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MONA Ladies Lounge Accused of Discriminating by Gender

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A wall of vulvas. A performance featuring a recently slaughtered bull. A “poo machine” that replicates the journey of food through the human body.

The Museum of New and Old Art, or MONA, in Hobart, the capital of the Australian state of Tasmania, is no stranger to works that may shock or appall, or the criticism they may draw. But this week, it found itself defending an unusual claim: An artwork, a visitor complained, broke discrimination laws.

The Ladies Lounge — plush green curtains, lavish surroundings, original works by Picasso and Sidney Nolan — is an installation by the American artist and curator Kirsha Kaechele. Opened in December 2020, it is accessible to “any and all ladies,” according to the MONA website — and precisely zero men, other than the solicitous butlers who cater to the women within it.

Like other men, Jason Lau was not allowed to enter the installation when he visited the museum in April 2023. Mr. Lau lodged a complaint with Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, saying he was discriminated against because of his gender.

The matter was heard by the Tasmanian Civil and Administrative Tribunal in Hobart on Tuesday.

“I visited MONA, paid 35 Australian dollars,” or about $23, “on the expectation that I would have access to the museum, and I was quite surprised when I was told that I would not be able to see one exhibition, the Ladies Lounge,” Mr. Lau said at the hearing, according to reports in the Australian news media. “Anyone who buys a ticket would expect a fair provision of goods and services.”

In an interview, Ms. Kaechele said that she agreed with Mr. Lau, but that his experience of discrimination was central to the work.

“Given the conceptual power of the artwork, and the value of the artworks inside the artwork, his detriment is real,” she said. “He’s at a loss.”

The work was necessarily discriminatory, Catherine Scott, Ms. Kaechele’s lawyer, has acknowledged. But, she argued, denying men access to it still allowed them to experience it, albeit in another way.

During proceedings on Tuesday, Ms. Scott cited a legal exception that states that discrimination may be acceptable if it is “designed to promote equal opportunity for a group of people who are disadvantaged or have a special need because of a prescribed attribute.”

“This case asks the tribunal to appreciate that art may, in fact, promote equal opportunity in a different way, in a way that’s more at a conceptual level,” she said in an interview.

Ms. Kaechele, who is married to David Walsh, the founder of the museum, appeared at the hearing on Tuesday trailed by a phalanx of 25 women in pearls and navy suits, many of them also artists, who silently read feminist texts and posed, crossed their legs and applied lipstick in unison.

In August, another male visitor filed a complaint of gender discrimination over the work, according to a museum spokeswoman. That led to a dialogue with Ms. Kaechele.

“I said, ‘Well, you did get to experience the artwork, because the exclusion of men is the artwork,’” Ms. Kaechele said. “So he appreciated that, he understood, and he dropped the case.”

The Ladies Lounge takes inspiration from male-only spaces in Australia from the past and the present, she said. Australia only permitted women to enter public bars from 1965, and they were often relegated to the so-called “ladies lounge,” a smaller area often selling more expensive drinks.

But discrimination against women is not simply a matter of the historical record. Australia still has a gender pay gap of about 20 percent, women are still underrepresented in leadership and management positions in almost all industries, according to the Australian government, and a number of elite gentlemen’s clubs, like the Melbourne Club, still exclude women from membership.

These clubs exist to connect important men to one another and reinforce patriarchal power structures, Ms. Kaechele said. “In our lounge, we’re just drinking champagne and sitting on the sofa. I don’t think it’s much of a parallel.”

The work was intended to be funny, and its sense of humor derived from the fact that women remain marginalized in Australian life, she added. “It’s meant to illuminate the past and be lighthearted,” she said, “and we can only do that because we’re women and we’re lacking power.”

Mr. Lau, who could not be reached for comment, has asked for a formal apology and for men either to be allowed into the Lounge or to pay a discounted ticket price to account for their loss, which Ms. Kaechele has refused. “I’m not sorry,” she said, “and you can’t come in.”

A decision from the tribunal is expected in the coming weeks.

For MONA and Ms. Kaechele, as the artist, even the potential closure of the exhibit had some advantages, said Anne Marsh, an art historian based in Melbourne.

“Noisy art is good art, noisy feminism is good feminism,” she said. “It gets it on the agenda.”

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