David Walsh: gambling mogul and museum founder: ‘Art is all about sex and death’

When I met David Walsh, Australian gambling tycoon, art collector and founder of one of the world’s strangest museums, almost the first words out of his mouth were expletives. It was not directed at me but at the person who had arranged the meeting: he had twice booked, because he was complaining in no uncertain terms.

After expressing his displeasure, he turned to me: “You just have to come with me. Will you record? Give me the recorder.” And with that he steps toward the entrance to his private art space, the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which is currently displaying some 300 works from Walsh’s 3,000-strong collection. Walsh made his fortune gambling in many forms, including horse racing, blackjack, and poker. . . You name it, his bets syndicate is on it. Australian casinos have collectively banned him and his syndicate members for card counting.

Walsh, who was dressed in faded gray jeans, a yellow jacket with his shirt untucked in back, and long gray hair framing his face, said he was believed to have autism, a condition sometimes associated with remarkable athletic skills — the kind that allowed Walsh to hit the home run so successfully. – but also with difficulties in social interaction.

Behind him towards the museum is the chief of communications and another person who needs to sign some documents. Halfway through he stops on the winding path to the mirrored entrance of the museum and signs documents, propping them up on the lawn, before setting off again. We are moving in the bright Tasmanian sun and suddenly we are in the dark museum.

A man with long white hair in jeans and a T-shirt standing against a paneled background holding the middle fingers of both hands in a defiant gesture
David Walsh, founder of Mona © Mona / Jesse Hunniford

As we walked, I asked him what prompted him to create Mona, and whether he had deliberately made it the antithesis of a traditional museum. “I don’t think people know why they do things!” He says. “We do things because we are social beings, and the way we do it is the way we show off.” This is very much his belief: that all motivation revolves around attracting a mate. It is often said that sex and death are the dominant themes in the museum. This is not my choice, but the choice of the artists: they The work is all about sex and death.”

This is evident inside Mina. Among the works on display – which shocked many – are a wall of vulvas by Greg Taylor, Egyptian sarcophagi and a stool-making machine designed by Wim Delvoye, “Cloaca Professional” (2010). One of his most provocative works, the remains of a suicide bomber doused in chocolate (“On the Road to Heaven, Highway to Hell” (2008) by Stephen J. Shannabrook), was removed from the scene. Others were sold, for example Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996), a picture of a black Madonna with elephant breasts from dung.

new exhibition, oceans of airby multidisciplinary artist Thomas Saraceno, includes visionary work of spider webs, radiation balloons, dust, native plants, fine particle pollution from the Mumbai skies and more.

A group of spider web-like structures glow against a dark background
“Ion tent(s) nets” (2022) from a new exhibition in Mona, “Oceans of Air” by Tomás Saraceno © Tomás Saraceno

But the group has a huge scope dating back to the ancient world. Walsh began collecting antiquities because, he says, he was unable to export some of the winnings from South Africa for cash and instead bought the door to Yoruba Palace. Then, “I built this little museum of antiquities, and I wanted to take care of them. But it looked like any other museum in the world.” Because of the moral difficulties in obtaining these things, he built something new. “Amal [Mona] is an expression of a different hypothesis; It can be more performant and so much more because there is no moral duty behind it.”

Is his museum deliberately challenging the mission and philosophy of more traditional museums? “If you take state museums,” he says, “their motives are the binding force of religion — to make you believe you are in the presence of greatness, you walk over Greek columns and it makes you feel small. This is why Mina is underground, and I don’t want to give visitors visual clues to the experience in advance.” “. “Also, I had these two houses and I didn’t want to visually sex them.”

The answer is pure Walsh: disjointed and uncensored. Walsh’s campaign is also usually an ad campaign featuring some of the one-star reviews it has received on social media (“I left with a sense of disdain for all galleries and museums”).

Does he have art at home? “I don’t really have art in my house like my house was in a museum until very recently,” he says, but adds: “I could see Sir Sidney Nolan’s giant artwork ‘The Snake’ every day.”

A pagoda-like structure built of white wooden columns and beams in a rock-walled art gallery
‘The White House’ by Ai Weiwei (2015) © Jesse Hunniford / Mona

An aerial view showing a group of buildings in a wooded terrain surrounded by the sea.  A ship approaches a landing dock.  The background is mountainous

Mona can be reached by ferry © Mona / Stu Gibson

Two circular tunnels lead from a large underground room

Tunnels lead between the underground rooms and galleries © Mona / Jesse Hunniford

The museum has been excavated three floors down through the sandstone beneath its houses. The works are displayed in rooms sometimes like caverns, often in deep darkness, connected by tunnels and passages. Impression is less a museum than an immersive art destination that doubles as a rich man’s lair with its eclectic accumulation of the banal and the fantastic.

Mona was a gamble when it opened in 2011: It’s located just outside Hobart in Tasmania, the South Island off the Australian mainland, a place that until then was hardly visited except by local tourists in camper vans.

It wasn’t easy at first, he says: “When you’re in a slump” – he corrects himself – “in Eddy In a secluded area, you can’t have anyone do anything for you. James Turrell is a case in point. I contacted him directly and indirectly several times and he would not do anything for me. And and then He finds out that the largest Quaker school in the world is located in Hobart, and suddenly he’s incredibly open to coming out here. . . Since then we’ve been friends and now he’s willing to do anything I want him to do.” Now four immersive light installations by Turrell are among Mona’s most admired works.

A large, smooth white ball stands on the windows of a modern glass and concrete gallery
Mona Pharos Suite, featured in Unseen Seen (2017) by James Turrell © Mona / Jesse Hunniford

Nearly 12 years after its opening, the venue has become a huge success, attracting nearly 4 million people since opening and transforming the fortunes of the entire island. Restaurants, bars, hotels and shops have proliferated, benefiting from the influx of domestic and international tourists. To one side of the vineyards flanking the entrance to the Mona is a construction site, and a new stand is under construction. It will feature a new five-story work by Anselm Kiefer, relating to building artwork in his studio in the south of France. “I’m about to spend another £28m just on building! As for my running costs, they’re enough to get me into the ground – about £10m a year. But if I’m only doing what I can do, I’m not doing anything at all.”

So how will the extravagantly expensive museum survive? Walsh says revenue from his gambling syndicate will support it, as well as money inflows from other sources. The cool O app that Mona’s visitors use is a location-aware device that gives them information about the businesses they’re standing in front of and allows them to virtually wait for some displays. He sells technology, notably to the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa. “Mona is the largest shareholder in the company – Art Processors – and this is how I hope to secure her future.”

He wrote in his 2014 book, bone of truth, “I built Mona to absolve myself of feeling guilty about making money without making a mark.” I ask him about this. “That was definitely true when I built Mona, but now I feel like a lot less than that,” he says. “Maybe I’ve become more self-confident, and I’ve done enough penance.

“I’m pouring money into him and I can continue to do that. When I’m not here, I can vouch for his future — and he’s going to be important.”

The Oceans of Air program runs through July 24. mona.net.au

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