Tasmania's Great New Museum

Courtesy MONA/Leigh Carmichael

Gambling millionaire and provocateur David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art is as rough, beautiful, and unexpected as Tasmania itself.

From afar, the affair looks more like a Bond villain’s bar mitzvah than an art museum opening. Private skiffs quietly shuttle guests upriver from Tasmania’s Hobart harbor to what looks like a shiny bunker hacked into a waterfront clifftop a few miles away. At the base of the cliff, uniformed minions—wearing all black, naturally—move with hurried but exact precision, whisking guests off a custom-built jetty, up a long staircase and across a field of Astroturf to the museum’s entrance. Zoom in closer: Never-ending platters of just-shucked local oysters from Bruny Island are being circulated, chased quickly with bottomless coupes of Champagne from ever-replenished platters. Spoonfuls of Russian caviar are sluiced down with ice-cold shots of imported vodka, while one table has been given over almost entirely to freshly shot deer, posed mournfully like tableaux vivants. The guests range from black-tie sophisticates to a couple in matching heels and fishnets. Only the man wears a skirt. All that’s missing from the scene is a white cat and a plan for world domination. Then again, maybe the evening’s host, David Walsh, has that on hand, too.

Walsh is a Tasmanian-born math savant who amassed his fortune by devising a formula to beat gambling odds. Though deeply ambivalent about the art world—he once called the curatorial process “mental masturbation”—Walsh has invested a large chunk of his personal wealth into building the collection housed in the museum for which this motley crew has assembled: a $75 million, 65,000-square-foot behemoth called the Museum of Old and New Art, which opened in January. Dressed in a leather jacket, his gray hair shaggy and shoulder-length, Walsh hardly fits the mold of art mogul or Bond villain. With his owlish glasses and scruff, he looks like a disaffected graduate student, the Trotsky of Down Under. His museum is equally iconoclastic. MONA, explains Walsh, “is like a rich man’s soapbox—I’m standing on my soapbox and shouting my views like they mean something.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the inaugural collection is titled “Monanism,” and the curatorial notes aren’t stenciled discreetly on the wall but loaded onto an iPod under a tab flagged “Artwank.” The iPod also serves as a gallery guide for the Facebook generation. Visitors to the museum, which is free and open to the public, vote on their favorite works.

Walsh’s collection is as catholic and strange as its collector. Antiquities—coins, vases, Egyptian relics—and contemporary works are commingled seemingly willy-nilly rather than being ring-fenced by date or theme. Though his mummies are terrific, most people are drawn to Walsh’s impressive contemporary collection. “There’s a lot of controversial stuff,” Walsh says cheerily. “Hopefully it will cause a backlash.” In fact, controversy might be Walsh’s curatorial shibboleth. His collection features chestnuts like Chris Ofili’s infamous Holy Virgin Mary, complete with dung appliqués (when the piece was shown at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani said, “There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects”), and Stephen Shanabrook’s On the Road to Heaven the Highway to Hell, a sculpture of a suicide bomber fashioned from Belgian dark chocolate.

MONA’s showstopper, however, is Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca. The room-sized, Rube Goldbergesque contraption, installed in a side chamber, exactly replicates human digestion. Visitors crowd the chamber to watch as the machine, “fed” every day by betoqued museum employees, dutifully defecates onto a stainless-steel dish each afternoon around 3 p.m. But lest one dismiss Walsh and his eccentric, scatological collection as the provocations of a sophomoric playboy, one might do well to remember that Cloaca was first exhibited in the United States at New York City’s New Museum, Ofili won the Turner Prize and Shanabrook’s sculptures have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, as institutional a museum as MONA isn’t.

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Walsh’s MONA also offers amenities one can’t get at MoMA or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Despite what the children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and a Ben Stiller franchise would have you believe.) At the MONA pavilions, whose sharp geometric angles contrast nicely with the lush vineyards on which they and the museum sit, you can spend the night at the museum. In the architecturally daring buildings, spacious rooms, some with mod black-and-white interiors splashed with scarlet, lead out to clifftop terraces with views of the Derwent River. On the walls and credenzas, Roman coins and other treasures from Walsh’s 2,200-piece personal stash are on display.

Walsh’s sardonic touch is felt in more than just the art. Take one of the rugs, on which is written “Apropos of nothing, it’s nice to have you here. Thanks, we need the money.” But one feature above all might pass for a guerrilla installation in the museum itself, and, indeed, it might well be. Walsh is an evangelical atheist, as Andrew Stack, the hospitality manager for the rooms, explains. “There are no Bibles in the rooms, but there’s always a copy of [Richard Dawkins’s] The God Delusion. We are planning on putting a Gideon Bible in there too,” he adds puckishly, “but hollowed out, with sex toys inside it.”

A night at the museum starts at $490; 655 Main Rd., Berriedale; 61-3/6277-9900; mona.net.au.

More Matter with Less Art

David Walsh’s vision of Tasmania, a wild land with gems purposefully and proudly kept in the rough, extends well beyond MONA. At Saffire Freycinet, a beautiful yearling property tucked between the Freycinet and Hazards mountains on Tasmania’s rugged east coast, 20 suites blend seamlessly into the 27-acre property. The lodge, made of Tasmanian timber and a thin Polymea membrane, takes the form of a manta ray coasting toward the white sand beaches of Great Oyster Bay.

The suites themselves are at once stark and luxurious. The dramatic views contrast with the simple lines of the modern interiors—in which a discerning eye can find pink hues of Hazards mountain granite, subtle blues that mimic the nearby waters and Eames furniture. It’s a wild combination. The on-site restaurant, Palate, helmed by Hugh Whitehouse, draws no less from the ambient richness of the environment. Try the white miso custard with poached rock lobster. The spa, meanwhile, offers chakra-balancing sapphire rubs and antiaging diamond-dust facials. Suites start at $1,460; 61-3/6256-7888; saffire-freycinet.com.

Ask the Expert: Brad Horn

Guide and owner of Epic Expeditions

Q: What’s Australia’s next wild region?
The Kimberley, in the Northwest, is a very unique place. It’s one of the world’s last great frontiers. There are few roads, few people and just incredible nature offerings. I remember trekking and rappelling through the very remote Cockburn Range. We walked through a spectacular gorge stem for days. To give you some idea, the Kimberley occupies an area the size of California. California is home to 36.9 million people; the Kimberley, only 38,000. For many Americans, as time-starved as they so often are, it is a bridge too far. For those who have the time, however, the investment yields immeasurable rewards.