Popular opinion has it that MONA, Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art, is transforming Tasmania. That the state is no longer the poor and backward cousin, the economy is booming, and we are leaders in contemporary culture.
The buzz on the streets of Hobart during this year’s Dark Mofo is unwaning, despite being in its sixth iteration. A tendency to hibernate through Tasmania’s cold midwinter is now a time for vibrancy and a skinny dip – at least for tourists.
However contrary to hype around this “MONA effect”, the museum’s benefits do not seem to be being shared with Glenorchy, the municipality it is located in. Glenorchy is ranked eighth most disadvantaged out of 29 municipalities in the state and includes some of the most disadvantaged suburbs nationwide.
More generally, some local artists are struggling to maintain a place as the MONA juggernaut rolls out its festivals, and its power and influence. Hobart’s house prices are rising faster than any other capital city, with increasing scrutiny on how visitor housing, such as Airbnb, might be affecting prices. Tasmania is already economically polarised.
Taking a snapshot of tracking data from 472 interstate and overseas tourists in 2016, we analysed where and how tourists travelled before and after they visited MONA. Most of the visitors to MONA were from New South Wales and Victoria. They also had higher incomes and levels of education. We found that these visitors tend to take the MONA ferry to and from the museum, or drive straight there and back with no stops. Without shopping in Glenorchy or visiting other parts of the municipality, almost no benefits are passed on to this area, whether these are direct economic benefits from shopping or accommodation, or indirect benefits from social interactions and cultural exchange.
In some respects, this is unsurprising. Tourists go to places that have amenities for tourists – such as Hobart’s waterfront. Tourism and art also tends to drive gentrification – an escalation of real estate prices as poor inner city suburbs and post-industrial sites are transformed into creative chic. This wouldn’t be a good outcome for places like Glenorchy, which many of Tasmania’s low income earners call home. These are places imbued with a sense of community that supports many in non-financial ways.
Not all of MONA’s visitors are high income earners with a university education. We also found that it is MONA’s lower socio-economic visitors who are most likely to stop in Glenorchy, to shop and visit family and friends. These are the tourists who could help extend MONA’s benefits into the places most in need, without destroying these communities. To boost the numbers of lower socio-economic tourists, Mona could extend its free museum entry for Tasmanians to all visitors with government concession cards.
But the limited responsibilities of private bodies such as MONA, means that it is governments’ role to distribute the benefits of tourism and economic growth. Tourism Tasmania spends millions of dollars on marketing. Directing this towards the lower socioeconomic tourist market could boost visitation to tourism icons and local shopping centres and communities.
More broadly, the government urgently needs to plan for how tourism growth translates into improved health care, education and job prospects. Tourism only matters if it sustains all Tasmanians, and without demonstrated overall improvement, the value of tourism is questionable.
MONA is held in high regard by most Tasmanians. The museum and biannual festivals are described as unprecedented acts of generosity on behalf of owner David Walsh. There is widespread support for MONA initiatives: it’s vision for Macquarie Point and Hotel Mona.
This goodwill is likely to fade if the MONA effect simply reinforces existing iniquities. To remain relevant, MONA’s presence in Tasmania needs go beyond development proposals and sensationalist art. Government must harness tourism for the benefit of all. High tourist numbers and spending are not ends in and of themselves.