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MONA and David Walsh: Is singularity of vision essential to the success of a cultural enterprise?



David Walsh is an author, gambler, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and the creator and owner of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), launched in 2009 and located on the banks of the Derwent River in the Tasmanian suburb of Berridale in Hobart.  Walsh is emerging as one of the more exceptional personalities in Australia’s contemporary cultural landscape.  This paper discusses Walsh as an exemplary example of the creative personality and the often mysterious paradoxes of the creative mind.



The accidental creator


Walsh’s Museum is a multi-million dollar convergence of the old and new, inviting personal discovery and the exploration of the inherent relationship between the antiquities and the contemporary arts.   The Museum of Old and New Art has been constructed in a way that suggests a sleeping dragon in the landscape, with great care taken to create an unimposing structure that reveals itself only through descent into its cavernous, subterranean spaces.  Walsh has avoided an external architectural ‘wow factor’, which is reserved for Walsh’s notoriety and the uncommon collections exhibited throughout three levels of underground space (Butler Hurst & Smith 2011).

David Walsh has often stated in interviews that MONA was not planned but ‘accidental’, beginning as a place to house his growing collection of antiquities and art (Wheeler Centre 2014) however he did not anticipate that MONA would become a major art museum. In his interviews Walsh offers to enlighten the listener by reducing his considerable achievements to a captivating and retrospective calculation of Probability. His demeanor suggests Walsh wants to share his truth, explore the secrets of humanity’s creative evolution and encourage us to find our own truths through the lens of an ancient and contemporary confluence (stvdiochannel 2011).



Effective originality, social capital & Investment theory


MONA is at once original and effective, reflecting the bipartite nature of Walsh’s creative process (Runco & Jaeger 2012).  According to Tasmanian premier Laura Giddings, the creation of MONA has effected a visible and quantifiable transformation in Australia’s cultural landscape, encouraging Hobart’s social capital and boosting state revenue through MONA’s flow-on effect on tourism, (ABC News Australia 2012).

Walsh’s respect for local social capital is demonstrated in his contribution to Hobart. Walsh ensures the inclusion and two-way support of a tight-knit local community by charging no entry fees to Tasmanians, as encouragement to participate (Putnam 2000), extending an impish invitation to steal the $80 catalogue; a generous acknowledgment that it is too expensive for many locals. At MONA’s launch everything was free - including transport to and from the museum and a concert, which featured Tex Perkins and the Cruel Sea.  Locals, who would normally not have attended an arty event, turned up and enjoyed the evening (Scott 2011). By the extension of his generosity and through a genuine love for his hometown, Walsh nurtures local support and participation in his projects (Sternberg 2006).


Walsh made his fortune as a professional syndicate gambler whose creative pursuits seductively suggest he is in harmony with, or at least tuned in to, a mysterious algorithm that makes him a winner (Wheeler Centre 2014).  His gifted mathematical background and focus on the theory of probability gives Walsh’s personality an extra dimension and dovetails with Sternberg’s investment theory, which sets out a confluence of six divergent yet interrelated resources for the creative individual; Intellectual skills, knowledge, motivation, a discerning cognitive style, a supportive environment and a courageous, divergent personality.  In The Nature of Creativity, Sternberg uses the term ‘willingness to take sensible risks’ however what is sensible for one person may not be considered sensible by another. I agree with Sternberg that a supportive environment is one of the most important resources, as even with all core properties in place, an unsupportive environment will destroy motivation, become an obstacle and a burden, and make progress almost impossible (Sternberg 2006).



 Challenges and the creative personality


After amassing building debts of 5 million dollars a month, Walsh gambled the remaining capital during the 2009 Melbourne Cup winning nearly 17 million dollars, thus he was able to pay his debts and launch Mona the same year. A gambler by nature, he was prepared to lose in order to win and this is a defining resource of the creative personality (Sternberg 2006). Walsh’s ability to overcome the fear of risk has helped him meet his challenges with apparent ease. His ability to take on, what the ordinary person would consider too risky seemed the only sensible solution for Walsh; to gamble everything for the chance to pay his seemingly insurmountable debt.  I suggest that a supportive environment, relative to Sternberg’s investment theory, would include the financial conditions and resources required to fund a project. As a divergent thinker Walsh further enhances his creative potential through flexibility, originality and fluency (Runco & Acar 2012).  It is not a huge leap to understand his reasoning; Walsh uses his knowledge of probability to mitigate risk. With a few million dollars left, it was not enough to cover his debts so he had a punt and in Walsh’s words ‘got lucky’ (ABC RN 2014). This unconventional attitude, has given Walsh a legendary air, which has reached the international arts arena, further enhancing his notoriety and mystique.  I wholehearted believe Walsh when he says he did not plan to build a major museum or leave a cultural legacy for the city of Hobart, and this modesty is perhaps one of his most endearing qualities (Wheeler Centre 2014).

The arts community has a high tolerance for subversive and divergent personalities, particularly when it pays off. As a gambler, it is this metaphor that is not a metaphor which imbues David Walsh with a playful, earthy yet mystical aura.   Walsh once explained, “I don’t have time for art wankers and I definitely am one” (ABC RN 2014). Walsh has all the paradoxical qualities of the creative mind (Csikszentmihalyi 1996).



The divergent beginnings of MONA


“Walsh leads us down a garden path through the labyrinthine thoughts of a genuine radical’ (Gittens & Vuk 2013)


David Walsh was a gifted child in mathematics and had a fascination for the antiquities collection in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), which he frequented during his school years. Later his interests burgeoned to include contemporary arts and professional gambling. After forming a successful online syndicate with other mathematically gifted individuals, he began buying art and antiquities with his winnings.  However as the collection grew he needed somewhere to house it. He purchased a winery that incorporated two historical buildings by Roy Grounds built in 1957 and 1958, began converting them into a gallery space for his treasures and his project ‘accidentally’ grew into MONA. He became immersed in the building and architectural process after enlisting the expertise of Fender Katsalidis Architects (FKA). So began the 180 million dollar confluence of the old and new (Butler, Hurst & Smith 2011). Walsh may not have planned on creating a major arts museum or boosting Tasmania’s revenue through cultural tourism, but that is exactly what he has done. His original plan was to maintain his small private museum, which did not generate a large audience, before its gradual metamorphosis and eventual genesis as MONA in 2009 - yet he calculates the probability of his current position as ‘an unlikely present’, which he attributes mostly to chance (Wheeler Centre 2014). From the outset it appears that Sternberg’s Investment Theory is accurately demonstrated in David Walsh, whose motivation is not in the potential reward; MONA is a labour of love (Sternberg 2006).  For Walsh, everything he does has to mean something beyond the level of commercialism, a motivation reflected in his method of gambling and his fascination with probability. The success of MONA has come as a surprise to Walsh because success has never been foremost in his vision; rather it is his commitment to human creativity and expression, and a cultural and social focus that drives him. Walsh explains in an interview with the ABC that he did not realise locals meant MONA when they referred to ‘our museum’. He'd always assumed they were talking about the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) adding; the realization that they were referring to MONA took him by surprise (ABC RN  2014).



Dimensions of complexity


The singularity of Walsh’s vision is there, but it has emerged from a complex process from which Walsh asserts was not singular at the start, rather it was an unfolding process (Wheeler Centre).  The Museum of Old and New Art has been designed as a flexible, adaptable and dynamic space with multi-purpose potential.  Like Walsh, its unimposing exterior hides the complexity contained within. It is at once serious and playful, responsible and irresponsible, reverent and irreverent. Walsh’s flagrant imagination is balanced by his realism and his earthy ability to present the bizarre as simply original (Csikszentmihalyi 1996). MONA is not limited to an art museum; it is also the umbrella brand for more hedonistic products that pique Walsh’s passion; His boutique beer Moo Brew, a high-end restaurant called The Source, luxury accommodation called The Pavilion and his final product MONA FOMA, a music festival that features some of Australia’s most innovative artists (Lehman & Leighton 2010).



The unlikely opportunity:  creating a lucrative cultural icon


“I’m definitely not the person I thought I’d be ten years ago” David Walsh (Wheeler Centre interview 2014)


It appears Walsh’s timing could not have been better. The global trend for an entrepreneurial approach to marketing, (EM) features innovation, effectual start-up logic and risk management in order to gain market positioning through arts organisations (Lehman, Miles & Fillis 2016).  MONA now hosts corporate events, which helps Walsh keep the museum free of entry costs and cover some of his considerable expenses. Professional gambling is an innate passion for Walsh and continues as a source of funding for his projects in the local and international cultural scene.  Since 2011 MONA has forged itself a place in the Australian music industry with the MONA FOMA (Festival of Music and Art), which further promotes the MONA brand to the International cultural market MONA has attracted. MONA’s brand caters to a particular type of consumer.

Cultural consumers are looking for a transcendent experience.  As pleasure seekers they want to be immersed in the product (Lehman 2012).  MONA reflects the developing dynamic between economics and culture and the shift in focus from the traditional compensatory cultural domain to the economic (Flew 2011).  It may not have been deliberate or overtly planned but I believe it is an innately intuitive process for Walsh.


While MONA has carved a successful niche in the global, luxury cultural market Walsh remains committed to social inclusivity and to encouraging those who would not normally participate in arts events to attend ‘risk free’ by keeping museum events and festivals free and accessible. Walsh is not focused on mainstream commercial success but finds his joy in the every day life of his extended community and the cultural interpretations and experiences he offers. He has created an environment, which generates and encourages creative thinking and he shares that vision with everyone (Csikszentmihalyi 1996). Walsh thinks globally, acts locally, and will in all probability continue to develop MONA as an alternative platform and context for the avant-garde Australian arts scene, at an international level.





“Life is not chronological” David Walsh (Wheeler Centre interview 2014)


David Walsh represents an archetypal creative personality in possessing every resource required to successfully materialize his projects (Sternberg 2006).  What were the chances that MONA would grow into the major art museum it is today according to Walsh?

Walsh insists,  “I just got Lucky... First of all I knew nothing about art and building the museum was an educative process for me, I was trying to learn something, it’s a good way to learn and building a museum teaches you something”. 

He goes on to say, “Maybe there was an overarching goal, but there were a lot of people involved and a lot of contentious opinions. I didn’t start out 10 years ago knowing what I was going to build, it emerged from a process, and that process was iterative and now when you look back, it looks like a singularity of vision.  I just don’t believe that was there” (Wheeler Centre 2014).




 MONA: http://www.mona.net.au





  • ABC News Australia 2012, MONA founder claims ATO backflip on tax, video recording, Youtube, viewed 29 August 2016, a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTHWMnWb3ek">https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qTHWMnWb3ek>


  • ABC RN 2014, David Walsh : ‘A bone of fact’ Books and Arts, video recording, Youtube viewed 29 August 2016 a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BzD08BXmpw">https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BzD08BXmpw>


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             Journal of WTO Studies, vol.18 no.1,  pp. 1-24.


  • Gittins B. & Vuk J. 2014, ‘David Walsh's Catholic Guilt’, Eureka Street, vol. 24, no. 18.




  • Lehman K. & Miles, M.P.  Fillis I.  2016, ‘The Museum of Old and New Art: Leveraging entrepreneurial marketing to create a unique arts and vacation venture’, Journal of Vacation Marketing, pp.1–12, Sage Publishing UK.


  • Lehman K.  2012, ‘Connecting to the cultural consumer: The MONA FOMA experience, Case Study’, in Understanding consumers and business buyer Behaviour, University of Tasmania.


  • Lehman K. & Leighton D. 2010, ‘The Development of a Hedonistic Experience Brand: Australia's MONA’, University of Tasmania, Launceston, Australia, University of Salford, Manchester, United Kingdom.


  • Putnam, R.D.  2000,  ‘Bowling alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, in Culture and Politics, pp. 223-234, Palgrave Macmillan US


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  • Runco M. A. & Acar S.  2012, ‘Divergent Thinking as an Indicator of Creative Potential’, Creativity Research Journal, Vol. 24 no.1, 66-75.


  • Scott, S. 2011, ‘The MONA manifesto’ Art Monthly April Issue, no. 236, pp. 14-17.


  • Sternberg  R.J.  2006  ‘The Nature of Creativity’, Creativity Research Journal, vol.18, no.1, pp.87-98


  • stvdiochannel 2011, ArtBreak:MONA, video recording, Youtube, viewed 29t August 2016, a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNe1sfcsd8c">https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nNe1sfcsd8c>


  • Wheeler Centre 2014, David Walsh, video recording, Youtube, viewed 14 August 2016 a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PitTfW1haK0">https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PitTfW1haK0>

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