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Heart of arts

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy is a tireless supporter of and advocate for New Zealand art. She talks to Sarah Lang about the paintings on the walls of Government House, and which she’d save in a fire.

During her five-year term, which ends in September, Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy and her husband Sir David Gascoigne have championed the arts in New Zealand however and whenever they can, an opportunity she describes as “a great luxury” of the role. “David and I have had the opportunity to showcase arts talent, and to support the performing arts, visual artists, and writers. I can’t say I have a favourite between the performing arts and visual arts,” says Dame Patsy, who was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the arts and business.

Sir David, who was knighted for services to the arts and business, has always been heavily involved with the arts, for instance serving as chair of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, the New Zealand Film Commission, the New Zealand Film Production Fund Trust, and the New Zealand Opera.

“The more I’ve learned about the visual arts,” Dame Patsy says, “the broader my tastes have become. David and I have a modest collection of art of our own. I particularly love art unique to our country, and contemporary Māori art is very exciting.” She also likes works with strong historical links.

“As Governor-General you have set roles: the constitutional role, the ceremonial role, the international role, then the community role which is to do with community engagement. A lot of that is to do with patronages.” A patronage is personal support or encouragement for an institution or cause. “Some of them are ‘Royal patronages’, handed down in a tradition that comes from the British Royal Family. But others are a choice. I choose ones that interest me or that do interesting work supporting others.”

Dame Patsy is a patron of a staggering 141 groups and organisations, 22 of them arts-related, among them the Auckland Arts Festival, the Arts Foundation of New Zealand, the Cantonese Opera Society of New Zealand, and the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. She also attends many arts events. “Recently I opened the Auckland Art Fair, met some artists and bought a work there.”

During her term, Government House has hosted many arts-related functions, including among others the Arts Foundation Arts Icon Awards, fashion shows, receptions for arts-festival supporters, exhibitions, and a celebration of the centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth. Performances have included an album-preview concert, a Poet Laureate event, student performances of Shakespeare, and concerts by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Secondary Students’ Choir.

In 2016, the Office of the Governor-General formed a partnership with Massey University to foster the development of Māori and Pasifika visual arts and creative practices. Each year, they choose an annual Mātairangi Mahi Toi Māori Artist in Residence. The latest, musician Troy Kingi, spent three months in 2020 in a cottage at Government House to write and record a new album.

Dame Patsy believes New Zealand should have a place on the international art stage. In 2017, she was New Zealand’s first Governor-General to attend the opening of the Venice Biennale. It featured Lisa Reihana’s Emissaries: a panoramic cinematic video work that reimagines the French scenic wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique, depicting early French explorers.

Dame Patsy and Lisa arrived in style. Wearing ceremonial Māori cloaks, they boarded Venice’s largest gondola (which Dame Patsy calls “the Italian form of a waka”) and were rowed by 18 oarsmen to a historic maritime building in the biennale's central exhibition area. “That was a wonderful occasion, and probably one of the highlights of my term.”

Another highlight has been curating the art in Government House. “We had a big changeout of the art about a year into my term,” Patsy says. “I think Government House should have art that reflects, if not every major artist, then every major art movement.” It’s almost an art gallery for visitors. In May, Dame Patsy hosted a Te Papa Foundation event that doubled as a tour of various rooms, focussing on the art and heritage furniture.

Certain artworks reside there permanently (some having been donated), some are from the couple’s own private collection, and some have been borrowed. Museums, other institutions and friends loaned Dame Patsy major works including a Shane Cotton, a Gretchen Albrecht, a Don Binney, and a Colin McCahon.

ArtZone asked the couple to name some of the works that are special to them. It’s very difficult, they complained. But here they are, in no particular order.

In Maota Ariki, the anteroom to the ballroom, is a print by Ralph Hotere, Anzac III, loaned to the couple by friends. “For what’s considered a minor work of his, it’s got so much depth,” Dame Patsy says. “It looks almost like a cloak: a Kōrowai or a Kākahu. Then, as you get closer, you realise it’s made up of thousands of crosses.” Sir David adds, “Ralph had relatives and friends who died in the war and this is a kind of tribute to them.”

In the Blundell Room is Rita Angus’s 1944 painting Dona Nobis Pacem (Give Us Peace), loaned by the Fletcher Collection. “It’s her largest oil painting,” Dame Patsy says. “Rita was a pacifist and wouldn’t work in any way that would support the war. She refused to work in the Skellerup rubber factory in Christchurch making sandshoes for the troops. She was prosecuted and fined.”

A cantata composed in 1936 by noted pacifist Ralph Vaughan Williams was the impetus behind her painting of the same name. It depicts Williams in the foreground. The girl in the painting is probably Rita herself on the beach, and the house is probably hers. “It’s showing that music and art can help create a future of peace and joy,” Dame Patsy says. “It also looks a bit like an apple marketing-board poster!”

Another favourite is Government House Gardens, hanging in the Blundell Room, by Karl Maughan, who paints full-bloom flowers and foliage in vibrant colours. “David and I were having dinner with Karl and his wife Emily Perkins,” Dame Patsy recalls. “He said ‘I’ve always wanted to paint your garden’, so he did. This painting looks like summer. That’s a pohutukawa in the background, but it’s mainly hydrangeas. We’ll gift it to the house when we leave. Because I think it probably belongs here.”

Which artwork would she save in a fire? “I think it would be Dick Frizzell’s Brisighella Railway Station. It’s come with me to every office I’ve had. It’s got a wonderful vanishing point in the distance when you look down that railway track. A few years ago, David and I were in Italy and decided to try to find this location. And we did, in Brisighella, a small town in Northern Italy. About 20 years on, it really hadn’t changed much apart from the trees.”

What’s the artwork Sir David would save in a fire? He reckons it would be Elizabeth Thomson’s North by Northwest, in the Liverpool Room. Elizabeth herself loaned it to them. “They’re hand-painted bronze pohutukawa leaves,” Sir David says. “It reminds me of Tuscany with olive trees, disappearing into the distance over rolling hills. You get a sense of depth because the ‘leaves’ get smaller and smaller. Of all the works here, this probably gets the most comments because people have never seen artworks like it.”

And once their term ends? “David and I will continue to be strong supporters of the arts in our personal capacity, as we did previously.” They’ll be leaving the house, but not the arts community.

Photography by Anna Briggs

This story is available in te reo Māori. Read it here.


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