untangling the awkward relationship between art and money

“I have some things I want to say…You might not want to hear them”: MONA launch, 21 Jan 2011

Being the jaded creature that I can sometimes be, I was pleasantly surprised by the child-like excitement that accompanied the arrival of my invitation to the launch party for the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. First up, it was seriously large and weighty – there’s something about 5mm thick matt black card, silver foil printing and a tumble of inclusions that lends an invitation serious gravitas. But, most of all, I’ve been looking forward to this for yonks.

David Walsh has been constructing a monumental home for his idiosyncratic collection on the shores of the Derwent River for a number of years now. I’ve had the occasional update via former auction world colleagues, Mark Fraser and Jane Clark, both ex-Sotheby’s (and NGV in Jane’s case) and both of whom now work with Walsh at MONA as Director and Curatorial Consultant respectively. Walsh has made a bundle of money as a professional gambler, although I doubt you’d see him out at Moonee Valley for the Friday night trots. Rather, he’s a mathematical genius who’s put his talents to good use by writing complex logarithms that enable him to work the odds in his favour. If this 2007 profile by Gabriella Coslovich is to be believed, he’s an intriguing character. Either way, he is sinking a fair chunk of his earnings into the purchase of major works of art that will be available for the Australian public to view for free. A decent bucketload of gazillions has also gone into the construction of the Nonda Katsalidis edifice.

Walsh is deliberately courting controversy and wants nothing more than to shake up the Australian art world. From what I understand, he is displaying his collection in a manner that he hopes will cause outrage amongst curators and curious onlookers alike. Museum and art world professionals will be horrified with the technical aspects of his installation, and squeamish visitors will be shocked by the explicit and fecal nature of some of the art on display. A centrepiece of his collection is yBa alumni Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, arguably the most contentious work of art produced in recent decades. Ofili’s elephant dung and labia bedazzled icon featured in Charles Saatchi’s notorious exhibition, Sensation. The tempest of religious fury that Ofili’s painting caused when exhibited at Brooklyn’s Museum of Art as part of Sensation‘s grand world tour led to the cancellation of the show’s scheduled appearance at the National Gallery of Australia in 2000. Although topping the list in the ‘ewww’ stakes for me will be Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca, a room-sized installation that takes in food at one end, ‘digests’ it, and pops it out the other end as disturbingly convincing fecal effluent, authentic aroma and all (as an aside, have a look at Wim Delvoye’s fantastic website – don’t worry – it’s completely SFW. Really).

Walsh’s desire to shock and court scandal, and to knock the legs out from under some of the art world’s most venerated cows might seem a little puerile. But why should that matter? Walsh’s message couldn’t be clearer: MONA is his playpen. If you don’t like the rules, you can pack up your bat and ball and go home. The text within the illustrated booklet that accompanied my invitation to the launch runs as follows: “I bought some ancient art…It was getting a bit mouldy…I built a little gallery…I let people have a look…I bought some newer art…Some people made some art for me…I built a bigger gallery…I have some things I want to say…You might not want to hear them.” When Jane Clark spoke at Melbourne University earlier in the year, she quoted Walsh:  ‘MONA is my soapbox … and the best lounge room money can buy’. And that’s why I’m excited. One of my favourite museums in the world is Sir John Soane’s Museum in London (pictured). Soane was an architect and inveterate collector. His residence in Lincoln’s Inn Fields has been a public museum since his death in the early 19th century. It’s an extraordinary space, and one in which the connection between the collector and his collection couldn’t be clearer.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to understand a collection unless we’re given some insight into the person, or people, who formed it. Somebody, somewhere, chose an object and placed it within a collection for a reason. The modern model of the public museum can be misleading in that sense. The white walls and apparently impersonal modes of presentation encourage us to see museums as remote temples of high art. But those white walls hide a maelstrom of human activity, and I’ve had enough to do with public art organisations to know that individual personalities have a great deal to do with the formation of public collections. One example of many – the former curator of a major Australian public collection who told me of the time he was told by a former director in very clear terms that he was not to make acquisitions from a particular dealer because the dealer had slighted the director. That ban remained in place for years. Consider what that might have meant for the art that did and, importantly, did not end up on the gallery’s walls. Not to mention the relevance of this situation for those artists whose work didn’t enter the gallery’s collection as a result of this personal feud.

If a collection is stripped of a collector’s touch, and all signs that can help us understand why those disparate objects were brought together to form a collection are eliminated, we’re left with nothing more than a meaningless agglomeration of things. That’s why I find it both intriguing and revealing to see those things writ large in private museums such as the Soane Museum where collectors are able to express their relationship with their collections. I’m hoping that we’ll see much the same thing when MONA opens in January – because it certainly sounds like we’re going to get a very interesting peek at David Walsh, the collector, via his gallery.

(image of the Sir John Soane Museum via http://www.soane.org/history)

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