Peter Bills: Dame with real streak of altruism

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Dame Jenny Gibbs' mind is a rapacious repository of information. Photo  / Greg Bowker
Dame Jenny Gibbs' mind is a rapacious repository of information. Photo / Greg Bowker

They call her many things, and I mean that in the best sense.

The University of Auckland, in a tribute to her on the occasion of her honorary doctorate in literature, likened her to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and the arts.

Dame Jenny Gibbs laughed at that one. "The public orator at Auckland University is a professor of classics," she smiled.

Most call her "a contemporary art collector and philanthropist". But spend some time with this remarkable woman and you come away thinking that is an insult. I mean, why stop there?

She establishes funds for international artist-in-residence programmes; she has championed the rights of academic women, is a supporter of all the arts from contemporary music to creative writing. She has been a trustee of the Auckland Medical School Foundation, is an Auckland City Distinguished Citizen and a director of the Sea+City project to transform Auckland's waterfront.

Where do you stop listing her myriad interests and achievements?

A conversation at her spectacular home on Paritai Drive is a riot of exuberance and debate. The manner in which she intellectually stimulates others is pure delight.

She is concerned - passionately so - about (in no particular order) her children and grandchildren and their future, New Zealand and its place in the world, the nose-diving global economic mess, the joys of Provence in the south of France (where she has a shared home) and the wonders of a simple life.

Believe me, there are no fake airs and graces about Dame Jenny. She is as down-to-earth as the next person, but a whole lot more interesting than most.

So how do you set out to become "an art collector and philanthropist"? "You don't," she says. "I was just in a very fortunate position to be able to give time and money. I'm sure the former is the more important of the two; I have given huge amounts of my life to various persons and organisations.

"I hope there will always be people to do this and give in this way. But I worry because how many people, for instance, who work in banks and receive these bonuses give money back to society in this way? It seems a generational thing, but I cannot believe it will die out."

She is not a lady who seeks publicity for her contributions. Another subject for this series, New Zealand's VC winner Willie Apiata, was similarly reticent about standing up to receive acclaim.

Was this a trait of the nationality, I asked her? "We have a tall poppy syndrome here which makes people very reluctant to put their heads up above the parapet.

"People say, 'They're up themselves, who do they think they are?' - that sort of thing. We're very good at knocking down people who put their heads up."

But why? Dame Jenny says that in a country founded by artisans, there was a strong egalitarian streak from day one. There is, she insists, still a very deep socialist influence. The Liberal Left?

"New Zealand would rather be a big Fiji, I suspect. We don't have aspirations to get out in the world, do well and be rich as a general society. They would rather all be equal and poor together.

"The country is going forward; I don't suggest otherwise. But there is a kind of politics of envy. We still do definitely have a tendency to knock down people who have become too prominent in the public eye."

She has certain other reservations about modern-day New Zealand and the path it appears to be taking. "We are totally run by OSH, our health and safety enforcement agency - the nanny state at its worst.

"We have become over-regulated and over-bureaucratised. The fact that children are not allowed to do anything slightly dangerous any more like climb trees is absurd."

Born in Lower Hutt, Dame Jenny is from a seventh-generation New Zealand family. Her father and grandfather before her were artists, and she still imbibes what I would call traditional New Zealand home activities: cooking with good local produce, making jams, bottling fruit. Given the economic difficulties confronting this nation, espousing such basic values seems wise.

But it is the arts that captivate her and enrich her life. The walls of her home are covered with paintings. How many does she have in total?

"Oh, perhaps 400 to 500. But I change them quite often.

"I like to rehang them in different positions every couple of months, swap them around. Otherwise they become like wallpaper - you don't notice them after a while."

Her mind is a rapacious repository of information. She seeks it wherever she goes. She is intrigued by China.

"I first went there when the Gang of Four were still in power. I've been going reasonably regularly ever since. I keep thinking it's the nearest thing I will ever see to the world my grandchildren will grow up in.

"It is completely phenomenal. Shanghai today is like Chicago and New York must have been in the 1920s; it's absolutely fascinating. The dynamism and energy is incredible."

Dame Jenny promotes the causes of women, was president of Family Planning for a long time in the 1970s and fought the battle for abortion rights. Today, she has another cause to promote - euthanasia.

"It's simply dreadful the amount of money being spent to keep the old generation going to these extraordinary ages. But in the end, I believe the economic realities will decree that countries won't be able to afford all these people aged 100.

"In old age, you should be allowed to keep a bottle of pills and make your own decision when you want. My father-in-law had Parkinson's and he became paranoid, frail. That's how we remember him, yet he was a robust, successful man."

"Personally, I care about human dignity."

Among a great many other things.

- NZ Herald

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