What about radical philanthropy?

Gina Anderson

I read with interest the articles on why philanthropists should fund the arts in the March 2015 issue of Alliance. While I recognize that the discussion was focused on social justice and the arts, I was a bit disappointed that no one examined any examples of radical philanthropy in this area.

The Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is variously described as one of the most controversial private collections of modern art and antiquities in the world. Located in Hobart, Tasmania, off the southern coast of mainland Australia, the collection of some 400 works takes up three floors within a subterranean architectural masterpiece. It has challenged much of the mainstream arts world with its unconventional methods and presentation. It is the brainchild of and funded by one of Australia’s most eccentric zillionaires, David Walsh, who has made his money through gambling. 

‘Rather than the art, I found the actual experience of visiting MONA the most exciting part, particularly the use of technology.’

Rather than the art, I found the actual experience of visiting MONA the most exciting part, particularly the use of technology. On arrival you are given a type of ‘smart phone’. As there is no identification of the art works on the wall, you press buttons on the phone to locate the piece you are looking at and to learn about the work and artist. You can click to read David’s personal comments, some of which are hilarious. You can ‘love’ or ‘hate’ individual objects and discover that ‘432 people think it is crap too’. Provide your email and you can save your tour to keep a record of your entire path through the museum to share with family and friends via all types of social media. It makes every other art gallery and museum seem antiquated and out of touch.

Just imagine the data they are collecting.

What about impact? MONA is at the centre of a cultural regeneration and sense of excitement in Hobart. Hannah Martin in The Mercury wrote in April 2014 that Tasmania’s tourism industry is riding the wave of a MONA-led revo­lution, with visitor numbers smashing previous records. Tourism groups, she said, celebrated the results of the latest Tasmanian Visitor Survey, which showed a 14 per cent jump in numbers for the year ending December 2013. The boost resulted in a 13 per cent increase in visitor spending, to $1.58 billion. And that means jobs, business and pride.

While it may not be social justice per se, David Walsh’s MONA is a major philanthropic investment in arts and culture that challenges the prevailing art establishment while making a big positive measurable social impact for the community.

Gina Anderson
Philanthropy fellow, Centre for Social Impact, University of NSW, Sydney, Australia

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