Passionate patron of art

21:08, Aug 20 2009
PATRON OF THE ARTS: Dame Jenny Gibbs says she is overwhelmed by her new title. 'I could hardly believe it when they told me.'

When an iconic piece of New Zealand art was about to fly out the door of an auction house and across the ditch, Jenny Gibbs decided to step in.

It was the mid-1980s, the piece was Colin McCahon's final painting, The Emptiness of All Endeavour, and the multi-millionaire arts patron was damned if the country was going to lose such a treasure.

"It was about to go to Australia, and I thought it had to stay in New Zealand so I bought it. That was a highlight," she says.

It is just one tale from a high-profile career of philanthropy that includes, most famously, secret negotiations with Maori activists for the return of a stolen McCahon mural in 1998. In that case, she struck up an unlikely friendship with Tuhoe activists Te Kaha and Tame Iti that culminated in the $1.25-million painting Urewera Triptych being loaded into her car boot at a secret rendezvous.

Now she is one of the first two women to be named a dame in the restored titular honours system being made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit a gong that leaves her "incredulous".

Speaking from Rome en route to the world's top art show, the Venice Biennale, she said: "I could hardly believe it when they told me ... It's one of the reasons I've left so early. I've fled the country."

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Though she called it a "terrific recognition of the arts" and said she was happy to be "Dame Jenny", she was relaxed about the honour too.

"I thought it sounded quite fun, a bit of a giggle ... It has the feel of a pantomime about it."

Together with ex-husband Alan Gibbs, one of Telecom's original shareholders, Dame Jenny has been a towering figure in New Zealand's traditionally small world of arts patronage.

She co-founded Auckland's new art gallery and has helped get Kiwi artists to Venice even sitting on the panel that chose controversial art collective et al for the 2005 biennale.

She said her favourite artist was "New Zealand art".

"I think it's up there with the world's best ... I've been collecting it all my life, and I only collect things I fall in love with."

Both her father and grandfather were artists but she had never been tempted to paint. "I'm far too critical. I could never do anything I would be happy with."

The Dominion Post