The Violent Femmes with guest appearance by Premier Will Hodgman play at the Block Party in Launceston. (Supplied: MONA)
“What MONA did was put a lightning rod in what was starting to emerge.”
David Bartlett was premier of Tasmania when the Museum of Old and New Art opened in January 2011.
Australia’s most moribund economy was still gripped by the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis. The Australian dollar was on par with its US counterpart, wood-chipping forests for export was not paying the bills, and it just did not seem like the future.
As David Walsh was carving his museum into the rock on the banks of the Derwent, there was concern in Tasmania about the vision that lived in his mind.
The then-premier could feel it.
“Andres Serrano was causing riots internationally with his work Piss Christ. Walsh owned it. So what was he going to unleash here?” he said.
Before the museum opened, Walsh’s people came to the State Government and asked for funding for the first MONA FOMA (Festival of Art and Music).
“I remember getting a briefing note from a department saying, ‘Don’t fund this — there’s a band playing called the F**k Buttons’,” Mr Bartlett said.
Mr Bartlett was an outlier by the conservative standards of Tasmanian politics.
“We funded it anyway, and that was the turning point. It was an extraordinary success and everyone wanted more,” he said.
Over the past seven years there have been more festivals, more exhibitions, more provocations and millions more tourists coming to Tasmania to see what happens when you descend the long staircase into the rock and down to the museum floor.
A statue for Walshie?
Some think David Walsh’s influence on Tasmania warrants a monument in his honour. (ABC News: Artists impression )
Has MONA changed Tasmania? It is indisputable that the museum has changed Hobart.
But the reverberations from that lightning strike into the ground in the blue-collar northern suburb of Berriedale have been felt throughout the island state too.
Stanley is a beautiful rugged hamlet in north-western Tasmania, a place almost as far by road from MONA geographically as it is possible to find.
Stanley in Tasmania’s north-west has had a jump in visitor numbers, attributed to the MONA effect. (Instagram: Khulmie)
Julian Jacobs owns the pub and has felt the MONA effect on his business, and said he felt the MONA owner’s contribution was statue-worthy.
“For Tasmania it’s been fantastic. Trendy people come here, trendy people follow. They should build a statue to David Walsh,” he said.
The tourism numbers do not lie.
In 2010 there were 904,000 visitors to Tasmania, and in MONA’s first year they fell a little lower.
But then in 2012, the numbers of visitors from NSW and Victoria started to rise by a modest 6 per cent.
The growth was for Hobart. Not beyond. And then year-on-year the numbers started to grow.
Hobart’s popularity progressively infected the rest of the state. “Trendy people follow.”
Last year 1.26 million people visited Tasmania, leaving $2.33 billion behind.
Don Monk owns a tourism business in north-west Tasmania, and has been running at 80 per cent occupancy for the past two years.
The business success has given him the confidence, at 60, to start studying viticulture.
Between 2014 and 2017, he and his wife ran a pop-up restaurant at Spring Vale winery on Tasmania’s east coast.
“We asked everyone who arrived to eat where they’d come from. It was MONA and the markets on day one, and then the rest of their trip was fallout from there,” he said.
When asked if it could be said the new confidence in the state had contributed to him going back to school at 60, he said “you could say that, it’s the confidence to try something new”.
Luke Martin, head of the Tasmanian Tourism Council, watched as the make-up of tourists changed too.
“Our core market is people we call ‘life-long learners’ — they don’t want to lay on a beach. That’s still true,” he said.
“What MONA has done is expand that group … younger people, they want an engaging, immersive experience, and the things that have grown up around MONA.”
Visitors to Tasmania and locals are looking for more “immersive experiences”. (Supplied: MONA)
In the years since MONA began, a whole host of industries and products that in many cases were already here have received global recognition.
In 2014, Tasmania came in at number four on the Lonely Planet list of hot regions to visit in the coming year.
In the same year, Sullivans Cove whiskey won the prize as world’s best single malt at the world whiskey awards. Awards have followed for gin, for restaurants and for hotels.
Ooooh, Tassie you’ve changed
As investors started to dig new ground and pour money into new experiences and visitors came to discover the culture as well as the national parks, what it was to “be Tasmanian” changed.
In the space of a few short years the mainland joke about having two heads has all but disappeared.
“That’s ended,” Mr Martin said.
“In the tourism industry we have shifted from getting patronising pats on the head … to envy.”
Mr Bartlett agreed: “15 years ago travelling interstate as a Tasmanian meant two-headed jokes. I don’t hear that anymore.
“Now it’s, ‘I have to visit this year’.”
Tasmania is a place that everyone wants to visit. And locals are starting to feel comfortable with that around their shoulders.
Chair of Launceston-based Design Tasmania Pippa Dickson says MONA has “held a mirror up to people and asked, ‘Is this what you want to be?'”
Pippa Dickson of Design Tasmania said a new confidence was being felt around the state. (ABC News: Ros Lehman)
Tasmanians have always had something of a confidence issue on the national stage. The state has produced some great footballers and a prime minister.
There is little of the bellicose assertiveness of the Queenslander, the arrogance of the New South Welsh, the threats to run away from home of the West Australian.
Divisive perceptions amongst Tasmanians are mostly irrelevant to “mainlanders”. (Supplied: MONA)
Tasmanians have reserved their confidence for the battles within the island.
The state still, in many ways, thinks of itself as three distinct regions.
The capital and the educated south. The mercantile north with the focus on Launceston. And the resourceful and resource-rich north-west.
These are distinctions about which mainlanders care little.
While in some quarters they might still matter here, for Ms Dickson the new confidence on the island was being felt in all three places.
“It’s a very common story for people to be bolder, to leverage from MONA in what they’re presenting. In art. In food. In culture,” she said.
MONA helps lift horizons
Scott Rankin is the current Tasmanian of the Year.
Perhaps that says something about the change in the island itself — Rankin runs an arts organisation, based in Burnie: Big hART.
Scott Rankin has seen Tasmanians “lift their eyes and look beyond the horizon”. (ABC News: Aneeta Bhole)
He made the point that the north-west of Tasmania had the highest per-capita number of artists in the country.
“The cultural activity has been here, but it hasn’t been amplified,” Rankin said.
He argued that MONA, to some extent, had opened Tasmanian’s eyes to the culture that was here.
“If you take that smouldering flame … and fund it; you use short sentences, great graphic design … it becomes as sexy as sex itself.”
He also said that MONA had helped Tasmanians lift their horizons.
“We’ve been eyes-down. From an island state, we can’t look beyond the horizon … island thinking,” said Rankin.
Filming at Cape Grim for a Big hART project with Smithton High school students. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)
Rankin and his group work intensively with young locals.
“David Walsh applied his skills to opportunities. He is super-audacious. For years we could see the opportunities but kept getting told about the deficits,” he said.
What Rankin wants to promote is a shift from island to archipelago thinking.
“We say to people, ‘I love living here, but I can leave’.”
More challenges ahead
On Saturday night, MONA’s latest exhibition, ZERO, opens to the public.
Spazio elastico (Elastic Space), is one of the installations at ZERO. (Supplied: Matteo Zarbo)
Walsh has declared that in January next year the MONA FOMA festival will move from Hobart to Launceston.
Many are wondering how the mercantile north will regard this southern phenomenon when presented with it on their own soil.
Concerns have been raised about how MOFO will be embraced by Northern Tasmania. (Supplied: MONA)
Ms Dickson said she would be interested to see how locals respond.
“It still remains to be seen if northerners embrace it,” she said.
“I’m a bit worried people might just leave town.”
A number of arts groups have spoken publicly in the past fortnight asking where the requested $2 million in state support for the event might be.
It is hard to plan an event requiring international artists with an undetermined budget, seven months from opening night.
Will the MONA effect — beautifully described by academic Adrian Franklin as its “cultural florescence” — have the same impact in the state’s second city, Launceston, that it has had on the capital … and beyond?
The festival brings thousands of visitors and locals out to embrace the dark winter nights. (Supplied: Dark Mofo/Lusy Productions)