Mum says it’s all happening. ‘Darling,’ she chirped down the phone one day recently, ‘MONA’s now the number one tourist attraction in the country!’

‘Pretty sure it’s just number one in Tasmania,’ I said, but was reluctant to spoil the mood. Since opening in 2011, David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New Art has attracted unprecedented media attention and planeloads of tourists – some of whom even stay in Hobart for a whole weekend! The novelty of a provocative, world-class modern art gallery on the banks of the River Derwent spawned countless articles celebrating the city’s ‘newfound cool’.

Every travel and lifestyle editor in the country jumped on the MONA bandwagon, and in the proliferation of pieces that resulted you were sure to find the words ‘microbreweries’, ‘burgeoning arts scene’ and ‘boutique biodynamic wines’. With the patronising tone of an older sibling congratulating a shy adolescent who’s just discovered boys, mainland papers cheered on the city’s new status as a foodie haven. There was also international interest in Hobart’s growing appeal as a cultural destination – ‘From bumpkin to wild child in the blink of a wombat!’ gushed the UK’s Telegraph.

But credit where credit’s due. Before all of this, there was one authoritative media identity and sophisticated tastemaker who identified Hobart’s nascent cosmopolitan tendencies before anyone else. I think it’s only fair to acknowledge the role played by Catriona Rowntree in the revitalisation of Hobart, for it was indeed she who first had the audacity to declare the joint cool way back in 2003 – if only for the purposes of a Getaway segment. I know because I was there in the courtyard at Salamanca, a location scouted by the producers as emblematic of the city’s hip new vibe, listening to the gypsy band Rektango which attracted all the artistic types in town of a Friday evening. My friends and I sat around smoking rollies and surreptitiously drinking goon on the balcony like we usually did, nonchalantly ignoring the cameras but making sure the video tapes were rolling and we had the evening free when the program went to air. Later that night we went to a seedy warehouse behind a strip club. A nuggety man in black sang a love song. ‘We walked hand in hand to Centrelink’, it began. Then a questionable rap outfit called Hose Bag Mutha Fucka played to a crowd of various alternative types. Punks, ferals, goths, ravers: Hobart’s too small to maintain any meaningful separation between subcultures. It could have been the Lower East Side, we thought, or somewhere in Melbourne at the very least.

It’s nights like this I remember anytime I read about the so-called ‘MONA effect’. Granted, the warehouse attracted small-time meth cooks from down the Channel and was at least two property booms away from being converted into a loft, so it was never likely to feature in Tourism Tasmania promotional material. And band nights at the Bav Tav or the Doghouse were always going to stay underground and unreported because they never made anyone money. But they brought together enough artists, musicians, dodgy characters and young people on the fringes of the mainstream together long enough to provide some semblance of a ‘scene’. Before MONA, the city did have a pulse. The small but defiant alternative culture that existed was half a product of isolation and half of boredom, and the flipside to the more visible social malaise that flourished in a place so often defined by its location on the periphery. ‘Hobart’s always been cool,’ I’d think, trying to muster some conviction when reading yet another piece that implied otherwise. It just took a particular kind of sensibility to recognise it.


The Hobart zincworks on the way to MONA.

The narrative, however, goes that until 2008, ‘Slowbart’ lived up to its name. Nobody who was anybody described it as cool, unless they were referring charitably to the weather. But things began to change when peddler of exotic teas and former Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie sensationally dubbed Hobart ‘the cultural epicentre of Tasmania’ and relocated from New York. Amanda Palmer jetted in and was so impressed that she recorded an anthemic paean to the state; an artist burned a piano in the street; some dude tore the head off a kitten; and suddenly Hobart found itself number 7 on internationally respected travel brand Lonely Planet’s list of 2013’s top cities.

That’s not quite how it happened – in fact there were two decapitated kittens. Felines aside, the nod from Lonely Planet is a noteworthy accolade, particularly in a state whose economy relies so heavily on tourism. The Mercury, a parochial small-town rag if ever there was one, has of course been crowing about the long-overdue recognition. This makes a refreshing change from its usual filler – reporting rumours that the third cousin of a D-list celebrity has secret plans to relocate to Tasmania, rumours so well kept you’d swear someone was making them up. While reporting on the honours bestowed from far and wide the paper will helpfully paraphrase articles for the home-town crowd, but leave out what to me are the most interesting bits – the ubiquitous references in these articles to Tasmania’s ‘dark past’. Phrases like ‘one-time cultural wasteland’ invariably feature as the reader is reminded of convict transportation, Aboriginal genocide, the bitter fight to decriminalise homosexuality, and the full horrors of a time before stinging nettle risotto and dehydrated kale.

In attempting to draw a parallel between a community’s adoption of progressive policies and the subsequent increase in value of its cultural cache, commentators ignore the fact that often the most interesting art is produced in so-called backwaters. Think of punk group the Scientists, influential forerunners of grunge who originated in the staid suburban outpost of Perth. And arguably the most fertile period for alternative Australian music was during the repressive days of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime, when bands including the Saints, Go-Betweens, and the Riptides emerged from the sub-tropical heat of the Moonlight State. The people who praise Hobart’s liberal character and marvel at the cultural events on offer are nearly always the same people devoted to art and music that originated in opposite conditions. Cool often sits uncomfortably alongside social upheaval, and exists without the blessings of Chambers of Commerce and Industry. A state ‘mired in conservatism’, as one writer described Tasmania pre-MONA, breeds creative energy that’s potent precisely because it’s in opposition to the status quo.

It was in 1992 that a travel writer for the New York Times cautiously described Hobart as a place where ‘the buildings are low, the pace is poky, the shutters come down smartly at 6 o’clock. This might have been Reading, England, say, in 1938.’ Hardly the festivals-and-fine dining endorsement the city’s become accustomed to in recent months. But this was also the year that the great Shakuhachi enthusiast himself, Brian Ritchie, played a Violent Femmes gig in Hobart and years later remembered the ‘manic’ energy of the crowd at the packed out city hall. Iggy Pop once recalled to Q magazine that his best concert ever was when he played Tasmania in the early nineties. A time when unemployment was over 12%, gay sex was illegal, the population was declining, and a conservative government had just come to power. In short, it was the bad old days. But it was also, if the people involved are to be believed, some kind of golden age for indie music and general youth ratbaggery. An ex-Hobartian nostalgically recalled the day at Hobart College (nickname: THC) when an entire class of students wore their pyjamas to school. In pubs and living rooms the city was fostering a live music scene that would go on to supply half of Melbourne’s bands with musicians for years to come. Pubs and PJs can’t compete with MONA, but the seeds were sown.

So, what’s the point of all this? Hobart’s changed a lot for the better since the early nineties and it’s awesome to see the likes of PJ Harvey, Elvis Costello and David Byrne playing at MoFo when a decade ago even the most mediocre Australian bands had to be begged to cross Bass Strait. But the ability to attract the demographic beloved of tourist commissions is different to the organic creative ferment that can come to define a time and place. Cool has little to do with economic advancement and flourishes independently of travel articles and tourist numbers, often emerging as a reaction to stifling conformity. Which is why I don’t think MONA popping up in Hobart is all that surprising.


MONA. pic: sydney morning herald