David Walsh hasn’t just changed how the rest of the country sees Tasmania with his s-x and death museum, he’s altered the very mindset of the Apple Isle itself.
Hobart’s most famous maths savant has poured huge chunks of the millions he’s won from complex gambling syndicates into creating the largest private gallery in the southern hemisphere. The result is the Museum of New and Old Art (MONA): a lavish $175 million subterranean visual arts temple of shock, jutting out like a Bond villain lair from the shores of the Derwent River in Hobart. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s that place everyone’s been banging on about for the past year.
“He is a remarkable and enigmatic man who has given a great gift to Tasmania and Australia generally,” Tasmanian premier Lara Giddings tells The Power Index. “David’s vision … has captured imaginations and interest on both a national and international level.”
Indeed it has. Walsh’s “subversive Disneyland” has gone on to become one of Tasmania’s most popular tourist attractions, with 400,000 people through the doors in its first year.
“They don’t say they’re going to Tasmania, all year long people from all walks of life have said: ‘oh we’re going to MONA this weekend’ and we all know where that is,” Australia Council CEO Kathy Keele tells The Power Index. “It’s put Hobart on the map.”
MONA’s popularity has surprised even the man himself, who has made no secret of filling the place out with art that reflects his eclectic taste. Not long after opening MONA’s doors in early 2011, the rebellious Walsh (perhaps jokingly) declared he would “take all the popular stuff out” to reflect his contrarian nature.
And while Walsh’s 2210-strong collection features Roman, Greek and Egyptian antiquities, it’s the gallery’s wildly contemporary and often mature nature (one former exhibit consisted of a wall of 150 porcelain vulvas, another of a machine used for taking one’s own life) which has provoked the most discussion.
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Justin O’Connor, a professor at the creative industries faculty at the Queensland University of Technology, says MONA’s shock factor has many visitors rushing down just to see what all the fuss is about.
“I’ve been there and there’s a big black and white picture of a dog shagging a man … there’s all sorts of that stuff in there,” he tells The Power Index. “But it’s a popular thing, people know it’s for adults.”
It’s not just the mainlanders who have taken to Walsh’s vision. Tasmanians have come to embrace MONA as an important part of the state’s cultural and economic make-up.
Many have also noted what the gallery and associated events like the MONA Festival of Music and Art have done in helping change the stereotype of Hobart as an artistic sleepy hollow that couldn’t keep up with the more cultured centres of Melbourne and Sydney. All of a sudden it’s fashionable to head down to Hobart for the weekend.
“The nicest thing I said about this, and it’s never been printed, Tasmania needs MONA like California needs the San Andreas [Fault] because they’re both conservative places that need to be shaken up a bit,” Walsh told Fairfax this year.
Shaken or not, the locals have definitely stirred (perhaps helped by it still being free for Tasmanians). Just this week Q&A spent the first 10 minutes of its Tasmanian edition discussing MONA. Almost all the responses towards Walsh and his influence were positive.
“One of the most surprising aspects of MONA, whose success can reasonably be described as phenomenal, is the degree to which it has ‘won over its own people’,” wrote Tasmanian journalist Richard Flanagan recently, quoting author Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Hometown hero status is something Walsh is still getting used to, having initially expected some kind of backlash, but he’s glad Hobart has accepted what he’s trying to do.
“The thing I like the most is that in the Hobart community, and in a lot of other communities, is that people call it ‘Our MONA’,” the shaggy-haired Walsh told The Mercury. “I had a childhood of attending TMAG [Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery], so whenever I hear ‘our museum’, I’m astounded and then delighted that it refers to MONA.”
Walsh grew up just down the road from where MONA sits today in the working class suburb of Glenorchy. After dropping out of the University of Tasmania he developed the computer programs which have made him his fortune through punting on horse racing around the world.