Why Curmudgeons Often Make the Best Collectors
If the description in Cristina Ruiz's Art Newspaper article about the nearly complete Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) is any indication, travelling to the bottom of the world may soon become a major art pilgrimage. Here's but a small snippet of the article:
All museum viewing should be prefaced with cocktails, in my humble opinion. But it's not Walsh's unconventional attitude toward the museum experience that captivated me most about this profile, but rather how it dovetailed with a conversation I had had the other day about being a curmudgeon with an artist who self-identified as one. I aspire to be a curmudgeon I had told her, so I was curious why she admitted to being one herself (her disposition validated her self-assessment).
David Walsh is not like most collectors. For starters he does not seem to care what people think of him or his museum. Here are his views on the potential benefits Mona will have to local business: “We don’t know whether I’m going to make any difference to the economy and I must say I don’t particularly care. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t happen, I don’t give a shit.”
The 48-year old Tasmanian, who made his money by developing complex gaming systems, describes himself as a “full-on secularist”. “Mona is my temple to secularism,” he adds, explaining that he is interested in “talking about what we are”, in other words what makes humans human. “People fucking, people dying, the sorts of things that are the most fun to talk about.”
The first of many surprises for visitors will be the building itself. When you approach Mona from the ground, it is nowhere to be seen. Visitors to Moorilla, Walsh’s six-acre estate overlooking the River Derwent, will see a glass-fronted restaurant perched on the edge of a cliff, eight pavilions offering luxury accommodation, a vineyard and a brewery but no sign of a major museum building. The entrance is a small pod-like structure leading to an elevator and a staircase which winds its way underground.
What awaits you inside is both spectacular and completely unexpected. Mona is huge, with around 6,000 sq. m of display space over three floors. Because it has been excavated out of a cliff, the architect Nonda Katsalidis of the Melbourne firm Fender Katsalidis had to remove around 60,000 tonnes of earth and sandstone, before building could begin. The result is breath-taking. One wall of the museum is the sandstone cliff. From there the architect has built out towards the river using steel and concrete.
While most galleries greet the public with a ticket or information desk, the first thing visitors to Mona will encounter is a bar in the foyer. Drinks will not be allowed inside the galleries but Walsh says he likes the idea of “visitors revisiting the art with an accumulating alcoholic insight”.
It's not that I want to be sour, she noted, but it's very important to me that I respond honestly in all situations. Yes! I responded...that's it. Attempting to be honest in all situations makes one appear to be curmudgeonly. But there are few things more important to aspire to, although it's very exhausting, we agreed.
Mind you, I don't flatter myself by assuming I've reached any layer of true curmudgeon-ness as of yet. My job description tends to require a degree of all-around obsequiousness (call it "diplomacy" if you prefer). But I'm watching and learning, and hopefully one day I'll figure out how to balance the two.
But more than just living in total honesty (the ultimate achievment for any human in my opinion), curmudgeon-ness seems to also go hand-in-hand with breathtakingly original collections. Mind you, being a curmudgeon, to my mind, doesn't mean you're not a nice person to people who return the favor by being honest with you. It simply means you have no time for fools and are focused like a laser beam on what it is you're doing. In the collecting fields, that would cover legendary collectors like Albert C. Barnes or even Herb Vogel.
But why does being a curmudgeon seem to be a common prerequisite for building a fabulous collection? Stick with me on this one...it's all fairly clear in my head, but that doesn't mean I'll easily be able to set it down in words.
What makes a collection most exciting is its singularity. That requires that the collector truly doesn't care what other collectors think about their acquisitions; he or she is collecting to meet only his/her own standards. Friends or competing collectors who don't approve of certain choices can take a long walk off a short pier.
More than that, though, it requires an obsessive commitment that the collection be a reflection of one's tastes. Because one's taste is defined by more than simply the art one collects, any presentation of the collection attempting to reflect those tastes may not be limited to just what we'd now consider "fine art." Barnes famously and formally installed his Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings in among African sculpture, as well as decorative arts and metalwork.
Walsh too seems to be interested in connecting the dots historically and aesthetically:
The other characteristic of curmudgeons (in addition to not caring what other people think) is to have very strong opinions about why other people have it all wrong. Walsh passes the test here too:
The art on show will cover three main areas. There will be the antiquities Walsh first started buying 20 years ago—his collection includes seven Egyptian mummies, ten Roman mosaics, Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and thousands of Greek coins.
Then there are the Australian modernists: Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and John Perceval. His collection in this field is “extraordinary”, says Mark Fraser, former head of Sotheby’s Australia who has worked for Walsh since 2007 as director of his art operations. It includes Nolan’s monumental work Snake, 1970-72, made up of 1,620 individual panels which will cover a 45-metre curving wall in Mona that has been designed specially for the work.
Finally there is the international contemporary art which Walsh has been buying for around ten years. He now owns some 300 works, many of them large-scale. More have been commissioned for the opening of Mona. These include a new version of Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca. The machine, which simulates the human digestive process, creates excrement which is apparently indistinguishable from the real thing. It will be the first version of the work which Delvoye has sold to a museum.
I'd quibble that there are only two "serious" reasons to make create art, but that not all art has to be serious. Jesters still have an important place within the overall dialog, speaking truth to power and disarming those clinging too tightly to certain heavy ideas to see how they're being dragged under...but at this point I'm splitting hairs.
Walsh’s changing tastes will of course dictate what goes on show at Mona. He is keen to stress there will be no formal curatorship. “I believe most curation is bullshit…curators tie together a bunch of stuff they can get their hands on then create the most abstruse and obtuse reality and, in the end, fill an exhibition up with a few things that are slightly connected and the upshot is that about 30% of the art is just there to fill space.”
Mona will do things differently. Works from every period and style will be juxtaposed in ways you are unlikely to see elsewhere. A Roman-period mummy will be displayed alongside “a fairly dynamic video work which hopefully will recontextualise it,” says Fraser. The underlying theme, will be artistic motivation. “No one makes art for art’s sake,” says Walsh. “There are only two reasons to create art: to get laid or defy death.”
A few years back I stirred up a hornets nest by writing that the ultimate motivation within the art world was getting laid. Just because people disagreed with me (74 comments worth) didn't change my mind about that, though. Walsh seems to agree (meaning, perhaps I'm more a curmudgeon that I give myself credit for):
Again, totally honest.
“The point is we’re looking at all art as being contemporary,” says [Mark Fraser, former head of Sotheby’s Australia who has worked for Walsh since 2007 as director of his art operations]. “It’s all survived to this day. It was all made for some interesting reason. We’d like to talk about why people are creative and why they make art. Is it as Darwin might have argued that art was a fitness marker, it basically made us sexy? I think David would argue that artists get more sex than the rest of the population.”
So is Walsh building a museum to get laid? “Absolutely, it’s a blatant case of ‘come upstairs and look at my etchings’ or in my case, downstairs,” he says.
Labels: art collecting