Tasmania's Great New Museum
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.