Museum of Old and New Art owner David Walsh. Picture: SCOTT GELSTON
GAIN an interview with David Walsh and some degree of fame rubs off.
Reaction since I interviewed the Museum of Old and New Art owner on Thursday has been fascinating.
It brings a barrage of questions from surprisingly high-profile quarters.
For example, AFI-award-winning director Rowan Woods, of Little Fish fame, starring Cate Blanchett and Sam Neill, was unapologetically among those keen to know: ``What did he say?, What's Walsh like?''
That Walsh is now sporting a short, back and sides hair cut instead of straggly greying locks also surprises.
``I didn't realise how cold my ears would get and I had thought people wouldn't recognise me,'' says Walsh of his new-look persona that's more respectable middle-aged philosopher-type than millionaire gambler turned bohemian art collector.
``A woman did thank me the other day because whenever she'd previously seen me she would cross to the other side of the road because apparently I looked dangerous,'' Walsh also recalls with a degree of impish delight.
While he didn't complete a mathematics degree at university, Walsh calculated he could make his fortune through computerised gambling and is considering returning to uni to study the sciences.
Walsh is the man whose estimated wealth was so tantalisingly close to the $210 million cut-off for this year's BRW Rich 200 list, that he rated an honourable mention. The exact nature of his fortune remains a tightly-kept secret.
But it has to be substantial because MONA didn't come cheap, $175 million is the figure that's consistently heralded around the world.
More recently, he's also a man being chased by the Australian Taxation Office for investigation retrospective from 2004 through to 2006. He's not afraid and expects a settlement before the case is due to be heard in the NSW Federal Court in August.
``I'd like to think MONA could be seen in a favourable light of me having paid any dues,'' is his only comment.
And while he discounts any chance of the case jeopardising MONA remaining open to the public, he admits it could slow down the rate of expansion.
``I have ideas of more accommodation here, MONA is an enterprise that I want to continue to build, but what happens in the short-term depends on the tax office.''
Walsh owns Moorilla Vineyards and a micro-brewery called Moo Brew, and brings music to Hobart's waterfront each summer with MONA FOMA.
So what is the phenomena of Walsh?
Clearly there's chameleon within the enigmatic collector.
Walsh admits he hadn't gambled on how MONA would strip him of anonymity, an invaluable luxury he'd always kept closely guarded.
``Before MONA I was a willing non-participant in the community'', says Walsh.
``Losing my anonymity was not something I had anticipated and in retrospect I probably would have chosen to do things differently.
``But MONA has demanded engagement with people and it has surprised me how much I actually enjoy seeing MONA through their experience.
``But it does come with a great sense of responsibility.
``I'm continually having to remind myself that when people talk about `our museum' they are referring to MONA, because to me `our museum' means TMAG (Hobart's Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery), or Launceston's QVMAG.''
In an essay written to complement MONA's latest blockbuster exhibition, Theatre of the World, Walsh confides: ``I grew up visiting TMAG, I'd visit every Sunday in my teens instead of attending Mass.``I should have been chasing floozies (as they were then known) but my mother thought it a huge concession to let me go to mass alone so the opportunity to explore more contentious Catholic taboos was limited.
``TMAG (now the abbreviations are de rigeur) inculcated in me a respect for history, and inoculated me against trivial perspectives. Most displays changed rarely.''
Back to our conversation, and Walsh continues: ``It does amaze me just how much I care about the frisson of discovery,'' he said.
``I created a secular temple here,'' says Walsh of MONA, which has copped criticism for its penchant for religious and sexually overt art.
``I am particularly proud now to have a collaborative exhibition with TMAG - it's wonderful to give people the chance to see back cloths, for example, which have never been on display before.
``At TMAG not a lot has changed, traditionally a museum's charter is to preserve stuff.
``And they have preserved very well indeed,'' says Walsh turning his attention back to the tribal cloths.
``Primitive art or tribal art to be more PC is so profound. It has majesty.
``It shows abstractness was around well before Western art,'' says Walsh, picking up pace in speech and step as he warms to the topic.
``It's said perspective didn't exist before the late Byzantine period, but these cloths show otherwise.''
Visitor survey results compiled by Tourism Tasmania from July 2011 to March 2012 show that MONA is now the state's second-most popular icon behind Salamanca Market.
And the museum is close to topping 530,000 visitors, after just 18 months' operation.
By opening MONA to the public, Walsh is almost single-handedly rescuing Tasmanian tourism from recession and has seriously heightened Tasmania's image as an innovative arts hub.
Cradle Mountain, regarded as Tasmania's natural jewel in the crown, by comparison draws about 160,000 visitors in a peak season but is battling much lower numbers this year.
Walsh quips: ``that proves I'm three times more interesting than God.
``Seriously though, I have taken a quirky risk with MONA, that's not the role of government.
``But they should stop cutting down f------ trees; old-growth forests must be preserved.''
Does Walsh experience the same thrill MONA gave him the day it opened to the public in January 2011?
``I've visited it everyday for the last couple of months as this exhibition has been set up and my daughter wanted to go for a walk last Sunday, so I brought her here.
``I feel and know every detail of this place, it's crazy, I feel a responsibility to the public.''
David Walsh has just finished writing a book - but he could add a chapter on the subject of anonymity in public life.
When might the book be ready for release?
``November, December,'' says Walsh.
What's the bet it will be a Christmas best-seller?