A powerful force for arts by any name

Double title:  Dame Adrienne Stewart wins a New Year honour for her business work and services to the arts. Her late ...

Double title: Dame Adrienne Stewart wins a New Year honour for her business work and services to the arts. Her late husband, the businessman Sir Robertson Stewart, was knighted in 1979.

Dame Adrienne Stewart prefers her old title.

"Lady Stewart had a good ring," she says, "Dame Adrienne, that will take a long time for me to absorb."

Stewart, by whichever title, has long been used to moving in honourable circles. Her late husband, the businessman Sir Robertson Stewart, was knighted in 1979. Lady Stewart has been a fixture since.

Not any more. Adrienne Stewart, 78, is now a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to business and the arts.

Dame Adrienne got her unlikely start at 22, working for a small Christchurch manufacturing company, Plastics Diecasting (PDL). She was personal assistant to the boss, who was plain old Bob Stewart then. They married, and, under their leadership, PDL became one of the country's largest and best known manufacturers and exporters.

It was the arts, though, where Lady Stewart made her mark as a patron, supporter, board member and philanthropist. The long list of beneficiaries includes the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, the Christchurch Arts Festival and the Auckland Philharmonia.

"No city can survive without the arts," she said.

"Particularly us in Christchurch, [it] is very vital, if you take the earthquake and what's come through. Part of the growth of a city is through the arts."

However, growth, personal or civic, doesn't come simply by writing a cheque, she said.

"It's not a question of just helping them with money. It's helping [people] with their skills and how they can get ahead.

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"It's just a natural instinct. I wasn't trained in arts, no way at all. Perhaps I feel that's what I would have liked to have done. It's a nice combination to know that you're looking at something that's truly growing and beautiful but you can put a business perspective to it."

Melbourne-born Dame Adrienne's Aussie twang and candour remain. The false modesty that often accompanies high accolades in refreshingly absent. She knows how much work she has done. "I'm a patron of quite a few organisations," as she puts it.

Still, the dame was a surprise.

"To receive this in my own right is amazing.

"All I can think of at the moment is my mother and father. I had a really good relationship but they died many years ago. I think if only they could be sitting on my shoulder they'd go 'my little girl,' and I'd think 'wow, it is something, to be now a dame'."

It makes her one half of a very unlikely couple. Her husband, who died in 2007, is also a knight. The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet was unsure if there were any other knighted couples in New Zealand.

Dame Adrienne didn't know either. But she was pleased to be joining her husband.

"Bit of a laugh," she said.

 - The Press

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