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May 30, 2020

From Ruby City to MONA: How Some Private Museums are Changing the Way We View Art

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The ferry to Berriedale Peninsula is less than 30 minutes from the Brooke Street Pier, though the flight to Tasmania from Texas takes over 20 hours. The ferry ride is just enough time to enjoy a small cheese plate and a glass of Cava in the “Posh Pit” lounge outfitted with pleather chairs, bright red like ball gags. Cutting though dark water and pale sky, past the hillside of humble houses along the Derwent River, this kitschy camouflaged catamaran— equipped with hot pink torpedos pointing outward from the upper deck — brings onlookers from all over the world to the far-flung main attraction: the Museum of Old and New Art.

MONA’s owner and founder, David Walsh, grew up just a few miles away, in the working-class Hobart neighborhood of Glenorchy. Walsh made his vast fortune devising a gambling system which seems to uphold the golden rule that the house always wins. It has allowed him to build this house, the largest privately funded museum in the Southern Hemisphere. From 2001 to 2006, it operated as the Moorilla Museum of Antiquities, closing for a $75-million renovation before reopening in 2011 as the Museum of Old and New Art.

In addition to fortressing Walsh’s private art collection of over 1,900 works, the 97,000-square-foot property includes a winery, brewery, restaurant, and cemetery. The “Eternity Membership” earns you an urn, in addition to a free lifetime membership, your cremated remains will be stored on the premises. Part Xanadu, part subversive adult Disneyland (as Walsh calls it), the museum, with its gothic intertwining of sex and death, is a monument to depravity and delight, as well as the enigma of one man’s psyche.

The Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmani
The Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmani

MONA can be described in 20,000 words or 200; the latter is equally effective. There are 99 steps which lead up from the ferry dock, opening onto a geometric landscape that includes a tennis court, trampoline, and a covered seating area complete with a James Turrell skyspace peek of the heavens. But what goes up must come down — the architecture itself spreads along the cliffside, digging several stories into the earth almost archeologically. A glass cylinder elevator takes you underground to a dank cathedral-like space that has the cozy feel of an Etruscan wine cellar. This, along with the Egyptian sarcophagi, fulfills the “old art” component of the museum.

Maze-like stairways leading to half levels and dark tunnels that connect to enormous galleries, keep pushing you up from the ancient tomb, yet deeper into a windowless world of countless  exhibitions and installations. There is the waterfall of words by Julias Popp, “Bit.fall” (2007), rhythmically beating down language from two stories above. And Wim Delvoye’s “Cloaca Professional” (2010), an actual poop machine which produces yield daily at 2 p.m. A pair of skeletons fornicating. A silvery room filled with metallic lounging cushions. Another which contains a waist-high pool of undisturbed engine oil, its black surface mirroring the gridded ceiling (one of the few moments of natural light). Not to mention some shirtless chap seated with his back to the viewers, having sold his tattooed back to a German collector who plans to frame his inked flesh when he dies. This, of course, fulfills the “new art” component of the museum.

A cheery gift shop pokes fun at the whole thing, selling books with such titles as: “Art From MONA That is Probably Not Art,” “Art From MONA That Your Child Could Have Made,” and “Art From MONA With Really Brilliant Titles.”

Though MONA may be a more extreme example, the trend of privately funded collections-turned-museums are on an international uptick. As long-established art institutions struggle to find their way in a world where hierarchy and ethnocentrism have been called into question, along with the Western canon itself, private collector museums offer a different way of telling the story.

It is a subject recently tackled by The New York Times’ Holland Cotter in his piece titled “America’s Big Museums on the Hot Seat,” where he ponders the fate of two of America’s oldest museums: the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Built by the great industrialists well over a century ago, their extensive and “encyclopedic” (as Cotter describes it) art acquisitions reflect the palate of the white and wealthy elite.

Traditional institutions are now trying to rewrite that old narrative, in their quest to keep up with the times and seek out new philanthropic solutions. The Met, for example, has been notoriously struggling with a budget deficit of at least $10 million (though more like $100 million now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic) despite a bit of rebranding, including a new logo and the opening of the Met Breuer, the museum’s new home for contemporary art.

But even modern art might be set in its old ways. Thirty blocks south of the Met in midtown Manhattan, the Museum of Modern Art reopened last fall after a 40,000-square-foot expansion, as well as a reimagining of the collection to reflect a more modern, diverse, and “multidisciplinary” approach. More female artists, more artists of color, and more non-Western work are now displayed from MoMA’s permanent collection.

Ruby City
Designed by architect Sir David Adjaye, Ruby City exhibits art from the Linda Pace Foundation Collection in San Antonio. Photo © Dror Baldinger. Courtesy of Ruby City and Adjaye Associates

So given this moment to shake up atavistic perceptions, it is a time for today’s modern industrialists — whether Tasmanian or Texan — to offer up their own private collections to the public. It was the dream of the late Linda Pace, heiress to the Pace Picante fortune, and an avid art collector and artist herself. The 2019 opening of Ruby City in San Antonio, now showcases the impressive collection which she left behind in an architecturally stunning building.

Related: “Lady in Red: Linda Pace’s Ruby City Finally Comes to Life”

And it will likely be the fate of billionaire David Booth, with his own robust collection—which includes works by Jeff Koons, Louis Bourgeois, Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein, and August Rodin, to name a very few—spread out over his 56-acre estate in Austin. According to a recent article in the Austin American-Statesman, the 74-year old philanthropist and businessman plans to convert his house and its surrounding grounds, into a rotating exhibition space as well as an education and research center in the future.

With such impressively amassed collections tucked all over the world, privately funded art museums have the potential to create just as much international pull, say, as that magnificent stretch of museums along Fifth Avenue in New York City.

In the Texas Hill County, Italian-born artist Benini and his wife Lorraine run Museo Benini, a 35-acre estate where they live, work, and receive visitors wanting to see his life’s work. Just shy of 79, Benini — who chooses to be known only by his last name — is actively producing paintings and sculptures, many of which are displayed on the grounds of the compound, which includes a 6,500-square-foot gallery space.

Born in Imola, just outside of Bologna, Benini is no stranger to the tradition of single artist museums, Lorraine tells me, the studios or homes where an artist lived and worked, their tools and libraries carefully preserved by the nonprofits in charge of their legacy. Examples are seen all over the U.S. as well, including right here in Austin with Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum. (Museo Benini is the rare single artist museum where the artist is still alive and working.)

Museo Benini
Museo Benini in Marble Falls, Texas, features the work of the Italian-born artist Benini

I ask Lorraine why she thinks privately funded museums, be it a single artist museum in Texas or a personal collection in Tasmania, are a growing trend in private museums:

“The single most persuasive force is to keep the collection intact and share it with the public,” she explains. “To donate it to a museum, the collection will most likely languish in storage, be scattered among various shows, or even experience deaccession. So this option appeals to collectors who have invested years of their lives into their passion and research, as well as their money.”

One of the loveliest aspects of having a private or single artist museum, she further explains, is the quiet and contemplative environment they often provide. She contrasts it with the experience of having visited the Met with her husband to see “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” in 2017, a wonderful show, she explains, though there were 20 people between you and the art. “A visit to a museum that surveys art through the centuries and with different cultures, has the clamor of a thousand artist voices.”

It’s a fair point. Venerable museums such as the Louvre, where people pack themselves around the Mona Lisa just to take a bad photo, are perhaps ill-equipped to offer a more meaningful  experience. But it is the Mona Lisa after all.

“I’m a tremendous advocate of the slow art movement,” she says. “If you take the time to sit or stand in front of a painting or sculpture, it begins to reveal itself.”

Private museums, and the collectors behind them, certainly offer a refreshing alternative to the traditional thrum of major institutions. David Walsh from Down Under may very well be the Andrew Carnegie of his time. There was something sublime about MONA — not unlike the Mona Lisa.

Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell
Barbara Purcell is an arts and culture writer based in Austin. She is the author of Black Ice: Poems (Fly by Night Press, 2006). In addition to Sightlines, her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Canadian Art, Glasstire, and Tribes Magazine. She is a graduate of Skidmore College.

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