Australian Museum’s Women-Only Exhibition Must Admit Men to Avoid ‘Discrimination,’ Judge Says

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The Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) was ordered by a Tasmanian court yesterday to stop turning away male visitors to its Ladies Lounge installation. The museum has 28 days to decide how it will proceed.

A few weeks ago, Jason Lau filed suit against the institution, claiming that as a man, his rights were violated when he was denied access to the installation.

The artist and curator Kirsha Kaechele argued, however, that pointing out hypocrisy is the purpose of the artwork, which references a moment in Australian history before women won the right to drink in the nation’s pubs in 1965. Until then, women were either relegated to side rooms, where they were charged exorbitantly, or barred from these kinds of establishments altogether.

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The installation offers an opulent retreat for female guests only, with champagne served by male butlers, and also features some of the museum’s most notable works, by artists such as Picasso to Sidney Nolan. The installation opened in 2020; advance tickets to a high tea event staged within the installation cost $500 AUD (around $330 USD).

Lau was turned away from Ladies Lounge when he visited in April 2023, after which he complained to Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, who referred him to the tribunal.

Lawyer Catherine Scott, representing Mona, argued that Lau experienced the work as intended, as Tasmanian law allows selective entry when “designed to promote equal opportunity for a group of people who are disadvantaged.”

Richard Grueber, deputy president of the Tasmanian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, saw things differently. This week, he called the Ladies Lounge “direct discrimination,” according to the Guardian.

In yesterday’s decision, Grueber said, “it is not apparent how preventing men from experiencing the art within the space of the Ladies Lounge, which is Mr. Lau’s principle complaint, promotes opportunity for female artists to have work displayed.” He continued, “if the Ladies Lounge were a women-only club it might well be able to lawfully function.”

“If the Ladies Lounge offended, humiliated, intimidated, insulted, or ridiculed Mr. Lau, or incited hatred, serious contempt or severe ridicule of Mr. Lau, rather than discriminating against him, [Mona] might well have a good defense based on good faith artistic purpose. However, the Act does not permit discrimination for good faith artistic purpose per se,” he added.

During the proceedings, Kaechele’s supporters led a synchronized dance outside the courthouse to Robert Palmer’s song “Simply Irresistible.” Attempts to film the procession, which would have violated the Court Security Act, were viewed by Grueber as “inappropriate, discourteous and disrespectful, and at worst contumelious and contemptuous,” though it didn’t impact the hearing.

A spokesperson for Mona said it was “deeply disappointed” by the outcome and taking time to “absorb the result” before making any decision on the fate of the Ladies Lounge. Kaechele previously expressed a desire to take the case to Tasmania’s supreme court. The museum also said prior to the ruling that it would rather close the installation than allow men to participate.

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