Art works. Words by Marcus Teague

By Marcus Teague, 2/4/2015
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FOR a totemic tourist icon, Hobart’s Museum Of Old and New Art is pretty unassuming at first sight. Guests arriving by car at the Berriedale site, 15 minutes north of Hobart, are greeted by vineyards along the driveway. Across a genteel garden slope and down a flight of stairs, the most striking aspect of Mona is to be the outdoor tennis-court across which visitors use to access the short building.

Tourists arriving by one of the museum’s ferries receive a little more mental preparation. A 30-minute drift up the Derwent River from Hobart, the building to reveals itself from the water, its looming rust-red steel and exposed concrete suggesting something under the surface.

It’s only once inside and down an imposing spiral staircase that the full scale of this dark lair begins to focus. A seemingly haphazard and multi-level array of rooms, walkways, gantries and halls forms a labyrinthine path through the vivid art collection of local gambler-cum-museum owner and curator, David Walsh. The largest privately funded museum in Australia, Mona has quickly become a world unto itself.

The Void and lift stairwell at Mona (Photo: Matt Newton)

Since opening in 2011, Mona has seen 1.4 million people pass through its doors, 65 per cent of them interstate and overseas visitors, museum data shows. According to Tourism Tasmania, in 2014, it attracted 330,000 visitors, or around 28 percent of all visitors to Tasmania. It regularly nabs international headlines, tourists and their dollars, commonly called the Mona effect. But Tasmania has a rich tapestry of tourist attractions that long pre-date Walsh’s inverted Valhalla.

When I get Leigh Carmichael on the phone, he’s on the sidelines at his son’s footy training. First hired in the mid-’00s by David Walsh to create a beer label for Mona (founded on Moorilla Estate), Carmichael is now the Creative Director of Dark Mofo. The dark-spirited winter spin-off of Mona’s summer event, Mona Foma, there’s little question Dark Mofo and the museum are now huge tourist draws. As an umpire’s whistle peals in the background, Carmichael explains down the line that it wasn’t always this way.

“Tourists were talked about,” he says of the early days. “But we often scratched our heads and wondered when people were going to come — in the middle of winter or at all — to fill this hundred-million-dollar building. It was never conceived of as a tourist icon. It was built by David to express his ideas. Secondly, it was for locals, and perhaps thirdly, it was for tourists.”

The seed for Dark Mofo was different. “To be honest, Mona was stretched financially,” says Carmichael. “So the idea was that we’d do something in winter to even out our numbers, and a winter festival seemed like the obvious thing. But we needed the money [to do so] from government, so we needed to actually build the model and consider the tourist dollar to get funding. From the start, Dark Mofo was built around an acknowledgement that we needed to draw tourists in the middle of winter.”

It worked. Upon debut, in 2013, the festival drew 128,000 attendees, in 2014 that figure rose to 130,000 — effectively installing a new tourist peak-season in the middle of winter. While the festival has brought a renewed spotlight to local industries, Carmichael is quick to acknowledge that the event and ones like don’t succeed in isolation.

“It’s hard to dismiss the impact Mona’s had,” says Carmichael. “But I think it’s come at a good time to expose a lot of that stuff that was already there. Our food and wine culture and industry has been really strong for quite a while. Whisky’s a good example — some of them are 10, 15, 20 years old, and we’re winning awards all over the world for it. Our wilderness experiences have been going for much longer than Mona. Mona has amplified all that but it was already there. We’re bringing more numbers through the state, and for a longer season — our shoulder season (the period that bookends peak times) is getting wider and deeper into winter all the time. I guess that helps people keep their tourist businesses open.”

Phil Souter from Tourism Tasmania knows it does. Research conducted by Tourism Tasmania shows that Mona is now the second highest tourist draw behind Salamanca Markets. In the year ending June 2014, just over one million (1,057,900) people visited Tasmania, 28 percent (296,997) of which indicated they went to Mona — 15 percent of whom indicated that they came to Tasmania because of Mona.

Crucially, those dedicated tourists are spending big money elsewhere. Visitors who also went to Mona in that period spent $606 million locally during their trip — $244 million on accommodation and $254 million on other items — a 13 per cent increase from the previous year.

“The museum has created a new conversation about Tasmania and what the island state is all about,” says Souter. “[It’s] also helped stimulate the development of a range of new and more adventurous cultural and food experiences in Hobart and throughout Tasmania. Hobart’s hospitality and tourism sector has broadly benefitted from the opening of Mona and the staging of their various events. Some tourism operators might perceive that Mona has focused too much attention on Hobart, [but] our research shows that interstate and international visitors to Mona spent on average 10 nights in the state, with many exploring beyond Hobart.”

Mona’s concrete waffle facade (Photo: Mona/Leigh Carmichael)

Food & Produce

BRETT Steel is one of the people benefitting directly from Mona’s visitors looking beyond the museum’s exposed sandstone walls and corten steel. For the last three and a half years, Steel has been running Drink Tasmania Tours. A transplant from Sydney, Steel was working in marketing before moving to Hobart to set up a Tasmanian whisky and wine bar. But back then, without Dark Mofo bringing in people during the off-season, the numbers didn’t add up. As part of his research however, he discovered that despite a long history of whisky making in Tasmania, there was little public access to local distilleries, and he hit upon the idea of taste tours.

“Nearly every person that comes on my tour goes to Mona or is interested in it,” Steel admits, though the interest in his business shares a distinction beyond being another pamphlet at the airport. “Whisky tours are a pretty democratising experience,” he says. “I have guys saying ‘We love our Bundy and Coke, we hear Tassie does some great whisky and we want to come on tour.” I’ll sit them next to politicians and high-end people around the lunch table. It’s a varied dynamic with one thing in common, and I think that’s also what Mona does. It doesn’t require much money to go and experience Mona, you can hire a bike and just go into the museum for $20. But you can do it at the premium level as well, you can lunch at The Source and stay at the pavilions on site. I think that democratising is one of its greatest achievements.”

Steel thinks Mona’s presence is psychological as well. “What Mona’s done is allow those pre-existing industries to float to the surface to where they can be seen and appreciated,” he says. “ I think it’s given everyone courage to do things a little more boldly than before Mona was here and led the way.”

Dark Mofo Winter Feast (Photo: Mona/Rémi Chauvin)

Madi Seeber-Peattie agrees with Steel’s conclusion. The owner and market manager for Farm Gate Market in Hobart city, Seeber-Peattie’s venture regularly attracts 4000 visitors, bumping to 5000 in on-peak times like Dark Mofo. “I don’t think before Mona the energy was quite there and I don’t know if we as a state believed in ourselves enough,” she says. “I think now we do.”

Seeber-Peattie has been running Farm Gate for six years, and she says interest in the weekly Sunday market has definitely been compounded by Mona. But again, it hasn’t been the sole reason. The Market Manager says food tourism has taken off in the past five years, thanks in part to the State Government pumping money into marketing the state as a jewel in the food tourism crown, not to mention the work of locals. “We have 250 private producers on our books and they work really hard in promoting Tasmania in their own right as a tourism destination,” says Seeber-Peattie. “We’ve been conscious about building it for locals at a grassroots level. But also Tourism Australia invested in a campaign called Restaurant Australia, and it was about inviting the world to our dinner table.

“It culminated in an enormous dinner which was actually hosted at Mona. Each state had to put a bid in for hosting it and we won, and I reckon we won because it was going to be hosted at Mona. So along with the festivals, I think it’s directly related to the spectacle we can provide along with the way we produce food.” Seeber-Peattie laughs. “We have one of our biggest weekends that we ever have on the weekend of Dark Mofo’s Winter Feast. Every year I think “I must write an email to David Walsh and say ‘Thank you for that’.”

Mary McNeill is another local who saw the early promise of food tours and interest in clean produce. A former pastry chef and sixth generation Hobartian, McNeill runs Gourmania Food Tours. Established the same year as Mona, Gourmania takes curious foodies on a local food trail, visiting the best of local businesses and chatting with industry professionals. “Many of Gourmania’s customers are Australians visiting Tasmania for the first time,” says McNeill. “Many are people in their 40s and 50s who have previously not had Hobart or Tasmania on their radar, as well as younger people attracted by Mona Foma and Dark MOFO.”

McNeill echoes Carmichael when she says it’s not that Mona has knighted the food and produce industries with its magic blade, but it has certainly drawn attention to them. “It was already happening in the niche product areas independent of Mona: premium wine, whisky, organic apples, GM free crops, cheeses, rare breed livestock etc. [But the shared spotlight] has brought about an increased ability to market those products.”

The increase in travellers isn’t just due to the art and produce on offer, says McNeill, but also how visitors arrive and stay. “Accessibility is of huge importance,” McNeill says. “The airlines play a big part in that offering good deals, and some great accommodation options have come along which is a major part of the appeal – you can stay in indulgence or beautiful accommodation on a budget.”

 

James Turrell’s Skyspace series (Photo: Mona/Rémi Chauvin)

 

Accommodation & Travel

Someone that works at the intersection of indulgence, accommodation and art, is Rod Black, General Manager of the upmarket Henry Jones Art Hotel. A grand, 12-year-old business that sits on the lip of the wharf at Hobart’s waterfront, it’s billed as “the first art hotel in Australia”. It stands alongside the Tasmanian College of the Arts and upon opening, according to Black, it featured post-graduate work from the college next door. “We’ve now got a formal artist in residence program, a full-time art curator and an art historian,” says Black. “There has always been a strong art movement in Tassie. But [telegraphing] that knowledge to interstate and international is what Mona brought on.”

While Mona is often at the top of his guests’ to-do list, Black includes Port Arthur and the island’s natural environment as the other main lures. “Our occupancy over our 11 years has been steady at around 91 per cent, so it’s hard to realise or attribute the benefit specifically to Mona,” he says. “We have straight leisure tourists and a loyal group of corporate guests. But it’s fair to say that a greater cultural movement towards Tasmania and the tourists coming down [has become evident] in recent years. Put it this way: that 91 per cent occupancy might not have been maintained had Mona not been here.”

Further down the affordability scale, Mo Mahmoud has been running Narrara Backpackers in Hobart since 1999, long before Mona was established. Mahmoud says the majority of his guests are on a working holiday, backpackers from Asia and European, with most looking to experience natural attractions. “They’re interested in walking tracks and mountains,” says Mahmoud. “Bruny Island, eating oysters, trying local cheese, local produce, trying our salmon — gastronomic experiences as well as natural beauty. We have a lot to offer in that respect.”

Mahmoud says that the advent of Dark Mofo has added to a program that makes local tourism less seasonal. “If you introduce events in the shoulder season — the Wooden Boats Festival came in February, Dark Mofo in June, the Festival of Voices in July — it attracts many more people to come down in the off season and that’s a great thing for the industry.”

Whatever the attraction, Mahmoud has indeed noticed an acceleration in the last four or five years since Mona opened. “Simply, the events that are on now attract people from weekend to weekend,” says Mahmoud. “We’ve noticed that when the airlines had a mini-war and airline tickets were cheaper, a lot of backpackers take advantage of that. And in the last three or four years as Mona’s come into its own, it’s attracted a lot of people from abroad. It’s a critical mass thing. Once the world becomes aware of you and what you offer, people are more tempted to come and try different things. It’s been a good market the last four or five years.”

(Photo: Mona/Rémi Chauvin)

 

Music, Art & Culture

With Mona looming large as the first point of call to art-hungry visitors, you might be lulled into thinking local attempts didn’t rate prior to 2011. Julian Teakle has been playing music in Tasmania as well as documenting its local scene for over twenty years, and he’s accustomed to this attitude. “We’re used to outsiders mocking us,” he says with a little delight. “So it’s kind of a shock to be viewed as this hip and trendy place now.” Teakle has seen the type of tourist to Tasmania change first hand. “I work in a library and we have public internet, and I can say anecdotally there’s been an increase in European backpackers between say 18 and 30, definitely when the Mona festivals are on.”

Teakle’s participation in the Tasmanian arts scene is thorough. He runs Rough Sky Records, is the creator of the archival Hobart underground music blog Goulburn Street,, and has done time in bands like the Hobart Improv Collective, Bad Luck Charms, and The Frustrations. Currently he plays bass with The Native Cats, who have played several Mona events.

“It’s weird to play a local show and have mostly mainlanders there,” he laughs about playing at the festival. Mona’s generally been positive for the pre-existing music and arts scene he says, but it’s still early days. “A lot of us have benefitted from it in terms of employment or exposure,” he says. “But it’s a funny thing: we play these events and people assume we’re from the mainland. They ask, ‘Oh are you from Melbourne or Sydney?’ Some friends did a noise orchestra thing and people were like, Thanks for coming down from Melbourne.’ These are musicians that live within 30 minutes drive of the venue.”

Teakle has noticed the profound benefits of the Mona-related visitors at a grassroots level. “My friend Adam runs Tommy Gun records and he prepares for when Dark Mofo and Mona FOMA are on because people who come down for a music and arts festival like buying records. He’ll sell stupid amounts of stuff, it’s great for him. And all that money for the small businesses — as opposed to the chain stores — gets ploughed directly back into our economy.”

“You can see that have a knock on effect,” Teakle says. “I’ve got friends that run book shops and record shops, the amount of cafes that are opening down here is kind of overwhelming. Tassie has the rep for the clean organic type of food thing and they’ve really built on that. I don’t know if it’s the Mona effect – we have a farmers market and Salamanca, but people do have more incentive for coming down here now. You can go to the museum, you can go to the mountains, or go bush, or stuff your face on Huon Valley mushrooms and stuff like that. It’s an easy place to visit.”

SO, what next? With Mona established as a main draw within just four years, the local produce, travel, accommodation and art industries all evidently benefitting in its wake, how will these relationships be sustained and evolve. As Creative Director of the event responsible for bringing so many to the state in winter, Carmichael is cautious of the delicate ecosystem his brand is part of. A balance is required.

“We are burning incredibly brightly at the moment and it is going to be hard to sustain,” says Carmichael. “I think everyone has their moment in the sun and ours is right now. But I think one of our challenges going forward as a cultural organisation is to not be lured into that kind of tourist space too much. We’ve got to maintain our integrity as a museum first and foremost. Obviously we’re wider and broader than a museum, with festivals and the other cultural activities we run. But I think it could be a huge trap we fall into if we become first and foremost a tourist destination. I think that’s secondary, I think it should be a byproduct.”

Whatever happens now, two things seem clear: Mona has been instrumental in drawing attention to a range of local industries, to the point where if the museum were to sink into the silt tomorrow they would continue to be largely self-sufficient.

But perhaps more lasting will be influence of the organisation’s attitude. “Mona’s always been very forward thinking,” says Carmichael. “I think it’s also made other people here be brave. There’s always been jokes about Tassie and two-headed Tasmanians and all that sort of stuff. We laugh about it and we’re quite good at taking the Mickey out of ourselves. But some of that stuff sits pretty deep in your psyche. I’ve grown up with it and we laugh but it also kind of hurts.”

“I think this is our moment to say: ‘We’re proud of who we are and we can be forward thinking. We’re not a backwater.’ That attitude has gone wide and deep across Tasmania, and not just in the tourist sector. I don’t think anyone could argue it – in the past four year’s Mona has been at the forefront of contemporary culture in Australia. And who would’ve ever thought that?! So it’s given us a pride and I think other organisations the same feeling.”

Brett Steel, of Tasmanian Whisky Tours, concurs. “I think the legacy of Mona will be less the museum itself and more the audacity to do it. Not just the museum but the festivals, the vision and execution that they bring to the island for projects, whether they succeed or not. It’s inspiring to everyone else who’s running a small business or organisation, to follow that lead. Cumulatively, that will genuinely be the legacy of what Mona has allowed.”

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