Mona, a privately funded museum, is drawing tourists to Tasmania

A privately funded museum, with its many festivals and events, is drawing tourists to Tasmania, writes Janelle Carrigan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 June, 2014, 12:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 June, 2014, 12:18pm

As the southernmost state in Australia, Tasmania has forever been the butt of jokes. But to the surprise of many onlookers, the remote island's image has been slowly changing in recent years - due in no small part to the privately funded and highly regarded Museum of New and Old Art (Mona).

In 2011, Tasmanian millionaire David Walsh opened the museum on the Berriedale peninsula, a quick ferry ride from the state capital, Hobart. The art here is quirky and iconoclastic - very much like its owner. In just a few years, Mona has become a cultural nucleus: the museum, as well as its spin-off festivals and events, is now a drawcard for a growing number of interstate and overseas visitors.

People are so tired of overbranded commercialised activities and experiences that it feels like you're in the queue and it's all been preset
leigh carmichael, creative director of dark mofo

Mona's annual winter festival, Dark Mofo, is only in its second year but it has proved to be the embodiment of the irreverent playground for the arts. Dark Mofo, which finishes today, taps into the southern hemisphere's shortest day of the year, celebrating the winter solstice with a Bacchanalian feast, light installations, live music and art stagings.

It's not a typical arts and music festival, but that doesn't faze the locals. Across Hobart, businesses are embracing a "Paint the Town Red" theme, in keeping with the primary colour of the festival. Bars and restaurants are being lit with red lights and hotel staff are ditching their regulation shirts for red ones.

Walsh says the level of support Mona is receiving is unexpected. "I was a bit surprised that anyone in Tasmania cared," he says. "I took my daughter to the cinema this morning and people were coming up to me and they were saying, 'We really like what you've done.' And I'm, like, 'What did I do?'"

Mona attracts about 292,000 paying visitors a year (locals get in for free), according to Tourism Tasmania. More than a million people come to Tasmania each year, and a third are spending some time at the museum.

The estimated A$100 million (HK$724 million) art collection is housed in three subterranean levels of a stark building, reached via a glass elevator. The original rough sandstone walls have been retained.

Deluxe Suicide Service is an eerie full-size pinball machine that alludes to the game of life by New York artist Meghan Boody. There's an astonishing collision of nature and art in the work by French artist Hubert Duprat: caddis worms are given gold leaf and semi-precious stones to construct their tiny protective tubes, instead of pieces of wood and shell. The result: tiny gold tubes that are studded with stones in distinct patterns.

The art bunker also features video installations and a cinema.

The museum is on the grounds of Walsh's Moorilla winery, with several restaurants, a brewery and high-end accommodation. Chickens and ducks roam around while children play in large wooden teepees on an open lawn. Visitors sit on beanbags and sip on wine or Moo Brew beer while watching live performances on the outdoor stage.

The music at Mona is curated by Brian Ritchie, the bass player of alternative rockers the Violent Femmes. The American musician, who now lives in Tasmania with his wife, a Sri Lankan entomologist, has brought in English DJs, classical musicians and local folk bands, and also directs the annual summer Festival of Music and Art, the warm-weather sister to Dark Mofo.

There's a conscious difference in programming between the two seasonal festivals. Leigh Carmichael, Dark Mofo's creative director, says he and his team wanted to make something "that could become deeper and richer than a festival for festival's sake because there are so many".

Creating a festival around the winter solstice instinctively feels like an event that has longevity for the whole of Tasmania, Carmichael says. "The thing that Hobart's got, that can't be taken off us, is that we do have the longest nights of any capital city of Australia. If there's anywhere in Australia where the winter solstice should be celebrated it should be here."

With the decline of religion, the notion of marking important times of the year, particularly the cycle of death and rebirth, is becoming even more important. "I really think the ritual ceremony stuff is pretty important and you kind of long for it," Carmichael says. "This is a space that taps into it and fills that void."

Last night, the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere, was scheduled to be marked at Dark Mofo by a dinner created with local produce. "The feast is the heart and soul of the festival," says Carmichael. "It brings people together at that lowest point, the darkest moment, and you look to the future and hope it gets better."

Along with promoting the local boutique winemaking and whisky distilling industries, Dark Mofo and Mona are also helping to raise the profile of Australia to overseas artists - and attracting some who might not usually visit.

"Hobart has fresh air and beautiful natural scenery. It also has great energy and passion for art," says Chinese artist Yin Xiuzhen, who staged Washing River 2014 during Dark Mofo. She assembled frozen blocks of polluted local water and invited people to symbolically cleanse the wall with a mop. "I came to Tasmania for art. Art festivals like Dark Mofo connect people through art," Yin says.

Chrysta Bell, a Texas-born musician, performed with her band at this year's festival, calling it "something special in an unusual place". Bell, who travelled specifically for Dark Mofo, has collaborated with filmmaker and musician David Lynch for more than a decade: they co-wrote an 11-track album called This Train, first released in 2011.

Brisbane-based artist Ross Manning, whose hypnotic light installations featured at the festival, says Mona is a unique institution in Australia - and the world. By privately funding the museum, Walsh is bypassing potentially dangerous sponsorship deals. "That's unheard of really, especially in Australia's cultural landscape with funding cuts," says Manning.

Dark Mofo is partially supported by the Tasmanian government, but it's still not a money-making venture. "You can't do large-scale public art that's free and break even," says Carmichael. "It's a gift really. One of the reasons Mona has worked is that people are so tired of overbranded commercialised activities and experiences that it feels like you're in the queue and it's all been preset. It is, at the end of the day, a commercial transaction - you pay your money, we'll give you an experience and then you'll buy a cap and leave. You're just one of thousands. We take all of that away."

Walsh says he's not particularly committed to making money from Mona. Fortunately, he does make money from his computer-based gambling systems, particularly from betting on horse racing. "I absolutely love it," he says. "It's the most pure problem."

He uses mathematical analyses to make cash on bets. "The odds are established," he says. "You just need to find out the way that the public buys the odds, inadvertently but consistently." He and his team try to pinpoint opportunities in the patterns that arise.

Walsh says Hong Kong has one of the best horse-racing industries in the world. "It is beautifully run, the only one that's better run in the world is Japan." And the industry loves him "because they make a fixed percentage of the pool and I'm putting more money in the pool".

But he doesn't seem to care what the world thinks of him. "I came from a background of what we would call poverty, but a lot of places in the world might describe as privilege," he says. "I wasn't particularly disadvantaged by the background because I was basically a weirdo and I didn't have any friends and I wouldn't have had any friends wherever I was."

Walsh's desire to follow his own path has created a cultural melting pot of ideas that's forever serving up surprises. "My system's right for me because I don't have to care what's good or bad," he says.