Sunday, January 09, 2011

A Quick Word On... MONA founder David Walsh (Heroes #1)

This long-overdue blog is the first in a series that I am tentatively titling 'Heroes'. My hope for 'Heroes' is that it will chronicle people rather than pieces of art themselves; people who have impressed me and inspired me, and who continue to do incredible and wonderful things. They may be artists, writers, sportspeople, or particularly brilliant minds of any field. To start with though, it's someone close to home. This is my tribute to MONA founder David Walsh.

They call it a 'subversive Disneyland', a labyrinthine series of tunnels in an underground world best accessed by ferry, filled with a rarities and oddities. In one room it is the sarcophagus of a mummy, preserved in its decorative Egyptian tomb, in another, it is the life-like image of a dead suicide bomber, preserved in carved chocolate. It's room after room of this stuff, hundreds of objects, paintings and artifacts that represent one man's private collection of the awe-inspiring and stomach-churning. Only in America I hear you say? That's the best part. It's Tasmanian.

It's called the Museum of Old and New Art, or MONA, a term which Tasmanians may be familiar with even though the museum itself doesn't open til the end of the month. Walsh's family of curiosity keepers are also responsible for the organisation of the MONA 'Festival of Music and the Arts' (MONA FOMA), which has now been running for three years. It brings some of the worlds biggest and most brilliant alternative acts from right around the world into Hobart for one week, and best of all, thanks to Walsh's generosity and matching funding from the government, pretty much everything is free. It's curated by Ex-Violent-Femmes guitarist Brian Ritchie, another possible genius who just happens to be hiding somewhere in Ye Olde Hobart Town, and as far as Hobartians should be concerned, it's the cultural event of the year.

Of course it's reasonable to ask where the hell all this money has come from. The name 'David Walsh' doesn't stir memories of any particular songs, or long-forgotten-but-still-royalty-receiving film stars. Walsh is what's known as a 'professional gambler'. Once a card counter, these days he's found more economical joy from a mathematical system that guarantees some big victories in horse racing bets. Someone's gotta win, and it looks like most of the time it's David Walsh.

It's easy to get frustrated about someone snaffling up a few million the easy way, but you can't help but love someone who - as my brother put it - "sounds like Willy Wonka'. Walsh is making massive investments in the culture of the state, first it was his Moorilla brewery and vineyard, then the MONA FOMA festival whose ridiculous free entry statement made it an absolute no-brainer to go to everything. Now the museum is free, and whether people want to come and see the exhibits again to be re-inspired, or just 'refresh their outrage', Walsh is up for it all.

And for me this is the thing that makes David a hero. Someone like me who wants to write should surround themself with art - actually screw that - someone who wants to be a human should surround themself with art. Challenging, interesting, world-class art. To a certain degree this is easy - the internet means that we can now download with a few simple clicks the best movies, television and music from around the world. But sometimes art has to be physically seen in all its glory - who can really get a sense of Sidney Nolan's 'Snake' without having it physically in front of them at its full 49m length? Who can truly understand the music of the Fourplay string quartet until they've seen in reality those fingers slide so magically along those strings? Until they've heard the music as it lives? Walsh gets it. And he's making sure everyone else gets it too, not just those who can afford it. The secrets of the museum are still coming to light, but if the festival line-up is any indication of its quality we have great things in store. This year's MONA FOMA brings some of my most anticipated acts to Tassie - Neil Gaiman will be reading a story backed by Fourplay string quartet and with illustrations by acclaimed artist Eddie Campbell. There's (his wife!) Amanda Palmer, there's Philip Glass, there's the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, there's Grinderman... Oh god, the list goes on and it's all awesome.

I was speaking to my Nan about Walsh's gambling winnings and she said 'well if he puts the money back into the community he can win as much as he likes'. I couldn't agree more. David Walsh is an absolute legend, and his tireless efforts have led to what I anticipate will be the greatest and most exciting week of 2011. To him, and all associated with MONA and the MONA FOMA festival I wish only the greatest success, and express my heartfelt thanks and excitement.

You guys are heroes, and I can't wait to explore the world you've created. From everyone in Tasmania - thank you.

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