Remarkable collectors & philanthropists: David Walsh - Art Collector

Issue 55, January - March 2011

This profile appeared in the "Remarkable collectors & philanthropists" feature, part of the annual special issue "50 Things Collectors Need to Know 2011"

“David Walsh was at the launch last night, did you spot him?” reads one of the more breathless press statements from the Museum of Old and New Art. It’s rare for a collector to be hyped like a rockstar, particularly one who is so notoriously media shy, but when your collection is about sex and death, it’s perhaps not so out of place.
Walsh’s $76 million development on the banks of Hobart’s Derwent River has been fuelling the rumour mill for years now but this coming January it will finally open to the public. It joins other privately owned art museums such White Rabbit and the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and its scale – on par with Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art – also puts it in competition with the major national and state galleries.

But unlike other museums the first thing you encounter, after you climb down through the sandstone bedrock into the underground gallery space, is a bar – with Moo Brew, a beer from Walsh’s own microbrewery, on tap.

If the museum is a people-pleaser, however, it’s a rather unapologetic one. Mark Fraser, the director of MONA, first met Walsh in 2005 and began working for the museum two years later. “We’re acquiring things that are of interest to David on a personal level and we’re putting them out there. We’re putting them out there as we wish, and not necessarily in the way that most museums would,” he says.

The museum has no curatorial brief. “We’re not under any obligation to go out and buy anything in particular. I don’t believe David has a particular shopping list.”

But surely he must be driven by personal taste? “You would be amazed, you would be absolutely amazed,” says Fraser. “This is a man whose skill set is in mathematics, whose interest is equally in science, the natural world and history. He’s not an art historian, he’s a man who’s engaging with the world from a slightly different perspective where art theory is not at the centre of everything. He’s equally interested, or even more interested, in other elements of nature and life.”

In other words, it’s not all sex and death then. As the museum’s name would suggest, Walsh’s collection spans both the old (antiquities including an extensive ancient coin collection and ethnographic African art) and the new (modern and contemporary art). Among the works on show will be a Julius Popp installation where water drops in words, as if issued from a bubblejet printer (a technique also appropriated for a recent car commercial) and a 45-metre wide Sidney Nolan rarely seen in Australia because of its size. The collection also includes a host of Young British Artists such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Mat Collishaw and Damien Hirst.

Parts of the museum have been designed especially to house key pieces, like the Popp and the Nolan, but perhaps the most impressive is the Anselm Kiefer pavilion, which contains the haunting work Sternenfall/Shevirath ha Kelim. Kiefer said he wanted his own pavilion, so the story goes, and Walsh built
him one.

Certainly there are few in Australia who could afford to put together a collection of this size – estimated to be worth $100 million – and also build a museum to deliver it to the public. (Walsh made his fortune through the auspicious combination of mathematics and gambling.) But the size and diversity of this collection is not the only reason it could be considered remarkable.

For his part, Walsh has called MONA an “adult Disneyland”. Fraser is not so keen on the phrase but believes there’s still some truth to it. “What he means by that is not that he wants to dumb it down … [but] we’re not going to be elitist. He doesn’t have an elitist interest in art and is interested himself in art that is fairly accessible and he enjoys art that has a visceral or sensory response to it.” More to the point, no-one will walk away from this collection without feeling something, whether it be shock, awe, surprise or a deep belly laugh.

Jane O’Sullivan

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