Mat­ters of life & death

One of New Zealand’s lead­ing phi­lan­thropists has pledged a unique gift to med­i­cal re­search.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Clare de Lore

One of New Zealand’s lead­ing phi­lan­thropists has pledged a unique gift to med­i­cal re­search.

Dame Jenny Gibbs, phi­lan­thropist and art col­lec­tor, is putting her sub­stan­tial house in or­der. There’s no ur­gency – she en­joys rude good health, en­dur­ing friend­ships, and strong re­la­tion­ships with her three daugh­ters, son and four grand­sons. But with a sig­nif­i­cant birth­day loom­ing in a cou­ple of years, she’s giv­ing away or sell­ing some of her vast col­lec­tion of paint­ings, sculp­tures and books. She’s even found, when the time comes, a new home for her very-well-used brain.

Gibbs lives with her three dogs, “my fluffy door­bells”, in a 10,000 sq ft (930 sq m) space that com­bines art gallery and home, over­look­ing her adopted home city of Auck­land. Welling­ton-born, Gibbs grew up sur­rounded by art – her fa­ther and grand­fa­ther were both artists. Life for Gibbs, then Jenny Gore, wasn’t al­ways easy – fa­ther Ross al­most died from heavy drink­ing. Decades later, her mother Bar­bara fought an­other bat­tle – to die with dig­nity. The lessons from both par­ents’ ex­pe­ri­ences helped shape a woman who has con­trib­uted much to New Zealand life, rang­ing from the arts to ed­u­ca­tion and pol­i­tics, and now the de­bate on vol­un­tary eu­thana­sia.

Ed­u­cated at Vic­to­ria and Can­ter­bury uni­ver­si­ties, Gibbs’ ca­reer as a lec­turer was in­ter­rupted by mar­riage to up-and­com­ing di­plo­mat Alan Gibbs, who went on to forge a suc­cess­ful busi­ness ca­reer. Diplo­matic post­ings and chil­dren put her ca­reer on the back burner, but not her love of art which, over the decades, has re­sulted in one of the coun­try’s finest pri­vate con­tem­po­rary New Zealand art col­lec­tions. She has served on the boards of Te Papa and the Auck­land Art Gallery, and is on the in­ter­na­tional coun­cil of the New York Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art. She served for many years on the Uni­ver­sity of Auck­land Coun­cil, in­clud­ing two terms as pro-chan­cel­lor, and is com­mis­sioner for New Zealand’s pre­sen­ta­tion at the 2019 Venice Bi­en­nale. She has re­ceived nu­mer­ous hon­ours for her con­tri­bu­tion to the arts and phi­lan­thropy, cul­mi­nat­ing in be­ing made a Dame Com­pan­ion of the New Zealand Or­der of Merit in 2009.

Gibbs har­bours only two gripes – that she might not live as long as she’d like and, per­versely, that she might be forced to live longer than she wants. Oth­er­wise, she has no re­grets about what she calls a “great life”.

Both your par­ents were in­flu­en­tial – tell me about them.

My fa­ther was a lovely man, a writer and a painter. Daddy was what I would call a gen­tle al­co­holic for much of our lives – never vi­o­lent. Mummy, who’d never been brought up to work, was a great reader and she was able to get the job as li­brar­ian at Ngaio Li­brary. She loved books and her job pro­vided our in­come when Daddy was drink­ing. He stopped drink­ing when I was about 15 – he be­came so ill, he nearly died and he then de­cided to join Al­co­holics Anony­mous. My poor mother, who en­joyed a gin and tonic be­fore din­ner, ended up host­ing the AA Christ­mas par­ties at our place, which she found a bit te­dious; very dry af­fairs.

When he was work­ing, your fa­ther was a suc­cess­ful artist and writer – is that where your love of art comes from?

I grew up with art. Both my fa­ther and grand­fa­ther were pres­i­dents of the Acad­emy of Fine Arts in Welling­ton. They both ex­hib­ited there as there were no gallery deal­ers back then. Over the years, I have man­aged to buy works by my fa­ther and grand­fa­ther at auc­tions, and I have given them to my grand­sons.

I just fall in love, that’s the prob­lem. The art started pil­ing up in the wardrobes and un­der the beds.

When did you tran­si­tion from art en­thu­si­ast to col­lec­tor?

No­body sets out to be an art col­lec­tor. When we first came back from a diplo­matic post­ing in Lon­don, Alan and I bought one or two works to hang on the wall. I’d grown up in a house with paint­ings and it al­ways strikes me as in­cred­i­bly bar­ren to find a house that doesn’t have some art on the walls. Even as a young mother in Ti­ti­rangi I used to buy the odd very in­ex­pen­sive piece and, to this day, I buy things like that. You don’t have to be ter­ri­bly wealthy to buy art. There is so much good art out there – pho­tog­ra­phy, grad­u­ates’ work and so on. I kept fall­ing in love with art works and stopped say­ing, “This would look good be­hind the sofa”, and in­stead started say­ing, “I don’t know where we are go­ing to put that but we have to have it.” I just fall in love, that’s the prob­lem. The art started pil­ing up in the wardrobes and un­der the beds. Now I have three prop­erly de­signed and built store­rooms.

Look­ing at your col­lec­tion, are there pieces that are of great per­sonal sig­nif­i­cance?

There is the Gretchen Al­brecht, which has just gone back up on the wall re­cently. I also love an­other of hers, a beau­ti­ful, big, lush, rose-coloured one. An­other dear friend in Syd­ney bought it and it was above her bed as she lay dy­ing. Her chil­dren put it into an auc­tion so I raced over and bought it be­fore it went; I trea­sure that work. The other one is the last McCa­hon – his fi­nal paint­ing. I will prob­a­bly give it to the Auck­land Art Gallery.

The Auck­land Art Gallery has con­tin­u­ing fi­nan­cial woes. Is it in­evitable that arts and cul­ture are squeezed when rates are go­ing up and in­fra­struc­ture is in great need of im­prove­ment?

Some peo­ple say that, but what sort of city are we with­out arts and cul­ture? I don’t mean just the art gallery; I mean or­ches­tras, the­atre and so on. Peo­ple don’t go to Lon­don or New York or Paris to ad­mire the un­der­ground, the roads or sew­ers. They go to gal­leries, mu­se­ums, the­atre – and uni­ver­si­ties add to that mix. Peo­ple choose where they live, to some de­gree, de­pend­ing on what sort of cul­tural fa­cil­i­ties there are in that city.

Your own home is more like a gallery – was that al­ways the in­ten­tion?

It is lit­er­ally, philo­soph­i­cally, con­cep­tu­ally and phys­i­cally a house sit­ting in­side a gallery space. I didn’t want to build a gallery where you’d only go and look at the art once a month. This house is sit­ting on its own legs and it is con­nected to the gallery space only by glass to the roof. I can walk through and see the art all the time and not have to live down­stairs, where there is a re­cep­tion area and more art. There are only two be­d­rooms in a 10,000 sq ft space; mad, I sup­pose. I will have to down­size at some stage to an apart­ment but, in the mean­time, I am hap­pily trapped here by my art col­lec­tion.

Why the im­pulse to down­size?

It’s huge and I am 78 now. When I am 88 I don’t want to be in a three-storey house. I am qui­etly down­siz­ing – in the last year I gave 15 Gor­don Wal­ters works to the Auck­land Art Gallery. I have sold a few, and given away oth­ers. The chil­dren have all cho­sen their favourites.

One of your most un­usual de­ci­sions is to do­nate your brain to the Brain Bank run by Sir Richard Faull at the Cen­tre for Brain Re­search in Auck­land. Was that a dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion?

No, they are wel­come to any bit of my body they can use. I didn’t have to think too hard about it at all. The Cen­tre for Brain Re­search is fan­tas­tic, world class. Richard Faull and his team do an amaz­ing job and the bank is part of how they are go­ing to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. They can dis­sect brains and see which platelets are there or not there; they need that sort of ma­te­rial for re­search. What more use can your brain be once you’ve gone? My chil­dren are happy about it and have had to get used to my pas­sions over the years. Eu­thana­sia is a cur­rent pre­oc­cu­pa­tion.

How did that come about?

My mother’s fi­nal years and months in­flu­enced me. She had breast can­cer, with sec­on­daries. At Mercy Hos­pi­tal, she was al­lowed mor­phine only once ev­ery four hours in case she be­came ad­dicted – ridicu­lous. I would see her anx­iously check­ing her watch, wait­ing for her four-hourly hit, and even­tu­ally she dis­charged her­self and came home to stay with us. My lovely GP gave her a bot­tle of mor­phine syrup which sat by her bed and she took it when­ever she needed. It was trans­for­ma­tive and for her last few months she didn’t have anx­i­ety or pain – she knew she could con­trol it and she ef­fec­tively chose when she died. My chil­dren at the time were teenagers, liv­ing with their grand­mother who was dy­ing, and it made a huge im­pact on all of us.

You’ve made a sub­mis­sion to the select com­mit­tee con­sid­er­ing the is­sue of vol­un­tary eu­thana­sia. What is the thrust of your ar­gu­ment in sup­port of the bill?

I told the select com­mit­tee I wouldn’t dream of stop­ping you from hav­ing your views and do­ing what you think is right and proper. I know some peo­ple think suf­fer­ing is en­nobling, and I wouldn’t dream of stop­ping some­one who be­lieved that. By the same to­ken I can’t see why you should stop me from liv­ing or dy­ing by my be­liefs. It is as sim­ple as that – choice.

You men­tioned a con­cern that you might, on the other hand, not live long enough. What’s your worry there?

I get cross about get­ting older be­cause I want to know the end of the story, and I am so ex­cited about what’s com­ing next. I don’t even lose sleep over global warm­ing be­cause the planet has been at this level be­fore and hu­man be­ings are in­fin­itely adap­tive. I think this will be an­other cy­cle where hu­mans will adapt.

When you have time, what do you read?

Mostly non-fic­tion. A book with a very per­sonal con­nec­tion is This Bar­ren Rock, writ­ten by a sec­ond cousin, Sylvie Hais­man. It’s about the 40 or so sur­vivors of a ship­wreck in 1875. My great-great­grand­mother, Fanny Wordsworth, was the only woman to sur­vive, along with her 17-year-old son, my great-grand­fa­ther. I have the whale tooth that he carved while they were be­ing taken back to Bri­tain af­ter be­ing res­cued. By my bed­side, partly read, is a huge tome – Niall Fer­gus­son’s Kissinger 1923-1968: The Ide­al­ist. I love mod­ern pol­i­tics and this is my era.

Witi Ihi­maera is one of my clos­est friends and I loved Māori Boy. He has just fin­ished part two of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy; it is not pub­lished yet but it’s very good. He is amaz­ing; sto­ries just pour out of him. I some­times go to the movies with Witi. We saw The Wife, with Glenn Close. The theme is the un­recog­nised but es­sen­tial wives of suc­cess­ful men. Any woman who has had a high-fly­ing hus­band would recog­nise el­e­ments of it. The most re­lax­ing thing I do each day is walk­ing th­ese dogs. If you’re the slight­est bit stressed, they just make you smile.

Jenny Gore, left, off to a Gov­ern­ment House gar­den party in 1957 with par­ents Bar­bara and Ross and sis­ter Ge­or­giana. Be­low, Aus­tralia-bound in 1969 with hus­band Alan Gibbs and chil­dren Amanda, Emma, Thane and Debbi.

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1 and 2: Jenny Gibbs says she didn’t set out to be a col­lec­tor but a house with­out art looks in­cred­i­bly bar­ren. 3. A whale tooth carved by her great-grand­fa­ther af­ter he was ship­wrecked. 4. The McCa­hon (at right, be­hind her) will prob­a­bly go to the Auck­land Art Gallery. 5. With Amanda, Emma and Debbi at her Gov­ern­ment House in­vesti­ture in 2009. 6. With Pom­pom, one of her three dogs. 4

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