Our Secret

Our Secret

by Elizabeth Pearce, Senior Writer, MONA.

 

Presented to:  MONA EFFECT 4: Regenerating City and Region through Art Tourism?  18th September 2015, MONA, Hobart.

 

Adrian told me you want to know what our secret is – why Mona has found such a large and responsive audience. So I’ll tell you. And not in one of those annoying ways where ‘the secret is – there is no secret’. There actually is one.

 

But first I want to say that I’m slightly worried about the presumption of talking to you today. I don’t want you to think that I think other people should copy us. Not only is that silly – and extraordinarily arrogant – it also cuts to the heart of our core principle, which is to ‘be yourself’. Imagine an awkward teenager on his first day of high school being given a pep talk by his mum: ‘Just be yourself and the other kids will accept you’. That’s us. It’s not very sexy. Actually, a lot of our brand principles sound like mum-to-dorky-teen advice. I’ll come back to that.

 

I also find it presumptuous for me to address you on this topic because I absolutely do not know what I’m talking about – it has never been my intention, nor that of my boss and colleagues, to specifically draw an arts-tourist crowd. Is it possible that our not-trying has had something to do with the success of Mona? Perhaps. But that success also has a great deal to do with the particular circumstances of our coming into being, which is that my boss David Walsh was rich enough – and therefore free enough – to take on an enormous personal and financial risk, and to not care if it failed. I mean, he cared, of course, but he was prepared for it to fail. Very few people have the opportunity to make decisions that impact no one but themselves. I have enormous respect for the courage and skill that put him in this position, but it makes me uncomfortable when we are compared directly to other operations that have to be accountable to the public, a board, and so forth.

 

Nevertheless, you want to know what our secret is, so I will tell you in a way that might find some resonance with someone trying to define their own brand. The secret of our success with our audience is that we don’t care too much about our audience. Ok, so we care. We want people to have a good time at Mona and to take something more meaningful away; but this is not the intention around which the whole operation resolves. When Adrian asked me to participate in your symposium he asked me to comment on the way we imagine audience; how we make space for – and I quote – ‘multiple subjectivities’. My answer is contradictory. Firstly, I agree that diverse audiences have found a lot of space to roam at Mona. But I think the reason is that we didn’t specifically invite them. We focus on – as I said before – being ourselves first. What does ‘being yourself’ actually mean? It’s easy to pay lip service to, and not so easy to carry through. So I’ll try to be specific.

 

First, you have to believe in and be proud of the product itself. But it’s kind of the chicken and the egg thing: as your confidence grows, the product improves, you become more proud of it, and therefore feel more confident. When we started we honestly had no idea Mona was going to be this successful. We fully expected resistance – even outrage – from a significant portion of the Tasmanian community. It was such a surprise, and then, later, a joy, when people started referring to it as ‘our Mona’. As the Mercury reported in the days following our opening – if we wanted to shock the Tasmanian people, we would have to try harder than that.  I’m going to talk more about this unexpected acceptance of Mona in a minute, and how it has impacted our approach; but the point I’m making is that pleasing the audience was a happy by-product of pleasing ourselves. We wanted to make something that we liked, and that we were proud of, that reflected who David was primarily, but also who were as his staff. David chose the people to work for him not according to a strictly literal set of criteria but according to whether they challenged him in productive ways. He wanted people who didn’t necessarily always agree with him but who were like him in that they were prepared to put themselves on the line, make mistakes, and question the established ways things were done. Within that framework he employed people with an eccentric skill set. For instance he employed me to do two jobs: to work on the voice of the Mona brand (I had absolutely no experience in brand and marketing) and to be a kind of in-house art critic (not only had I not studied art, I wasn’t even a particularly enthusiastic consumer of it). My weakness – my inexperience – has become a strength, in the sense that I had no externally imposed ideas about how to market something, nor how to talk about art. In the early days we were told by industry experts that we were making mistakes in the way we were constructing our audience. The text of our Mona Foma programs, for instance, should be more inclusive (i.e. dumbed down) and more salutary to ourselves and the contributing artists and performers: in other words we should talk down to the audience in the process of bigging ourselves up. We should tell them we’re great, and funky, and original, and fresh, rather than actually being those things. I’ll give you another example: when we were working on some new labels for our Moorilla wine, it was suggested that we include text that refers to the labels’ ‘funky design’. Telling someone you’re funky is like describing something as ‘classy’: it immediately becomes the opposite. Anyhow, if we had set out to target a particular audience perhaps we would have followed this expert advice. But instead we established a strategy that stands true today, which is that we should describe the events and products as we would to our most intelligent friend: what information do they need to make a decision for themselves whether or not they want to partake? As a result, we have found, people are more likely to be open to new experiences when you don’t repeatedly shout at them – like in so much marketing – about how amazing that experience will be. Using our own standards in this way as opposed to pandering to the supposed desires of our audience generates a sense of ownership Mona-wide. The energy and commitment of our leader feeds down through his myriad staff – from curators to chefs and gallery attendants – and back again to him, in a self-perpetuating loop.

 

It is for this reason that I often think the brand should not be considered as a thing separate to the product itself. If you get that right (and obviously this can be an ongoing, shifting thing) then that becomes the brand – it sells itself, grows up organically as opposed to the brand being laid over it like a façade. This idea – of the structure and the surface working together as one – is something that threads though the whole Mona experience, and is especially reflected in the architecture. And there is something in this principle for everyone: dorky teens and tourist operators alike. If you’re beautiful on the inside, you’re beautiful on the outside, too. And sincerity of this kind is like a magnet. People have an in-built inauthenticity radar. Think of the teenager again: the more he tries to fit in, to be what the other kids want him to be, the more they will shrink from him.

 

Because the thing is, when it comes to audiences (and school kids), people don’t really know what they want until you show them, and if you do it with enough confidence (confidence that comes from your belief in the value of the product itself), they will most likely find something to appreciate or enjoy, even if it confounds their expectations. That’s why it’s useless to try to construct yourself in the projected image of what you think the audience wants.

 

Having said that, as we’ve matured as an organization, our relationship with audience has changed. The experience of belonging and ownership has altered our teen-rebellion attitude to one of community responsibility. That’s been one of the greatest challenges as the years since we opened: how to stay true to ourselves, to retain our authentic edge, and to respect and include our audience at the same time. It’s something we’re still working on, and that I think about all the time in the process of carrying out both parts of my job. It’s hard to know when to listen to feedback and criticism, and when to ignore it. I think you have to take each piece on its merit, without recourse to self-defense: be open to the possibility that you might have got it wrong, then weigh up that possibility according to your core values.

 

This brings me to another element of the ‘secret’ to our success: our preparedness to make mistakes. I should distinguish between good mistakes and bad mistakes. A bad mistake is when we spelled the name of the famous performance artist Marina Abramovic incorrectly in our flagship book, Monanisms. We called her ‘Maria’ instead of Marina, which was totally embarrassing. And then – amazingly – we somehow managed to replicate the mistake recently in an event involving a public conversation between David and Marina – once more her name appeared as Maria on a projected slide. It was almost so bad it was good. But that’s not the sort of mistake I’m talking about. It’s a really unfortunate side-effect of the political culture in this country that people tend to think that consistency – saying the same thing over and over, never changing your mind, never admitting you were wrong – is seen as an ultimate virtue. I think this is my answer to Adrian’s question about how we make space, at Mona, for multiple subjectivities: we show our human flaws. This is apparent on our O device, the mobile guide patrons take with them as they move through the gallery, and that delivers a range of different interpretation and commentary on the art. We always wanted to present Mona as multi-vocal: if we air our flaws, biases and contradictions, the audience will find a space to do the same, and therefore have a more meaningful engagement with the art, one that involves their whole selves and that they can take away with them to the wider world.

 

What does this mean for another operator trying to define their brand? The same things I’ve been saying over and over: be yourself, don’t shape yourself according to the avoidance of criticism. Let go of the hope and expectation that you will be liked and accepted by everyone and you will find your audience. For instance, frequently my younger colleagues ask me how they should respond to criticism on our Facebook page, and I always put the question back to them. What do you think? If we genuinely stuffed up – like, got someone’s ticketing wrong or something – apologize. At one time we had a big community response to a work by Swiss artist Christoph Buchel that made fun of Tasmania’s racist history. We should open up this discussion – work out what we really think about it and offer that back to the community to respond to – rather than trying to convince people we are right to display the work, and close down the discussion. That’s boring, and it erodes trust: the trust that we hopefully inspire in our audience that they can think things through openly too. Similarly, we never strive for objectivity in our discussions of art and so forth, because human beings are not objective creatures. It is more honest, we think, to parade our bias. It a kind of paradox: open dishonesty. We hope this empowers the audience to be opinionated, but also to be aware of their biases as well, to see themselves in context, and maybe even change the way they think. If so, this is as a result of their own cognitive processes, as opposed to us telling them how it is – imposing it on them like a façade.

 

Here we see again that intersecting core and surface, which sometimes – especially in this super-visual, digital age – people seem to get in reverse. So often, I think, people should stop worrying about their brand and their audience, think more about the product. Because, after all, as our teenager’s mum would say: you can’t expect other people to love you unless you love yourself.

COLLABORATING WITH MONA ON THEATRE OF THE WORLD

COLLABORATING WITH MONA ON THEATRE OF THE WORLD

Jane Stewart, Principal Curator, Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

Paper first given at Museums Australia Conference May 2014, QVMAG Tramsheds Auditorium, Inveresk, Tasmania

 

Theatre of the World (TOTW) was initiated and funded by David Walsh, and curated by renowned French curator, director or auteur, Jean-Hubert Martin. It was an extraordinary, all- encompassing, wunderkammer of an exhibition created largely from the combined collections of the MONA and TMAG.  The exhibition opened at MONA in June 2012 where it continued for about 10 months. It was here, in its first iteration, that the full creative force of both Martin and Walsh was realised. The exhibition design – or set – was rumored to require materials compatible with 4 large houses and the enormous ground floor at MONA was transformed into 16 bespoke rooms, some round, cupboard-sized, square, palatial.

 

Each room was imbued with a ‘phenomenon’ or ‘state’ common throughout time and place, their names including ‘genesis’, ‘scope’, ‘majesty’, ‘duet’, ‘phantasm’. Objects connected in various ways to these ideas were choreographed within their room in a form of visual poetry, or ‘theatre’.

 

In October 2013 a slightly reduced, 12-room remix of TOTW opened for 3 months at La Maison Rouge, Paris, which is incidentally also a contemporary art space owned and run by a private collector.  Here, the exhibition attracted widespread reviews, arguably bringing a degree of attention to Tasmania that was unprecedented in Europe.

 

While considering what the collaboration with MONA has meant to TMAG, I’ve weighed up the fundamental differences between the two institutions:

 

As you will know, MONA is owned by one individual and it appears to be astonishingly well funded. From an outsider’s perspective, anything seems possible – and this is part of the allure.  The collection traverses the globe, includes old (ancient) and new art, and is loosely centred on the themes of sex and death. The gallery has been open for only 3 years and in this time David Walsh has never wished to play it safe and MONA has continued to successfully champion the more ‘challenging’ in art.

 

On the other hand, TMAG is run by a Board of Trustees who are the custodians of the State Collection and manage it on behalf of Tasmania. Unfortunately we don’t have the budget of MONA and we have learnt to live within our means. The collection is built largely from donations and is focused on Tasmania (although there are many anomalies) and, for the most part it spans 210 years of art and history and eons of science.  TMAG is by nature a traditional establishment, founded by the Royal Society over 160 years ago.  As we are largely funded by the taxpayer, our exhibits are deliberately pitched to a broad demographic.

 

In the catalogue essay to TOTW, Martin makes his own comparison of the private and public museum. He is excited by the subjectivity of private collections and the way in which they are guided by intuitive choices, driven by passionate responses to objects and images.  He refers to such collections as ‘Museums of Enchantments’ and writes:

 

Alongside the orderly world of museums is the disorderly world of collectors. Though disconcerting and uncomfortable for the dogmatic art historian, it often generates revelatory connections.

 

Martin regrets the rationalising effect of the Enlightenment and the subsequent sorting of public collections into disciplinary groupings or geographical or chronological order. He dubs these institutions ‘docile museums’.

 

Martin’s inspiration in the very earliest private museums brings the focus back to the object rather than its narrative or metadata: creating space for metaphor, idiosyncrasy, pleasure, and emotion. Such arguably unquantifiable responses are no longer included in the mission statements, policies and strategies of public museums and galleries. Partly because of TOTW’s appeal to the senses rather than education, and partly because of the worldly ambit and ambitious budget required to realise the other-worldly mise-en-scene, TOTW was not an exhibition TMAG would have participated in if we hadn’t been invited to do so.  For this reason, it was enthralling to see what Martin’s independence and imagination wielded and the powerful transformation of Tasmania’s public collection into something almost unrecognizable.

 

The pairing of MONA and TMAG might seem incongruous at first (although we are united by geography, and the eclecticism of the collection was perfect for Martin). But you don’t need to dig too deeply to understand why Walsh extended the invitation. In the preface to the catalogue he describes weekly Sunday visits to TMAG as a teenager – fooling his mother who believed he was at mass. This was in the late 1970s when permanent displays were the norm – and before a frequent program of temporary exhibitions transformed public perception and expectations of museums. He writes:

 

TMAG inculcated in me a respect for history, and inoculated me against trivial perspectives. Most displays changed rarely. Many are changing for the first time since I saw them, now – thirty five years later – after an injection of public funds. But it didn’t matter, it meant that I learned them like one learns a song, through repeated exposure, and as I sang them to myself my interest grew deeper. …. TMAG seemed to have everything, bits of everywhere, but mostly it seemed to be a repository for Tasmanian things, weird personal things.

 

In an extraordinary feat, while constructing his own substantial museum, Walsh was able to return to – and borrow extensively from – the public collection that had so influenced him as a child. As the above quote suggests, the emphasis of the visual potency of the object in TOTW is no coincidence, representing the like- minds of Martin and Walsh and harking back to the collector’s initial experiences at TMAG, in an earlier museum-age.

 

Walsh sought out Martin after seeing Artempo: where time becomes art at the Venice Bienale in 2007, where the Palazzo Fortuny was magnificently and richly transformed with everything between archeological materials to contemporary installations.  But Artempo was no exception to Martin’s intuitive and non-hierarchical approach which was borne in reaction to the dominance of European and American art in Europe and America.  In 1989 he had curated Magiciens de la terre in direct response to the controversial exhibition Primitivism in C20th Art – affinity of the tribal and the modern, 1984, at MOMA, New York – where work by artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, Brancusi, Modigliani was backed up by their ‘primitive influences’ – represented as support material rather than works of art in their own right.

 

Magiciens directly addressed Martin’s long-term issue with Parisian exhibitions, particularly the biennial, where, he said, ‘100% of exhibitions ignored 80% of the earth”. He purposefully selected 50 artists from Europe and America and 50 artists from the ‘fringes’ and Magiciens was the first exhibition of note presented in the contemporary context that set out to dismiss the arrogance of colonialism in art.

 

Of course, colonialism has also played a monumental part in Australian museums and galleries – nowhere more so than in Tasmania – albeit from a different perspective than in Europe.  In 2013, three of the twelve Redevelopment exhibitions that opened at TMAG addressed Tasmania’s fraught colonial legacy head-on through a narrative structure that incorporated multiple perspectives and used film to tell the story where objects weren’t available. It is interesting to compare this more linear method to Martin’s visual approach. For reasons that I hope are obvious, the TMAG Redevelopment exhibitions engaged with the history of the collection and Tasmania in order to tell a story from a contemporary and honest perspective. In contrast, TOTW, which was developed concurrently and curated from the outlook of a European aesthete, was free of colonial baggage – (or was it?) – even though it used many objects with strong connections to our colonial past.

 

TMAG’s 12 Redevelopment exhibitions were all narrative-led. Our tag line ‘Stories that move you’ boldly reinforces this approach – and the judges of the 2013 Museums and Galleries National Award for Best Permanent Exhibition claimed that “the new TMAG exhibitions have reached a level of integrated ‘story telling’ for Tasmanians and other visitors that is unsurpassed in the institution’s long history”.  The measured success of TMAG’s divergent Redevelopment project and TOTW creates a uniquely strong position from where we can explore and appraise each exhibition as we look to the future.

 

Coming back to TOTW, there were many other more tangible plusses that came to TMAG with the collaboration:

 

Reverberating from MONA’s media campaign were some really positive reviews of TOTW on the ABC, in the SMH, and  in The Australian, that launched Hobart, MONA and TMAG into the national arena only 9 months before our own $30 million Redevelopment launch, signifying, I suspect, a level of open-ness, a risqué-ness that might not have been associated with TMAG beforehand.  Whether or not it was consciously acknowledged, our part in the ‘junking of the chronological corset’ (to quote the title of one of the essays in the TOTW catalogue) must have given the impression that TMAG was open to ‘stepping out’.

 

New eyes always bring new discoveries. Martin spent weeks with curators in the TMAG stores and galleries, viewing thousands of objects and images as he compiled the object list. A bible with a bullet hole, a colonial 4 poster bed, early images by Tasmanian contemporary photographer Ruth Frost, Adelaide Ironside’s colonial Dream painting, and John Dempsey’s 1820s portraits of the English poor were among the many items that hadn’t been exhibited for years, if at all. We had spent 10 years waiting to undertake the research for the Dempsey’s before exhibiting them as a group, supported, we had hoped, by a catalogue.  TOTW didn’t require this level of scholarship and so thankfully these works are now in the public sphere.

 

A similar scenario played out with TMAG’s Tapa cloths. Martin had scouted out hundreds of objects from the Pacific region, bringing about their re-awareness, documentation, conservation, display, and now, their preservation. Without him, the 70 or so cloths that formed, arguably, the heart of TOTW would still be stacked against each other in storage.  Although Kirsten Brett was able to undertake some research on the tapas in relation to TOTW, we don’t currently have the resources to curate these Pacific objects to a high museological standard and Martin challenged this perceived barrier.

 

As mentioned earlier, the international reach of Martin and Walsh ensured that TOTW toured to Paris. With the exception of the Colonial International Exhibitions, this is the first time TMAG’s collection has toured en masse internationally and the confidence and opportunity this has brought continues to unravel.

 

We were generously funded through the Australia International Culture Council for our then Director and several curators to travel to France. This enabled us to participate in the opening events and to present a seminar at La Maison Rouge that provided our thoughts and research on the TMAG objects, and Tasmania in general.  A full hour of questions followed, where a number of people expressed surprise that Tasmanian Aboriginal culture was still very much alive.  We also met the Bernard Smith, who had recently written his PhD about the French expeditions to Tasmania in 1793 and 1802 – prior to British colonisation. This conversation continues, and it’s invaluable to have a Frenchman with this degree of knowledge about the exchange between the French and the Tasmanian Aboriginal people – and the whereabouts of little-known journey- drawings.

 

The early French expeditions to Tasmania were also the reason for our visit to the Museum of Natural History at Le Havre, where the collection of original watercolours by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and Nicolas-Martin Petit are housed. Petit’s portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and Lesueur’s intricate drawings of Aboriginal canoes, baskets and burial mounds exist today as a vital record of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture living freely in the year before British colonisation. The collection of works by Lesueur also record the Tasmanian landscape and unique fauna.  These works have not been seen in Tasmania since they were first painted and we are now in discussion with Le Havre and the Australian Embassy in France regarding a touring exhibition in 2017.

 

TOTW reinforced the global interest in, and the global nature of, the TMAG collection. Naturally, the majority of exhibitions curated in-house are about Tasmania – our colonial history, unique geography, zoology, botany, and contemporary culture – but Martin’s autonomous and international perspective created something completely ‘other’ from the same group of objects. Whether or not TMAG chooses to pursue this heterogeneous approach into the future, we have witnessed what enormous creative potential the collection holds, and what new eyes can bring.

 

2013 was a big year for TMAG. The Redevelopment was launched hot on the heels of Theatre of the world, which then toured to Paris six months later. These are easily the two largest and most expensive projects undertaken by TMAG in at least 50 years.

 

I like to think that 2014 began in the wake of the perfect storm. With eyes open, following the trip to Europe, TMAG can only build from the opportunities that flowed from the collaboration. And so we will:

 

  • nurture the new contact made with European historians, curators, and collectors
  • run-with the world’s response to Tasmania and it’s public collection
  • reach out to the influx of cultural tourists to – and media interest in – Tasmania that MONA has inspired
  • remain open to a visual and museological debate about the role of public museums in today’s busy and ever-connected ‘theatre’ of a world.

 

Jane Stewart, Principal Curator, Art, May 2014