist art and contemporary art and all the while I wondered why my gallery looked like everybody else’s. Gradually (or suddenly, I don’t remember) the reason revealed itself. It was the wall labels. Black text on white cards means white walls means every museum looks the same. As you may know, MONA got the labels off the walls by having them follow you around in a handheld device that knows where you are in the museum. Depending on your perspective, a trivial thing, or a revolution.

I decided to build a bigger museum. I did think about other places, even around Hobart, but not seriously. I had a site, and by then I also had daughters and shared custody. And anyway where would I go? Real estate in London and New York isn’t cheap and I had a few opinions, I wanted to build a megaphone. But who would hear me shouting in a place like New York, or even Sydney, with all that cultural background noise blaring? I also had another rationale: people who travel to see something pay it serious attention. It’s just a matter of getting them to travel. But in London everybody is already there.

And the nature of the journey to MONA had some resonance. People could come up the Derwent River on a ferry.

People don’t die on boats on the Derwent very often, but 2000 years ago on the Mediterranean the risks were substantial. A journey survived was a cause for celebration, and for offering thanks. The islands had temples and they were on the top of cliffs (at least in James Bond movies they are). MONA is an oracular cave, but in the Delphic tradition the advice given is difficult to interpret. My fantasy is that MONA’s message, in common with that of Apollo, affirms life by undermining the reasons you have to lie to yourself. But that isn’t why I built it. That motive came after MONA opened, but its potency seduced me, and I’ve often found myself claiming it in MONA’s pre-history.

I built a museum by accident.

I didn’t build MONA by accident, given that I was going to build a second art museum it had become inevitable that it would be MONA. But the events that led me to building a museum in the first place, and gave me the capacity to build a museum, were exquisitely unlikely. Of course, other events would have resulted in other outcomes, and I would have interpreted those as unlikely.

So MONA is a museum of science, and a yacht, and a factory, and a piece of cardboard under which I sleep, and a tumour sapping my will on the way to claiming my life. It is the statistical noise that enables me to do the analysis by which I determine how fortunate I am.

But, somehow, MONA is imbued with the hubris of a man who was inadvertently taught by his community not to respect boundaries and the humility of a little boy who often walked past the peninsula on which it now resides, but who never ventured in, because he didn’t understand that it was okay to have a look.

*This essay was first published in quarterly journal GriffithREVIEW39, released last week

22
  • 1
    dunph
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    David Walsh for Governor General!

    I’ve been to the Guggenheims and his is better - now wouldn’t it be nice if some of the WA billionaires (for example) were equally philanthropic towards great art and culture!!

  • 2
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    An interesting read. Thanx to Griffith Review for commissioning it and to Crikey for republishing it.

  • 3
    Michael Noonan
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    This is a marvellous article. An interesting story by an interesting person and a marvellous writer. Thank you publishers, thank you David Walsh.

  • 4
    paddy
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    On the off chance you are reading these comments David,
    a heartfelt thank you.
    It seems you write as well as you collect art and build places to display it.

    I’ve always thought MONA is *so* special because, it’s one person’s eclectic collection.

    Such a nice change from the conventional gallery/museum.

    So thanks again for your words on how it evolved and thanks to Crikey for republishing them.

    Quite made my day.

  • 5
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I second paddy’s thoughts. MONA could be established only by a person’s benefaction, which we miss so much in Australia whose public culture is dominated by public institutions, as worthy as they are.

  • 6
    zut alors
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    A fascinating read and insight, thanks, David Walsh.

    If only you’d built MONA and, simultaneously, been a sportsman you would’ve been a shoo-in for Australian of the Year.

    A gallery built by a human being with vision - not built by a committee. How fortunate we are.

  • 7
    Karina Randall
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    A wonderful article, David! Sometimes stretching boundaries is the only way to grow.

  • 8
    jmendelssohn
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Thank you David for having the courage to follow your own direction – and in doing so enabling the transformation of your island home.
    “The Door into Summer” was one of my favourite science fiction books when I was a teenager, and it makes perfect sense that it would have seized your youthful imagination.

  • 9
    Kez
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    recently went to both Hobart and MONA for the first time. I’m one of those just want to have a look types. It was the best art gallery I’ve ever been to. That massive skull with the flashing bits mad me cry.

  • 10
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    Magnificent; museum, motive and modest man.

  • 11
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Magnificent; museum, motive and mien of a modest man.

  • 12
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 7 February 2013 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    ooops..

  • 13
    Hominoid
    Posted Friday, 8 February 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, David and Crikey, for a cracking read. Now I definitely want to go to MONA. Cheers.

  • 14
    Mark Errey
    Posted Friday, 8 February 2013 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    @dunph I shudder to think of the gallery conceived and executed by Gina Rhinehart. Oh the horror, I can see it now, a wing to house the definitive collection of Ken Done tea towels.

  • 15
    Posted Friday, 8 February 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    @14 hahaha and a statue of Lang pointing North

  • 16
    mikeb
    Posted Friday, 8 February 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    MONA is imbued with the hubris of a man who was inadvertently taught by his community not to respect boundaries and the humility of a little boy who often walked past the peninsula on which it now resides, but who never ventured in, because he didn’t understand that it was okay to have a look.”

    Beautiful.

    David Walsh. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  • 17
    Oliver Townshend
    Posted Friday, 8 February 2013 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Claudio Alcorso was a wonderful person, and a great supporter of the arts and Tasmania. Worthy of a few articles as well.

    MONA is brilliant, a hollowed out cavern as a work of art comparable to the Opera House, lets hope it can be supported forever.

  • 18
    John Murray
    Posted Saturday, 9 February 2013 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    Having had the misfortune of being dragged through Sydneys Meuseum of Contemporary Art numerous times, it was a surreal pleasure to visit MONA.

    Confronted, revolted, bemused, and ultimately astounded, MONA shows what can be done when the committee is shown the door.

    NSW should provide Mr Walsh with the MCA as a spill over gallery!

  • 19
    Cate Fowler
    Posted Sunday, 10 February 2013 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    How can. I opwn article on David Walsh and Mona?

  • 20
    zane
    Posted Wednesday, 27 February 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Got rich, built a gallery. Gee, how totally innovative is that?? Has anyone ever done anything like this before???? And in boring old Tasmania of all places!!! What a model of philanthropy, what a man, what a genius!!!! Oh thank you thank you thank you thank you Walshy. Without you Tasmania wouldn’t have culture at all.

    Not.

  • 21
    Blueblood
    Posted Saturday, 2 March 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Gosh Zane, why so resentful?

  • 22
    zane
    Posted Monday, 4 March 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Gosh Blueblood, why all the sycophancy?

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