'I love attention' - Chris Parkin, art collector, grafter and egotist

Chris Parkin says art should be about our day-to day living. "Art should be something you surround yourself with which gives you pleasure and adds to your life."
Chris Parkin says art should be about our day-to day living. "Art should be something you surround yourself with which gives you pleasure and adds to your life."

Chris Parkin has a taxidermy baby giraffe and he needs somewhere to put it.

It's a great big thing, obviously.

The poor creature died at birth and was transformed by an Australian artist into a work of art to be viewed now from a gallery, rather than from a zoo gantry.

"I saw it in an exhibition in Melbourne and thought it was really weird. It's that sort of work that I see from time to time that really takes my fancy," says the grizzly bearded and trendily bespectacled Parkin.

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The former city councillor, property developer and avid art collector might have just the place for it, though – the four-storey Mountain Safety building in Tory St, downtown Wellington.

He bought it a few years ago and plans are afoot to develop one floor into a gallery – or better still, says Parkin, a bar/restaurant and a gallery.

In that order, he insists.

"I like luxury. I'm a great consumer." - Chris Parkin
"I like luxury. I'm a great consumer." - Chris Parkin

One of the things that's wrong with galleries is that they're so sterile, he says.

"Art should be about your day-to-day living. Art should be something you surround yourself with which gives you pleasure and adds to your life. Where better to do that than in an environment where you go to eat and drink?"

It's an idea that might alarm the purists, but Parkin isn't bothered. "They would probably be worried the art might get dirty but so what? A bit of dirt cleans off, just sponge it off. Who cares?

"I want to change the paradigm so that people think art is not something precious that's held in a special place to be very reverent about. Art is like wallpaper, just very very good wallpaper that stimulates us."

Wallpaper! Whoa, that's going to ruffle some feathers.

But Parkin has already warmed to his theme. "People are bored by galleries. Something like this concept might actually change some people's minds on how they view art."

Development starts in a few months, with the plan to finish it by mid-2021. That's timed to fit in with when the QT Hotel's contract to house his art runs out.

He still lives in the hotel he sold five years ago. The eighth-floor bijou apartment he shares with third wife, Kathy, is a work of art in itself.

A Sam Ducker-Jones sculpture stands in one corner, the TV is projected on to a screen pulled down as a blind to shield the floor-to-ceiling windows across the entire front of the apartment. With great gusto he pulls open a cupboard to reveal a fully stocked bar. He looks tickled at the mere sight of it. Pity it's only 10am.

Parkin collects art that pleases him. There's nothing "deep and meaningful" about the collection, he says.
Parkin collects art that pleases him. There's nothing "deep and meaningful" about the collection, he says.

He takes most of his meetings in the foyer of the hotel so he can be surrounded by his art. 

On the table is a piece by Daniel Campion – "a piss-take on Damien Hirst's  diamond-encrusted skull".

"Being here surrounded by all of this reminds me what a wonderful value art can bring to your life, a real joy."

In his collection of about 200 mostly paintings, a Brent Wong is the one he'd take from a burning building. He first saw it in the 1980s when he was a "frustrated art collector". Lots of enthusiasm, not so much dough. 

The thrill has always been in the chase, though. The pursuit of money to fund his love of art and the good life.

Parkin was born in Doncaster, Yorkshire, and came with his family to New Zealand in 1950 when he was two. He grew up with three sisters in Ōtaki in a typical middle-class family. Both parents had a strong love of the arts.

He recalls his father's precious classical record collection, framed prints of impressionist art. Fixed in his memory is a print of Frans Hals' Laughing Cavalier in the hallway.

Parkin plans to open his collection up to the public in a new location on Tory St.
Parkin plans to open his collection up to the public in a new location on Tory St.

A jaunty floral shirt and a Roxy cap belie his 71 years. He radiates confidence from every pore. His ego is palpable.

"It's colossal," he says, with a roar of laughter. "I love attention. I love talking to people about myself. I love my ego being stroked, I like seeing my picture in the paper, I like reading my words coming back to me. I like being complimented for the things I do. I don't think many people will admit to that."

He wears a beautiful gold half-sovereign ring he bought at a Sydney pawn shop when he was 21. The date on the ring, 1915, and the engraved St George slaying the dragon are worn smooth. His lucky charm.

Luck might have had something to do with his success but he's been a grafter for as long as he can remember.

He studied geochemistry and later commerce at university. He bought his first property for $12,500 at age 23. He sold it for $30,000 a few years later. 

His work as a business analyst took him and  second wife Laurel, with whom he has two grown children, to California in 1979.

When they returned from the US he invested in more property – blocks of apartments which he did up and sold. He was "donkey deep" in the actual renovations. When he talks about the nitty gritty there's an element of wide boy about him.

"We'd change the light fittings to make it look like we had rewired the place. We'd replace the tap fittings to make it look good. But as soon as you do anything structural, you lose."

He has several commercial properties and various other apartments around Wellington. A place in Martinborough is a bolt hole.

Parkin's profile began to soar in the late 1980s when he leased the Museum Hotel on Wellington's waterfront. He got it lock, stock and barrel, including a couple of Toss Woollastons  and a bottle of Cockburn's port.

The hotel business suited him. And when he was given notice the building was to be demolished to make way for Te Papa, he decided to buy it and move it to its current site.

It was an audacious task. But, using steel rollers, rail tracks, massive ball-bearings and floating the 3500-tonne building on a film of water, he shifted that beast two blocks to the corner of Cable and Tory streets.

He scored the title of Wellingtonian of the Year 1993 for his troubles.

With the hotel in its new home he finally started to make serious money and his art collecting began in earnest.

He's not being funny when he describes his taste in art as "average".

"Nearly everybody that comes to the hotel and looks at the collection likes it. I think they like it because it's very approachable. There's nothing to understand. You either like it or you don't. There's nothing deep and meaningful about it."

He applies the same ethos to buying art. He buys what pleases him. If you buy art purely to make money, he says, you may as well keep it in the basement.

Of course, he's not silly. He prefers to buy at auction because that's the best way to pay market price. 

One might not align the Chris Parkin we know today with the young man who was a committed communist when he started university.

But studying economics kicked the socialist right out of him. He edged towards Labour and ended up a card-carrying member of ACT.

He was a socialist until he understood more about human nature, he says. "You realise the futility of any political system that depends totally for its success on the goodwill of people towards others.

"It's human nature that stops socialism from ever succeeding. It doesn't have a chance."

That's not pessimistic, he says. It's realistic.

He was always politically aware and keen to make his mark in some way. 

Realising he was never going to give up his work for a political career, a spot on the Wellington City Council was more tempting.

He was voted in at the start of mayor Mark Blumsky's tenure in 1995. He rates Blumsky as being the one to rebrand Wellington as a place people want to come to, rather than escape from.

He's not very flattering about his fellow councillors, though. "I thought that I was a lot smarter than most of them.

"I got to resent the amount of my precious time being wasted by councillors who had little, if anything, to contribute."

These days it's his philanthropy that takes up his time.

He never gives anonymously. He likes seeing his name in lights, he says. But it's also to encourage others to give.

He recently gave $120,000 to Boosted, the crowdfunding platform for artists.

His $1 million to the music hub in the refurbished Wellington Town Hall will see his name attached to a space within. 

That's another ego-driven move, he says. "Leaving my name on the city."

He likes to stick his neck out, for himself and for the greater good.

He likes to be highly visible.

Just like that giraffe.