The Sydney to Hobart yacht race annually shines the spotlight on these Australian capitals, and in the past, it was a tale of two cities. Sun-drenched Sydney was clearly the star of the show with its glamorous people, parties and places, while Hobart played the supporting role with its dour weather and sleepy rugged beauty.

But then the MONA came along and everything changed. The building has transformed the way Hobart sees itself, the way the world sees Hobart, and vitally, how many people visit Hobart every year.

Hobart can now lay serious claim to being the Australian capital of counter-culture. Since opening in 2011 the MONA has welcomed 1.7m visitors, hosted an array of thought-provoking exhibitions and introduced the MOFO and Dark MOFO festivals.

It is the most successful example of the ‘Bilbao-effect’ since, well, Bilbao. The Guggenheim Museum opened its doors in Bilbao in 1997, its audacious Frank Gehry designed exterior itself a serious piece of art, to both critical architectural claim and a stampede of tourists.

Since then the tourists have continued to flock to the contemporary art museum. In the first three years alone, 4 million tourists visited the museum, helping to generate about €500 million in economic activity, including €100 million in taxes, which more than paid for the building costs.

For nearly 20 years, cities both large and small, have been trying to emulate the success of Bilbao. So what is it about Hobart’s MONA that makes it stand out in the crowd?

Architecture that breaks the mould

According to Elizabeth Farrelly of the Sydney Morning Herald, the MONA is everything Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art should be and isn’t – a building that doesn’t just fulfil its function, to showcase this breathtaking art collection, but extends and magnifies into an experience undreamt of.

Comparing MONA to the famous New York Guggenheim, Farrelly says the Tasmanian museum is striking in its darkness, reflective, perhaps of its place in the world.

“At the Gugg, you take the lift to the top and gently spiral back down past the art. At MONA, the lift drops you like a volcanic plug several storeys beneath the earth’s crust, from where you swim back, through the art, to the light,” she says.

“So, whereas Wright’s Guggenheim stands white and radiant on the busy corner of Fifth Avenue and 88th, like some helical spinning-top at the centre of Manhattan, Katsilidis’s MONA is dug into the bottom of the world. Almost entirely exterior-less, its dark, fecund interiority plays mysterious female to Wright’s Adonic male.”

Hames Sharley Managing Director Caillin Howard, a regular participant in the Sydney to Hobart yacht race and visitor of the MONA, agrees with Farrelly’s assessment.

“At street level, the MONA appears to blend within its surroundings, and it’s only when you descend the spiral staircase that you realise the bulk of the building is underground,” Caillin said.

“It’s dark and surprising and it heightens the experience of the often-dark subject matter of the art. It is absolutely important that the building breaks the mould of what a gallery should be, but perhaps even more importantly, the building and the audacious exhibitions work perfectly well together.”

The regeneration juggernaut

Celebrating the five-year birthday of the MONA, ABC reporter Gregor Salmon says Hobart appears more invigorated than ever.

“From the pop-up coffee carts to towering cranes, the city’s character is being transformed by diverse facets. Even the starkest symbol of Hobart’s former economic lethargy – a hole in the CBD’s retail heart left by the 2007 destruction of the Myer store – has at last been filled with a new department store, with a $45 million Crowne Plaza hotel to be added on top.”

Quenton Long, the founder of Australian Traveller media, says MONA has the priceless capacity to turn browsers into buyers.

“Before MONA arrived you had this somewhat sleepy, unpolished gem of a city with great food, (that) has a great celebration once a year on Constitution Dock when boats arrive from Sydney,” he said.

“What MONA does to Hobart is suddenly give it a huge drawcard. What it did is move it from a ‘one day I’ll get there’ to an ‘I’ve just been and I loved it and I’m going back’.”

Hobart’s newfound popularity is driving an expansion of its accommodation capacity.

At peak times Hobart consistently runs at 90 percent capacity. But right now there are five CBD projects in play that would add 800 beds. A recent report claimed that on current growth, the city would need 1,200 extra beds by 2020.

In addition to the new cafes and restaurants opening to cater for the influx of tourists, MONA has also been the catalyst for further development of the Macquarie Point area. In June this year, the Macquarie Point Development Corporation released a master plan for the development of a nine-hectare site on the River Derwent that incorporates Hobart’s old rail yards. The 11-stage project is projected to take until 2030 to complete.

“Buildings like the MONA and the Guggenheims make a huge architectural statement and rightly become the star of the show. But the trickle effect they have is also really important for the vitality of cities.” Caillin Howard said.

“More people and tourists allows the small spaces to be filled by retailers and baristas and wine bars, and they enrich the city for visitors and residents alike.”

The right mix of ingredients, including a little magic

The success of the MONA and Bilbao Guggenheim are certainly about more than just sleepy cities getting an architectural injection. According to international museum consultant Maria Fernandez Sabau the Guggenheim Bilbao was a rare occurrence.

“There was an incredible confluence of amazing, talented people. You had a museum that was hungry to expand, available land for cheap, a government with money, an architect itching to make a statement, and a city that desperately needed a new reason to exist. You can’t just buy that,” Maria said.

But the demand for such spaces continues apace, and according to a study by AEA Consulting, a New York firm that specialises in cultural projects, there are more than $250 billion of new cultural centres and museums being built in more than 20 locations over the next decade.

Some of the more talked about projects include: the Pingtan Art Museum in China’s Fujian province; the Saadiyat Island museum complex in Abu Dhabi, which will be home to offshoots of the Louvre and Guggenheim; and the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong, which will house the M+ museum of Chinese contemporary art.

“It’s true that there are a lot of factors which need to come together for a building like the MONA to truly transform a city. But what is inspiring is that so many projects are pushing the boundaries of architecture and opening up opportunities for people to engage with art and culture – and that can never be a bad thing,” Caillin Howard said.

Back in Hobart, as the super yachts finish their brief encounter on the southern oceans this December, it will not be the only time of the year that the hotels are full. And for that, the MONA has played a big part.

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