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August 20, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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Stacks on Stacks on Sax

A conversation with Wellington’s most prolific arts philanthropist


On the fifth floor of the regal Harbour City Tower, enveloped by the archaic grandeur that is Kirkaldie and Stains, I meet him in his office. Tiled walls, maroon carpets, frosted glass; the building is a relic from a golden age. Hidden in the midst of this building is the office of Denis Adam. With the mechanism of the Adam foundation, Denis, along with his wife Verna, have reinvigorated the arts scene in New Zealand. 

When I find him, he is sitting perched behind his desk: carefully combed grey hair and coiffed moustache: a grey suit, three piece of course, gleaming silver tie bar on silk red tie to match his fountain pen neatly nestled on his suit. Mr Adam, it seems, has remained unscathed by the onslaught of a commercial, corporate world: his attire, the oil paintings on the wall, the carafe by his desk all indicate a care that is lost in today’s bluster.

Denis Adam sits next to me, legs crossed as I begin my interview, readjusting his hearing aid—a harsh ailment for one who has lived with such a love for sound. The Adam Foundation supports both individual artists and art projects: the Adam Concert Hall, the Adam Art Gallery, the NZSO National Youth Orchestra, cartoonist Tom Scott, playwright Dave Armstrong; it is an inexhaustible list.

It was this immense philanthropy that had intrigued me. For Mr Adam, “the arts need funding as a lifeblood. Without people who can manage to support the arts financially, they wither.” Denis is adamant on this. Those with wealth have an obligation to the artistic community.  Born in Berlin, but raised in London, Mr Adam considers an artistic tradition in his family the foundation for his philanthropy. His grandmother and mother were both amateur painters. His brother was a film director who had his movies made in Hollywood. Though he can’t play an instrument himself, it was this culture of artistic interest and expression that engendered in Denis an obligation to give back.

Of course a great benefit of any philanthropy is seeing the fruits of your charity. On this issue, Denis Adam is self-effacing, downplaying his efforts. He sits meekly in his chair, hunched slightly with age. His voice is soft and immediately modest.

He tells me of his support for John Chen, now a brilliant concert pianist. Denis and Verna saw him playing in the Adam Chamber Music School in Nelson and were taken by him. Since then, seeing the development of his natural talent was “pretty satisfying”. But, and Mr Adam intently focuses at this point, the Adam Foundation is “only to provide a medium in which they can perfect their art. It can’t provide talent. The talent has to be there.”

Denis Adam takes pride in the success of those he has supported but doesn’t begin to claim ownership of them. It seems evident that this philosophy exists in contrast to the more traditional American model of philanthropy where charity is image conscious: benefactors seek personal gain from their kindness. That’s not Adam’s style.

Mr Adam is certainly from a different, bygone era. The grand painting of his uncle on his office wall reflects his grounding in family and class. These features are generally considered defects of our history, entrenching poverty and rights based on your last name. Yet, amidst all that, it created people such as Denis Adam. People who don’t rest on personal success. Yes he maintains sartorial care and drives a smart Rolls Royce but his philanthropic efforts are, too, truly exceptional. What is important is that he considers it a duty, an obligation to your fellow artist; to the community of Wellington. He’s not just being nice or giving back for personal gain.

Denis arrived in Wellington in January 1947, having married his Ashburton-born wife Verna in London. Here, he encountered an emerging arts scene which he maintains is the roots of the vibrancy of Wellington today. The amateur Unity Theatre, recalls Adam, was creating a buzz within Wellington. It was that culture of amateurism which made possible the professional scene today. Those same artists grew up and laid the foundations of today’s theatre. Hence, Circa, Downstage and BATS.

You can tell Mr Adam is very proud of Wellington. He calls it quite earnestly “the arts capital” of New Zealand (Auckland, he says, is “the commercial capital”, but he is, rightly or wrongly, disinterested in that feat). Moreover, he believes the vibrancy of art in Wellington is a product of our demographic. We have a large number of “educated” individuals with an interest in the arts. We have a large “percentage of the population who participate in the arts”, whether that be going to shows and performances or playing an instrument. We demand art to be put on.

Why not more art?

Art is expensive. Mr Adam is clear on this, especially forms such as opera and ballet. It is a boring reality. Denis’ private philanthropy should be cherished but it can’t be expected to fill the whole funding gap. That is a task of central and local government. For if we accept that the government should play a role in enhancing our civic life (and those who would like to privatise playgrounds will disagree with this premise) then it should do so actively.

You have to create a society where not only can people experience art but also where you can be successful as an artist. And the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra is a pertinent example of this: bulk-funded and now world-renowned.

But our approach to most other art forms is quite the contrary. In opera, we pay extortionate fees to hire an Australian or European singer at the expense of many successful New Zealand singers. We rest comforted with the knowledge that there is a ballet touring, even if it isn’t our ballet. We force our graduates overseas in search of work in idealistic Paris, knowing that although Wellington may be the arts capital, it is only the capital for the consumer. It is a bizarre catch-22 where we want art but we don’t want to pay for artists. Mr Adam is right that “nobody ever reaches the pinnacle”. There is always more we can add to colour our cultural life, but in a world of deficit reduction and a moneyed dogmatism, it is doubtful whether we are doing enough.

Denis Adam’s office won’t be there much longer. Contact Energy have bought the building. He has been ordered to vacate. Progress, they call it.

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