With a significant birthday looming, Dame Jenny Gibbs is giving away some of her paintings, sculptures, books and – one day – her 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-and-coming 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.
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-great-grandmother, 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.
This article was first published in the September 29, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.