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Hail MONA! But what about the rest of Tasmanian art?

The Museum of Old and New Art isn’t the be-all and end-all. Brett Boardman/AAP

Hail MONA! But what about the rest of Tasmanian art?

Another article about Hobart popped up in my Facebook feed recently. Writing about MONA (Museum of Old and New Art), the author used the all-too-familiar phrase: “Tasmania’s cultural renaissance.”

“The Bilbao effect”, “Hobart’s cultural renewal” or, to use the words of one recent Conversation writer, “cultural regeneration”, are other popular ways to describe the supposed effect of MONA’s 2011 opening on Tasmania’s art scene and economy. We are assured Tasmania, once a “cultural backwater”, is being saved from itself.

Interestingly, such phrases are almost always used by visitors to the state – although a group of Tasmanian academics is already involved in an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage project, Creating the Bilbao Effect: MONA and the Social and Cultural Coordinates of Urban Regeneration Through Arts Tourism.

For local artists, this renaissance has coincided with a significant reduction in local art spaces. You have to wonder whether Tasmanian leaders and policy makers are getting complacent and a little lazy in MONA’s wake. MONA is privately funded by David Walsh, and showcases antiquities and contemporary art predominantly from his own collection – which means the lucrative increase in tourist numbers, jobs and worldwide attention has essentially cost the state nothing.

But Tasmania can’t rely on MONA alone. If the museum has triggered a “Bilbao effect”, Hobart needs to ensure it doesn’t suffer the entire cycle. The supposed cultural and financial revolution experienced by the Spanish city of Bilbao following the 1997 opening of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum led to an initial boom but visitor numbers to the museum have since dropped off.

Inside the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. jmiguel.rodriguez

Tourists to Hobart frequently ask me where they can see work by local artists – and it’s getting harder to give them suggestions.

Last year, Hobart City Council’s Carnegie Gallery closed following a cultural strategy review. Other galleries to have closed in the last five years include Criterion Gallery, 6a, The Salamanca Collection, Goulburn Street Gallery, and the Fine Arts Gallery at the University of Tasmania’s Sandy Bay campus.

Additionally, two key art spaces have lost state funding – the Plimsoll Gallery and, from January, Hobart’s only artist-run initiative (ARI), Constance ARI.

Open and shut cases

It’s not only tourists who are interested in Tasmania’s art offering. An Australia Council for the Arts 2010 research project found Tasmanians had significantly higher participation levels in the visual arts and crafts than any other state or territory in Australia.

In other words, Tasmanians themselves are interested in art. What’s more, the study was released prior to MONA’s opening, so those figures are pre-“renaissance”.

The galleries mentioned above didn’t just close for funding reasons. 6a, another ARI, had run its course, and as with most ARIs it’s assumed another gallery will rise to take its place. Criterion Gallery’s closure was attributed to the economic downturn. The Fine Arts Gallery was, admittedly, housed in a less than ideal space.

But it’s the Carnegie’s closure last December, as well as Arts Tasmania’s de-funding of the Plimsoll Gallery from 2013 onwards and Constance ARI from January 2014, that will have the greatest impact. The Carnegie was the only space in Hobart that catered for local mid- and late-career artists. Its termination has left a significant gap.

The closure was a result of the council’s new cultural strategy, which emphasises the role of the council as a “facilitator” rather than a “provider”.

The problem is, there was little consultation with the visual arts community when developing the plan. The state’s key contemporary visual arts organisation, Contemporary Art Tasmania, was not consulted, nor was the council’s own arts advisory committee.

Revellers at the MONA FOMA festival. Jellibat/Flickr

I’m not arguing a facilitator role for councils is necessarily a bad idea; in fact, I think the council already does an excellent job of facilitating visual art projects, particularly those of a temporary public nature. But the gallery played a key role in the city’s visual art scene, and it will be missed.

Still, the question arises: why should we fund a gallery? Why should the council, the government, the public – or in MONA’s case, an individual – fund an art gallery?

For a start, the opening of MONA has brought a large number of visitors to the state, from cashed-up New Yorkers to Melbourne hipsters. They are interested in art and culture, and the city needs to make the most of that.

The Tasmanian government understands the boon that is cultural tourism. As much as I loathe using purely economic arguments to justify art, it’s a useful way to present a more tangible argument for the benefits of public funding.

Additionally, art spaces are community spaces. They give artists an opportunity to share their creative output, and it’s important to have a variety of spaces in which to do so. Galleries are not just about the artists, but community development and education, as well as social and cultural enrichment.

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. Pauline Mak/Flickr

Of course, I don’t want to give the impression there are no art spaces left. Salamanca Arts Centre maintains a variety of accessible spaces, the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery is undergoing significant renovations, and Contemporary Art Tasmania hosts curated exhibitions throughout the year.

The Plimsoll Inquiry – a seven-week art and research project – will come to a close on November 2, and has attracted hundreds of community members. One of its aims is to explore the role and relevance of the art gallery in the 21st century, and the project’s success so far in engaging the community seems to stem from its inclusive yet experimental nature.

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Clarence and Glenorchy councils both run thriving contemporary art spaces. Clarence’s Rosny Barn and Schoolhouse Gallery hosts both professional and community art exhibitions and a number of excellent design shows, and the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park (GASP) has showcased a number of significant temporary public art projects by artists such as Domenico De Clario and Susan Philipsz, as well as building a permanent collection.

A group of University of Tasmania students are setting up The Arts Factory in South Hobart following a successful crowdfunding campaign. While Constance ARI will lose government funding from January, the board is drawing up a strategy to maintain the space without the financial support.

Variety is the spice

The Hobart art scene is in a state of flux – and perhaps these changes will ultimately deliver positive results. But funding bodies, government agencies and the public must recognise the arts community needs a variety of exhibition spaces, whether they’re commercial or not-for-profit, sited in public spaces or discrete white cubes, catering to local emerging artists or well-known interstate practitioners.

The Medici family may have been a player in the development of the Italian Renaissance, but the changes were not due to their patronage alone.

If Hobart really is to have its “cultural renaissance” there must be a range of opportunities for artists and the interested public to experience and participate in the best the city has to offer.

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