How Leigh Carmichael made Hobart Australia's coolest city

Leigh Carmichael has come a long way from the graphic designer designing craft beer labels, including a spot on the board of the Australia Council back in 2016. The creative director and mastermind of Mona's Dark Mofo in Hobart owes his artistic rise and conquer to David Lynch films and Nirvana's grunge soaked nihilism in showing him the dark side is ever relevant.

Carmichael was named one of Australia's most influential cultural voices last year by the AFR, but the 42-year-old father-of-three doesn't sit easy with making the cool list. He does however quietly put his reputation on the line with his boss and owner of Mona, David Walsh, all in the name of art and freedom of speech.

In October, he will take part in a discussion Walk The Creative Line, which features a panel including architect Koos de Keijzer of DKO Architecture and Raft Studio's Stasia Raft. They will look at the value of risk and why it matters more than ever.

Risky buzzwords

"Risk has become a bit of a buzzword," fires Leigh Carmichael on the phone from his home in Hobart.

But more than a four-letter word you'd hardly bat an eyelid at in a sentence, a lot is at stake when you cross the line -  all in the name of it.

"Risks should apply to all aspects of life, but the problem with risk is there are no guarantees," says Leigh Carmichael whose art and culture festival attracted 15,000 interstate visitors this year.

"But there's something to be said for taking risk. The closer you are to losing everything the freer you are," he says.

Eye of the bull-holder

A year ago, Carmichael and Walsh almost did lose everything when they included the controversial bull slaughter work of Hermann Nitsch.

"I was sitting on the couch with my kids when that story broke on the news," recalls Carmichael.


"It was full on. We didn't know where that was going to head. It was an intense period for Mona and when your nine-year-old asks what is that work about and what is going on it puts you in a spot," he says.

The work in question touched on macabre themes of sacrifice, animal slaughter and bloodied bodies. It spurred 20,000 signatures and more heart palpitations that Carmichael would rather forget, but he's the one bringing it up.

"We momentarily risked the whole festival on Hermann's work and didn't know if the government would pull the carpet from under us with funding," he says. "David and I just clung onto hope and survived with our integrity intact."

Shadow world

Carmichael recalls watching Lynch's Mulholland Drive with his wife Angela, former state netballer, and being transfixed with uneasiness the filmmaker created with a plot steeped in speculation. It's exactly that feeling that Carmichael tries to replicate with Dark Mofo.

"I felt blown away not knowing what just happened but could feeling something on the tip of my tongue with that film," he says.  "It was a life changing moment, it had a massive impact."

Rather than try and copy other art festivals worldwide, Carmichael is more obsessed with cultural statements like Mexico's Day of The Dead festival – a ritual that wakes an entire country when paying tribute to those who has passed.

"The expectations to deliver every year don't sit easy with me," he says.

"I don't want to be critical of other major festivals, but I feel they take on an educational role and it feels as though they're trying to impart something. I personally don't engage with that model. We can't really explain what we do, we simply program artists and discuss topics that interest us," he says.

Big name recognition

That said, it is risk and the value of it that has seen Dark Mofo become a successful cultural mover and shaker.

"It's important to not stick with the model even if it is working," says Carmichael who prefers to hang in the balance of the unknown.

"Once it's working it becomes safe and the audience get a sense and feel for that as well. To not stick to the model is expensive and risky but to do the same is boring. We're in the middle of figuring that next vital step."