Taxman targets Tasmania's biggest gallery

Gambler who used his millions to open the island's main tourist attraction faces vast bill

Sydney

Long regarded as a cultural desert and social backwater, Hobart has been buzzing since the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) opened in the Tasmanian capital last year. Housing the private collection of a multimillionaire professional gambler, David Walsh, Mona has attracted half a million visitors to its underground galleries beside the Derwent River.

The A$100m (£66m) museum, built on the proceeds of gambling, has put Tasmania on the map and become its biggest tourist draw. It has also brought its eccentric owner to the attention of the Australian tax office, which has decided it wants a share of Mr Walsh's winnings. He has now received a A$40m tax bill, which he says he cannot afford to pay, and which has thrown Mona's future into question.

A university dropout with a gift for figures who devised a mathematical model enabling him to win vast sums, particularly on horse racing, Mr Walsh says he has no objection, in principle, to paying tax. What irks him is that the tax office repeatedly assured him that his gambling income was not taxable. Now it wants to tax him retrospectively, which he considers unjust, and he is fighting back in the federal court.

With Tasmanians aghast at the prospect of losing Mona, Mr Walsh has won support from some unlikely quarters. His MP, Andrew Wilkie, who has campaigned for the abolition of fruit machines, has accused the tax office of unfairly targeting "tall poppies". Another prominent Tasmanian politician, Bob Brown, a Presbyterian who until recently was leader of the Australian Greens, has urged the federal government to intervene.

Mr Walsh himself is hoping tax authorities will "come to their senses" and negotiate a reasonable out-of-court settlement. "It seems rather pointless for them to pursue me, destroy Mona, damage the economy and the Australian cultural scene, put 170 people out of work and at the end of the day get nothing," he told The Independent on Sunday.

With its eclectic mix of ancient and modernist works, and its vast scale – Mr Walsh's A$80m collection contains more than 2,000 paintings, sculptures and installations – Mona has won many plaudits from the international art world. Billed as an "un-museum", and a "subversive Disneyland", it confounds and intrigues visitors. Works on display include the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye's Cloaca, a model of the human digestive system which produces mock excrement at regular intervals. The building, too, is unusual, with a roof tennis court and no wall labels to explain the artworks.

Mr Walsh, who owns an adjacent vineyard and micro-brewery, was hoping to build a hotel and another museum exploring the relationship between art and science. But his expansion plans are on hold.

The 51-year-old began planning for Mona in 2004, he says, after the tax office assured his syndicate that it was not liable for tax. "Had they made a different decision then, I might not have got myself in this diabolical financial position I'm now in. I'm completely happy to pay tax. I'm a supporter of high-tax regimes, and I think I should be part of that. But I wouldn't be able to pay this bill even if I hadn't built Mona."

It is not inconceivable that he could gamble his way out of trouble. When the museum was in the latter stages of construction, he received two large bills amounting to about A$10m, which he was unable to pay. "My gambling partner said, 'why don't we just bet really big on the Melbourne Cup?' So we did, and we won a heap of money – over A$10m. That was enough to pay the bills, and Mona got finished."

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us