Warning: This article contains explicit language—and would contain a lot more if David Walsh were being quoted absolutely fucking verbatim. Listening to some of Walsh’s rants, you’d be inclined to think that he’s some foulmouthed comedian. But as it turns out, he’s just Tasmanian. He’s also a multimillionaire, a serious art collector, and, as of this month, the proprietor of the largest private art museum in the Southern Hemisphere, the Museum of Old and New Art.
MONA, as it is known, will be open to the public on January 22, with free admission. The trick is getting there. First, one must travel to Tasmania, a large and chilly island to the south of mainland Australia, from whence the most famous export is probably Errol Flynn. Next is a 40-minute catamaran ride up the Derwent River from the capital of Hobart, after which visitors enter a 50-year-old modernist house perched on a cliff, descend a spiral staircase, and arrive at MONA’s literally cavernous galleries: 62,000 square feet spread over three subterranean levels.
Walsh made his fortune as a professional gambler—being, as he puts it, the “one in 200 million who can beat the odds.” During the past 30 years, he has developed a high-tech probability-crunching system that he uses to bet on horse races. How it works exactly, Walsh won’t reveal. In fact, he won’t even admit to being rich: “Some people think a couple hundred million dollars is not a lot of money,” he says.
Some of Walsh’s winnings are invested in a boutique winery called Moorilla; he also owns a beer-brewing enterprise, Moo Brew, and a destination restaurant, the Source, situated on the same peninsula as the museum. For the past two decades, however, his primary passion has been art. He has amassed a highly individual collection on which he has lavished some $100 million (although how much anyone else would have paid to own Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye’s excrement-producing installation, Cloaca, is open to debate). As the name of his museum suggests, Walsh’s tastes run from the ancient (Roman Empire mosaics and Egyptian sarcophagi) to the cutting-edge (Jenny Saville’s monumental paintings of female flesh and Stephen J Shanabrook’s sculptures of suicide bombers rendered in chocolate). And despite saying he does not have the body for it, Walsh posed nude for Andres “Piss Christ” Serrano.
The recurring themes of MONA’s collection are sex (the most overt example being Greg Taylor’s 141 life-size porcelain sculptures of female genitalia) and death. New Zealand artist Julia deVille has been commissioned to create a vessel for funereal ashes, making it possible for art lovers to remain at MONA for all eternity. And Walsh has purchased the right to film 66-year-old Christian Boltanski in his studio 24 hours a day for the rest of his life. Images will be transmitted to MONA, and the longer the Frenchman lives, the more the piece will cost. Walsh, an atheist, wants to encourage exploration of “secular death.” “Why does death have to be seen as a religious event?” he asks. “Whenever I hear the phrase ‘It’s just part of life,’ I want to puke.”