THE upcoming reopening of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery will mark another milestone in the state’s growing cultural renaissance.
A hard-hat preview tour of the newly renovated Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) last week affirmed my optimistic feeling that Tasmania’s cultural sphere is moving into a new and brave era of innovation.
Opening to the public on March 15, the TMAG revitalisation is a $30 million redevelopment in the works since 2006 that will open up more than 2000 square metres of new space for public access.
In its first year of reopening, the museum plans to offer more than 1200 activities and events for visitors, including tours, school holiday programs, curatorial talks and public events, according to director Bill Bleathman.
It’s a big change for an institution that was previously conservative and unchanging, and it is indicative of a broader revitalisation of our cultural endeavours statewide.
Last Friday, a Brand Tasmania Art Forum, hosted at the Conservatorium of Music by Radio National’s Fran Kelly, debated the idea of the “MONA effect” at length, exploring what impact the Museum of Old and New Art has had on the island’s creative industry, sector and makers.
Everybody’s talking about it, from Island magazine to The Griffith Review, from The New Yorker to Lonely Planet.
However, enthusiasm for MONA aside, there are great leaps being made by cultural institutions across the board.
One major development is the University of Tasmania’s upcoming $75 million Academy of Creative Industries and Performing Arts, estimated to attract 3000 international students and boost the state economy by $660 million.
The project, being driven by UTAS in partnership with the Theatre Royal and the State and Federal governments, will provide a new home for the university’s Conservatorium of Music and a performing arts space, recital hall and other amenities at the Theatre Royal, and fill the gap in education for events management, audio engineering, audio design and new media.
Planning to open its doors in 2016, the Academy of Arts shows that our current cultural renaissance is more than a boom-then-bust scenario.
Furthering grass-roots growth, the State Government’s ARTBIKES bicycle borrowing service encourages people to explore Hobart’s galleries and cultural hot spots, the COLLECT Art Purchase Scheme supports local artists and galleries by providing interest-free loans to buy or commission artworks by Tasmanian artists, and the smARTmap Tasmania online portal directs visitors to community cultural events and locations around the state.
Meanwhile, our cultural festivals continue to grow in size, scope and diversity, including Ten Days on the Island (March 15-24), the Tasmanian Writers’ Festival (March 16-24), the Nayri Niara (Good Spirit) Indigenous culture festival (April 5-7), Hobart Baroque (April 12-20), Dark Mofo (June 14-24), Festival of Voices (July 5-14), Junction Arts Festival (August), Breath of Fresh Air Film Festival (November 7-10), and a variety of smaller multicultural events, also indicative of the new energy for engagement in cultural endeavours.
The renewed energy is real and broad-reaching, as will be seen at the reopening of the revitalised TMAG, featuring bold new exhibition spaces, installations, and a complete refurbishment of the historic Bond Store acting as the centrepiece of the museum. Entering through a new entrance — the historic Watergate into the Bond Store and Commissariat Store — visitors will experience a revitalisation of existing exhibition spaces, some MONA-esque in their design, others more traditional, most of them completely transforming the experience.
When TMAG partnered with MONA on the Theatre of the World exhibition (which continues at MONA until April 8), David Walsh said that he hoped the collaboration would “fire a rocket up TMAG”.
It undoubtedly has.
Tasmania is leading the world in heralding a new era of museum curatorship and that it is happening just in time, Theatre of the World’s French international curator Jean-Hubert Martin observed last May ahead of the exhibition’s opening.
"Enticing local people back to museums is integral to the survival of museums and it must be done with a fresh approach, showing a renewed respect for the intelligence of the audience," Martin said.
Unless museums embrace change now, they will be empty of visitors in two generations, he warned.
TMAG has acted in a timely and forward-thinking manner. Many museums (TMAG included, before this reinvention) have been so stuck in their ways that they resist change and suffer the consequences of becoming irrelevant in a changing world.
Social evolution dictates that the museum cannot stick to the old system that it has safely existed within. And while private museums are at liberty to take risks — from MONA to Germany’s Museum Insel Hombroich — the international revitalisation of the museum industry is actually being welcomed by TMAG.
But the need for change does not mean that all museums should do the same thing, Jean-Hubert Martin pointed out.
"Some should adapt more than others," he said. "For instance, I don’t think that the Louvre should. It has this tremendous big collection showing the universal art, maybe they should keep more or less these categories, because they can show them with the best pieces, the masterpieces."
This is where TMAG succeeds with its reinvention, by combining elements of this brave new world of museum curatorship and unconventional contemporary flair with its own institutional tradition, so important to our island’s identity.
While there may still be labels on the walls and historical displays that dictate history in an educational manner, the willingness shown to revitalise the museum model is impressive for a traditional institution reliant on government funding and accountability.
It may be that the so-called MONA effect will inspire other local institutions to ride this wave of cultural renaissance on the island. They would certainly be wise to adapt and change before it’s too late.
This article first published in the Mercury newspaper on February 20, 2013.