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Tasmania’s MONA art musuem sued for discrimination over Ladies Lounge

At the Ladies Lounge of Australia’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) on the island of Tasmania, only one man is allowed inside: a butler, who serves the women.

The lounge, a conceptual artwork, is decorated with Picassos and other expensive adornments and is separated from the rest of the museum with opulent green curtains. A staff member is posted outside to prevent the entry of any visitor who does not identify as a woman, and guests can indulge in a $325 high tea service featuring fancy finger food.

On Tuesday, one of those excluded men, Jason Lau, argued before the state’s civil and administrative tribunal that the lounge violated anti-discrimination laws by keeping him and the rest of his gender out. He submitted it should cease operating as it currently does.

Catherine Scott, a lawyer representing MONA’s parent company, told the tribunal in her written submissions that Lau’s exclusion was “part of the art itself.”

The American artist behind the lounge, Kirsha Kaechele, who is married to the private museum’s owner, told the tribunal that the practice of requiring women to drink in ladies lounges rather than public bars only ended in parts of Australia in 1970 and that in practice, exclusion of women in public spaces continues.

“It was only recently suggested to me in a pub on Flinders Island that I might prefer to sit in the ladies lounge,” she wrote in her witness statement, referring to an island near Tasmania. “Over history, women have seen significantly fewer interiors.”

Scott wrote that discrimination was legally permitted when it was “designed to promote equal opportunity for a group of people (women) who are disadvantaged.”

Kaechele said in a phone interview she will appeal to the state’s Supreme Court if the tribunal finds against her work and might move it to a venue elsewhere. “We won’t let men in,” she said. “That’s not happening.”

But she said she “got a rise” out of the discrimination complaint and was “pretty excited” when she learned it had been filed over her work. “It carries it out of the museum and into the real world.”

MONA is owned by David Walsh, an eccentric collector who came from a working-class background in Hobart, Tasmania, and made a fortune through gambling.

The museum has made a habit of provocation. MONA and its associated festivals have been protested by Christians, animal rights groups and Indigenous people over various planned works, and its controversial exhibits include a wall of sculpted vulvas taken from real women, as well as a machine that mimics digestion and defecates daily.

Kaechele attended the tribunal Tuesday flanked by 25 female supporters dressed in pointedly court-appropriate attire — think pearls, suits and stockings — and carrying literature on feminism, art and history, she said. When testifying, she read a poem by the Guerrilla Girls, a collective founded in New York in the 1980s that protests sexism in the art world, she added.

“I don’t consider myself a feminist artist, but this particular work is part of a continuum of that type of work,” she said. “So that’s new territory for me as well, and I’m really enjoying it.”

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