Friday, May 6, 2011

Not for everyone

The opening of MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, in Hobart adds a new element to the landscape of Australian art galleries. Unlike public galleries, MONA doesn't have to  appeal to a broad audience.

MONA exhibit

 MONA is funded by David Walsh who does exactly what he likes as the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
 We were led underground to a lecture on "David's" intentions. There is a bit of a cult of "David" on the promontory. "It's David who makes all the final touches, everything ultimately comes down to his say," says Mark Fraser, late of Sotheby's Australia.

Cristina Ruiz from The Art Newspaper reported for Utne:

Imagine a museum that overturns virtually every accepted notion of institutional practice: an underground museum with no natural light, with a deliberately confusing design so visitors get lost as they wander through its halls; a museum that, in places, is incredibly noisy and very, very smelly.
What are the risks of ignoring accepted practice? From the Visitor Research point of view, we know that every place will find a following – ranging from broad popularity to niche. I'm predicting that MONA will attract a small passionate audience that is drawn to the intensely individual experience it offers. The process started with strong media interest before the gallery was open. Now MONA has 10,000 followers on Facebook, one of whom, Vance Joplin, said.
I'm from Sydney, I was there the 2nd day MONA opened. I'm flying back on the 27th till the 29th, and spending both the Saturday and the Sunday from open till close crawling over the museum.Thank you David, for letting me inside your head, and now I'm here, I like the way you think man.
MONA will survive because it has a benefactor who doesn't need the entry fees or the approval of a large audience. In contrast, publicly funded museums and galleries are answerable to the taxpayer and there are strict limits on what taxpayers are prepared to fund. In effect, the mandate of publicly funded galleries is to appeal to everyone without causing TOO much offence.

Of course, the practical realities mean that many galleries remain as quietly elite as they always were. A notable exception is the Queensland Art Gallery / Gallery of Modern Art (QAG/GOMA) which has programmed some stunning and popular shows. It leads Australia in offering high-end experiences for families in all its exhibitions as shown by this lego table in the recent exhibition 21st Century, the First Decade.

GOMA – 21st Century, Art in the First Decade

And here is the Catch 22.  If galleries take the elitist road, like MONA, they won't get public funding, but if they take the popular route, like GOMA, the critics will ask, "Is it Art?" as The Australian did in this article.

QAG/GOMA has decided to attract and serve broad audiences and it is suceeding splendidly. With 1.8 million visits last year, it is quite a way ahead of its nearest equivalent, Melbourne's NGV, which attracted 1.5 million visits.

If MONA can continue to pay its way, it will find a loyal niche audience that loves the shock of controversy. This means that the new kid on the block will play nicely with its peers by doing something entirely different from them.

For a while, that is. MONA is more-or-less programmed to self-destruct as David Walsh notes: 
If I cared about longevity I wouldn’t have built a museum a couple of meters above the sea level. The Derwent is a tidal river. In 50 years, a lot of money is going to have to be spent on MONA or it’s going to be underwater.

Posted by Gillian Savage