MONA director David Walsh started museum out of guilt for making millions as professional gambler
From the ABC’s 7.30 and abc.net.au, 29th September 2014
MONA founder David Walsh says guilt over making millions of dollars as a professional gambler was one of the driving forces behind his decision to set up the internationally famous Hobart gallery.
Mr Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art is now a major tourist drawcard on the Hobart waterfront, drawing visitors from all over the world.
But the gambler-turned-art collector says he built the museum to stop himself feeling guilty for making money without making a mark.
And despite recently revealing plans to open a pokies-free casino for “high-rolling” tourists in Hobart, he says gambling is “mostly immoral”.
“I think it’s mostly immoral, from the point of view of the service provider,” he said.
“I think poker machines are an abomination for the most part. I think one of the most insidious things I have ever seen is this connecting child-minding centres to clubs, which then make it hard to separate out the immorality from the community service.”
Mr Walsh reveals his thoughts on gambling in his memoir, A Bone of Fact.
“Like the stockmarkets, when somebody wins, somebody loses,” he says about gambling.
“Prior to building MONA, I hadn’t done anything for the community to benefit from that I could be proud of.”
Rather than business sense, the former professional gambler puts his fortune down to luck.
“The luckiest bit was being born in the first place, having the joy of wandering around aimlessly and getting rich, but I made all sorts of bad decisions,” he said.
“I dropped out of uni and became a professional gambler.
“How many people who drop out of uni do OK? Quite a few. How many who drop out to become professional gamblers do OK? I don’t know of too many.”
Walsh would bet more than his weekly pay packet in one hand at blackjack
One of Mr Walsh’s only full-time jobs was for the tax office, where he would often go straight from a night at the casino to work.
“It was probably the most fun I ever had. But I suspect I wasn’t the greatest tax officer that was ever employed by them. That only lasted three or five months,” he said.
“I remember betting $100.. at a hand of blackjack and I remember thinking it was $1 more than I earned in a week, so I think I was being paid $99 a week.”
Years on, the art collector now has “a gallery of concrete philosophies”, as he describes the museum.
“The response to MONA has been overwhelming, and I didn’t expect it to be,” he said.
The critical acclaim and popularity do not mean the museum runs at a profit, however.
“It costs something over $10 million a year to run and the income is something like $4 million,” Mr Walsh said.
“This is the exact opposite of your standard business plan – I built something and now I’m trying to work out how to make it work, rather than working out how to make it work before it’s built.
“There’s a myth that I have some deep knowledge. I have some skills, and if you do something for 35 years, you get reasonably good at it, but even in my class at uni, there were people who were a lot more skilled than me and they’re probably doing a lot more worthwhile things than me.”
Mr Walsh says despite the way he makes his living now, he won’t be called “an art wanker”.
“There’s a call and response for some of the academic art community that isn’t about establishing a knowledge base,” he said.
“It’s about establishing the likelihood of securing tenure, it’s about promotion in the system, and quite often it becomes a mechanism for concealing rather than revealing.”