Nudity, Art, Sex and Death – Tasmania Awaits You- page 4 | Travel | Smithsonian
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Bottoms up: Wineglass Bay on the Freycinet Peninsula. (Joe Wigdahl / Network Agency)

Nudity, Art, Sex and Death – Tasmania Awaits You

With one big bet, an art-loving professional gambler has made the Australian island into the world’s most surprising new cultural destination

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(Continued from page 3)

“Where’s here?” she asked.

“I’m not telling you.”

Nicholls shot me a wan smile. “Never dull.”

But minutes later, we ran into Walsh charging at full tilt across the museum roof. He was an unmistakable figure, looking like a middle-aged rock star with his wild silver hair streaming down to his shoulders, sport jacket, distressed jeans and sunglasses.

“You mind if we do the interview in the car?” he asked me distractedly. It turned out that he had double-booked and needed to travel into Hobart to see an experimental modern opera. “You’re driving,” he added.

I started the engine and tried to ease into the conversation. (Nicholls had confided to me, “the important thing is to engage him.”) I’d heard that Walsh’s first passion was antiquities, and I’d once written a book on the ancient Olympic Games. So I began by asking about his classical Greek collection. Soon enough, on the highway to Hobart, we were swapping ancient coin stories. He owned an array from Bactria and Athens, and a single coin from Syracuse is the most valuable antiquity in MONA.

It was a fertile starting point. Walsh explained that his interest in numismatics—indeed, his philosophy of museums—began to develop at age 12. He had decided he was an atheist, so every Sunday morning, after telling his Catholic mother that he was going to church, he went instead to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which combines art, history and natural science, and became intimate with oddities such as the bones of a wombat-like dinosaur the size of a rhino, Byzantine coins, and relics from prehistoric Antarctic forests. At the time, his mother was raising him single-handedly in one of the poorest parts of Hobart. “When I was young, the idea of my life turning out as it did would have seemed insane,” he mused, “a fantasy within a kid’s head.”

Walsh’s prospects improved suddenly in the early 1980s, when some friends at university decided to pool their talents for mathematics to beat Tasmania’s Wrest Point Casino, then the only legalized casino in Australia. They had limited success, Walsh explained, but in the process they figured out how to make steady sums from computerized horse racing. (Gambling is not taxed in Australia; one of Walsh’s partners, Zeljko Ranogajec, the son of Croatian immigrants, is today believed to be the world’s biggest gambler, placing $1 billion a year in bets.) Walsh began collecting art by accident. He was traveling in South Africa with a gambling friend in the early ’90s when he discovered that the government forbade visitors to take out of the country more money than they brought in. He had $18,000 extra cash when he saw a Nigerian wooden door for sale—“a beautiful thing” that cost $18,000. Inspired by his older sister, a Hobart artist, Walsh soon began expanding his collection in a contemporary direction as his gambling fortune grew.

In 1995, he purchased the riverside winery where MONA now stands and four years later opened a small museum of antiquities. “It looked great,” he said, “but it also looked like every other museum in the world, with schmick [cool] white walls and restrained white cabinets. I wondered: Why did I end up building the same museum as everybody else?” Very few people came. So he decided on a radical renovation.

The interview had to wait as I parked the car, and we dashed into an old church that had been turned into an avant-garde performance space. Inside, a bohemian crowd was sitting on the darkened floor among dangerous-looking metal sculptures. A hush fell as we entered, and I heard people whispering, “There’s David Walsh.” We were joined on the floor by Walsh’s girlfriend, American artist Kirsha Kaechele, who began massaging his back and feet. We were then treated to an ambitious musical piece that featured discordant operatic singing accompanied by piano, cello and Brian Ritchie on the shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute.

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