At the NDF conference this week, the audience was divided* by the final keynote, MONA lead designer Leigh Carmichael, who talked about how the museum is driven by David Walsh's vision and personality, how it eschews traditional marketing in favour of spectacle and spectacular events, and nudity and vaginas.
MONA is clearly an adult museum, and - though I haven't visited yet - I like that about it. It is definitively not for everyone, and proudly so. Walsh seems to me to be a fantastic hedonist, and the collection and experience he has built reflect that.
Still, Carmichael's slides and videos - slick, black, and on the artful side of explicit - raised hackles both on the basis of being hard to read from a distance, AND full of content that some felt was NSFW/conference. (The slide titled 'Cunts ... and other conversations', after one of the works in Walsh's collection, in particular.) Not to mention some sanctimony around the funding source for the museum (Walsh's gambling syndicate income, which - if you read his recent bio - he's trying to pull back from so the museum can through its various revenue-generating activities, be sustainable).
I was startled by the level of outcry. Sure, there was bravado and bombast, but that's MONA. But to instantly jump to the 'porn not art' and 'what a load of pretentious wank' discounts both some very good art, some very skillful museum making, and some outstanding (whatever you call it) marketing.
But shock value drives MONA. I was reminded of a story I read when I was researching my thesis on Peter Tomory, second director of the Auckland Art Gallery. When the Gallery brought in the Henry Moore show in 1956 Tomory, concerned the exhibition would get the visitor numbers they wanted, got one of the staff (I think, from memory, Peter Webb, but I might be wrong) to call the Mayor's office and phew outrage done the phone line over the barbaric art going on display at the Gallery. The Mayor predictably decried the show to the newspapers, and the Gallery sat back and counted the river of visitors.
And I was reminded again when I read this article by Alastair Sooke on the second showing of Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary in New York. Fifteen years ago, when the work was shown at Brooklyn Museum as part of Sensation, then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani described the show (sight unseen) as "sick stuff", called Ofili's work out as particularly offensive, and suggested the Museum's funding should be cut off.
Now part of a mid-career survey at the New Museum, Ofili has received nothing but praise. The curator suggests it may be that the work is better contextualised within his practice; or that the true elephant in the room was the depiction of the Virgin Mary as a black woman. Sooke's thread is that Giuliani dominated the media cycle - there was no coming back from "people are throwing elephant dung at a picture of the Virgin Mary". Words and images, huh?
*Divided is a strong word. The tweet stream carried a lot of condemnation, but the insta-outrage of the quick-fingered on Twitter is one of the reasons why I'm going off it.