On a recent trip to Australia, I visited MONA, a new art gallery in Hobart, Tasmania. Established by maverick art collector and billionaire professional gambler David Walsh, MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) is celebrated in Australia and internationally. It’s credited with boosting the crumbling Tasmanian economy and with taking the art world by storm. I have my doubts, but the embrace of MONA has certainly got me thinking about what the international art world values today. It feels curmudgeonly to be critical of a wealthy person’s decision to spend so much money on the arts and then open up his collection to the public, but I find myself at odds with Walsh’s project.
Walsh grew up in a working-class part of Hobart. His decision to set up MONA in Hobart reflects his desire to find some purpose and meaning in his life as a wealthy (but, as a professional gambler, ultimately unproductive) middle-aged man. He started collecting art as a way of exporting his winnings from places like South Africa, where he bought and exported an ancient Yoruba carved door because he couldn’t take cash out of the country. Since then, he has spent millions on antiquities, including many Ancient Egyptian artefacts, and, more recently, contemporary art. First of all, he established MONA as a small museum, building it on a vineyard he bought near his childhood home. After it attracted little attention, he decided to create something much bigger and more eye-catching - something that would serve as a kind of tribute to his ‘ill-gotten gains’.
There is much to enjoy about MONA. It is in a beautiful setting and many of its features are decorative and engaging. Alongside the artworks, visitors can also enjoy MONA’s programme of music and film festivals, and its elegant restaurants, stocked with good food, boutique wine and beers.
However, a strong sense of irony pervades both the way Walsh describes his project and the way Australian and international critics have praised it. This is what I have a problem with. Commentators seem to enjoy the irony of a working-class lad turned professional gambler investing so much in art and creating a far-out (as in weird) gallery in a far-out (as in distant) corner of the world. They enjoy the irony of luxury tourism and international cutting-edge artworks being put on display on the edge of a rundown community. And they enjoy the irony of a man who has made his money out of thin air choosing to invest it in thin air.
Then there’s the building itself. Hewn out of sandstone, its design is reminiscent of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. Excavated out of a cliff on the River Derwent, its walls are made of exposed rock and bare concrete. The ceilings are low and the lighting is dim. You arrive at MONA on the specially designed ferry from Hobart’s harbour, and, as you approach, the site of the gallery’s rusted, galvanised-steel cladding conjures up a fortress. But there is a purposeful sense of vulnerability in the building’s design, too. Walsh believes that rising sea levels caused by climate change could flood the gallery within the next 50 years, washing his investment into the South Pacific.