arts and design

Tasmania's Mona gets a major revamp – but will it lure the locals?

As the old saying goes, or perhaps it was Belinda Carlisle, “Honey, leave a light on for me.”

During Hobart’s lockdown, the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) did just that with Spectra – Ryoji Ikeda’s 15km tower of white light. A semi-regular fixture at the museum, now it loyally pierced the sky every Saturday night. Hobartians could see it from their windows, the weekly transmission of a message that might be pitched somewhere between “we come in peace” and that of the “hang on in there” kitten.

Writing in the Mercury newspaper in April – after a Covid outbreak in Tasmania that forced 5,000 people into 14-day quarantine – Mona owner David Walsh explained “hope needs a beacon”.

Walsh has been talking to Tasmanian media a lot more lately – particularly in the lead-up to Mona’s Boxing Day reopening, after nine months of closure (save for the restaurant Faro). His museum has always struggled to lure in locals, with roughly 30% of visitors coming from the state “in the before times”, a spokesperson said – a number that becomes a pressure point amid precarious state and international borders. Now Walsh is seeking a direct line to the locals, and the sentimental stuff flows freely.

“When we opened, I thought our place was among the seekers-of-the-new – a space program for the creative urge,” he wrote in the Mercury in November. “Ten years, and three million visitors, and a pandemic, have taught me that our place is with you.”

Girls Rule by Tom Otterness (2020)
Girls Rule by Tom Otterness (2020), a new free and family-friendly public playground outside Mona. Photograph: Jesse Hunniford/Mona
Detail from MonaRail, by Ethos.
MonaRail, a detailed alpine diorama by Ethos, will be running with model trains in January. Photograph: Jesse Hunniford/Mona

The “Willy Wonka of Tasmania” – at turns benevolent, mischievous and inscrutable – Walsh has always made the museum free for locals, and has courted them in other ways (he delivered more than a thousand “Walshie Bars” of chocolate to Hobart residents as a sweetener in 2017, during the construction of a new wing). But even so, he’s had to contend with a hefty not-for-the-likes-of-us contingent. So while much has been made about what Mona has done for tourism – in the 2017-18 financial year alone, it contributed $135m to Tasmania’s gross state product and $165m to Australia’s gross domestic product, according to an independent study by Deloitte – lately the team has increased its focus on localism. It’s been a challenge.

Mona’s music curator Brian Ritchie, for instance, has booked 280 local bands as free entertainment on the museum’s lawn over the next three months. He tells Guardian Australia: “We have always had that egalitarian element – for instance, with Mona Foma [the summer festival of which he is artistic director] we always have a lot of free events, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody knows that or feels like it’s for them. And David has realised that in not having the certainty of a lot of tourists, it was important to reach out to the local community overtly.

“It’s always been there, but still we were seeing up to 70% of visitors weren’t from the state [roughly 12% are international and 52% from interstate], which means that locals might have the impression of ‘Oh, we can go there anytime.’”

Ritchie, also the bass player for the Violent Femmes, can understand that: when he lived in New York City, he never went to see the Statue of Liberty. But he’s concerned that even local artists can think Mona has become too much of an establishment. “A lot of musicians I meet I say, ‘Why haven’t you ever contacted me?’ And then they say, ‘Well, we just thought it was inaccessible and you wouldn’t want to hear from us.’ We’re seen as an institution now, or like ‘The Man’, and I forget that, because we started doing music here before there even was a museum.”

Exterior shot of Mona.
‘We’re seen as an institution now, or like “The Man”’: Hobart museum Mona. Photograph: Jesse Hunniford/Mona

On Boxing Day, the grand flinging-open of Mona’s doors introduced a host of kid-friendly new features aimed at welcoming the local community, as well as an epic new hanging of dark and gleefully bizarre offerings from Walsh’s private collection.

The bait for local families – all on the grounds outside, an area that’s free for every visitor – includes Girls Rule: a puckish piece of public art by Tom Otterness that is a functional children’s playground, cast in bronze. Throughout January there’s MonaRail, a detailed alpine diorama (unnerving in its lack of sinister elements) and “festive choo choo” with model trains, commissioned by Kirsha Kaechele and sculpted by Brian Looker; and there’s a new budget food option, the burger bar Dubsy’s. For $10 there’s also access to Christian Wagstaff and Keith Courtney’s House of Mirrors maze that debuted at Mona’s winter festival Dark Mofo in 2016.

If that might be considered outreach work, the private collection – now rehung with previously unseen work – is designed to take us inwards, into Walsh’s brain. It’s a circus sideshow of artworks, the bulk of which are in the bowels of the sandstone building, which have always seemed to live and breathe thanks to some of the permanent residents: the tunnels that moan (Siloam, built by Mona’s architect, Nonda Katsalidis), and the subterranean rumblings of the “poo machine” (Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca).

Now there’s a cacophony of new noises too: clattering (from Meghan Boody’s Deluxe Suicide Service pinball machine), smashing (Kris Vleeschouwer’s Glass Works) and explosions (Roman Signer’s Punkt (Dot)), as well as the melancholic compositions of local musician Ben Salter, in residence for three months on a set that’s part 60s grandparents’ lounge-room, part 90s bedroom, complete with PlayStation and cricket on the telly. (Mona will be building an on-site recording studio in 2021.)

Neige et Renard (Snow and Fox) (2007) by Léopold Rabus.
‘A circus sideshow of artworks’: Neige et Renard (Snow and Fox) (2007) by Léopold Rabus. Photograph: Jesse Hunniford/Mona
Mona (Museum of Old and New Art), December 2020
Photograph: Jesse Hunniford/Mona

To emphasise the fact this private museum is also Walsh’s home (he lives in an apartment on site, with his partner Kirsha Kaechele and their daughter Sunday), there are now more lounges scattered around so that visitors don’t just beat a path through the building. Among these are Zizi the Affectionate Couch by Twenty121, which is a yapping, furry beast from which Greg Taylor’s wall of plaster cast vulvas, “Cunts … and other conversations”, can be viewed; the serpentine design in Kaechele’s sumptuous Ladies Lounge (which contains beautifully displayed ancient artefacts that only women are allowed to view); and My Beautiful Chair by Greg Taylor, which walks you through Dr Philip Nitschke’s Euthanasia Machine to illustrate the process of death by Nembutal.

Some of the conversations around the collection’s revamp were about increasing visibility of women artists, something that activist group The Guerrilla Girls have been highlighting the paucity of in museums for years. Elizabeth Pearce, Mona’s director of exhibitions and collections, says the “ideologically messy conversations” that the team had are laid bare in the O app that guides visitors. “Doing that is really hard because you don’t want to put yourself on the line, but we absolutely have to,” Pearce says.

She gives the example of curator Jarrod Rawlins wanting to hang exclusively female artists in a part of the gallery. “We debated whether that was really a productive way of going about our male bias. David thought it was really funny and defunct that we were trying to centralise in that way. It’s part of our process to reveal our idiosyncrasies rather than conceal them, so he said, ‘Let’s just be really stark about the fact that we’ve struggled with it.’”

Zizi the Affectionate Couch by Twenty121 is now a spot from which to view Cunts...and other conversations (2008-11) by Greg Taylor.
Zizi the Affectionate Couch by Twenty121 is now a spot from which to view the artwork Cunts … and other conversations (2008-11) by Greg Taylor. Photograph: Jesse Hunniford/Mona

The new sections were curated almost tarot-style, with instinct presiding above any overarching intellectual conceit. Rawlins describes the six-person team being given 24 hours to select works from the thousands of options in the online database. “Once we’ve laid this stuff out, we then learn what we’ve done,” he says. Walsh has also been more hands-on with the new sections that he has been in years, including working with a librarian to choose the books in their many cabinets throughout the section.

In the past, Mona’s creator could only be caught in fleeting glimpses, like the little girl in the red duffle coat who darts around corners in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, only with flashes of white hair. Now he’s not only the centrepiece of the new area (literally – there’s a grizzly portrait of him by the late Geoff Dyer in a new caged section) and the name frequently on his curators’ tongues, but less grudgingly in the column inches, too.

Mona is open Fridays to Mondays, 10am-6pm. All visitors must have a prebooked ticket.

Jenny Valentish travelled to the museum as a guest of Mona


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