Art adviser with a penchant for Ravi Shankar is not afraid to make mission to save St David’s his latest obsession.
What tribe are you?" I asked Paul Baragwanath.
This was a strange question and I have no idea where it came from except that he is an art adviser most of the time, but he is currently spending most of his time attempting to save an old Presbyterian church: St David's in Grafton.
So he's a bit tricky to box, an aspect of himself he enjoys, I suspect. He doesn't believe in boxes, which are too constraining. He likes unusual things and old things - carpets and furniture and cars and buildings. Trying to save an old Presbyterian church is a bit unusual because he is a bright youngish thing about town (he turned 38 this week), working in the art world which is sleek and fashionable and fairly cut-throat, I'd have thought. In this, as in many other things, I was quite wrong, in his opinion. He holds very definite opinions, about many things, and what I deemed hippy hipster opinions about others, in my opinion (but not, obviously, in his). He is a Christian, who believes that of course Jesus existed: "We're really all the sons of God, or daughters." One of his Facebook likes is the Indian guru, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.
"Well, I am a Gemini," he offered, which he appeared to believe explains a lot, and it might. He meant that he is sociable and loves to talk but there are also two of Geminis, being twins, and he is also an actual twin; his twin sister is a professor of ancient history at the University of Carolina.
He said, about the tribes, that he didn't think we had tribes any more. And, "I don't believe in tribes. I think we're all one family. What tribe are you?"
I said The Old Age Pensioner tribe and he said: "Ha, ha. Whatever." He is a very serious bright young thing who says "whatever", and who asked what star sign I was and whether I did yoga.
Well, he is a Gemini. He had come seriously prepared for his interview, with pages of printed out notes. He complained a bit at the end that we hadn't got to anything in his notes. I'd made sure of that. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that these notes had bullet points. I had told him, when I phoned to organise seeing him, that the interview would be about him and he said: "I am the project." He later said that he didn't mean it "like that", meaning, I suppose, that he knew it would sound a bit as though he was single-handedly trying to save St David's when of course lots of other people are too, so fair enough.
Those people include the artist and Buddhist monk Max Gimblett, who has created a series of beautiful brass quatrefoils (his signature shape, and also the shape of the ancient Christian cross) which have been attached to the exterior of St David's - and turned it into both public art installation, and its own fundraiser. They echo the Anzac poppy; St David's is a memorial to fallen soldiers and the installation was timed to coincide with this year's Anzac day. They are for sale for $100 which, I said, in a spirit perhaps not entirely in keeping with the spirit of the thing, was a bloody cheap Gimblett. The art adviser didn't take offence. He said: "If you bought 20 it would be a bloody cheap Gimblett!"
He says that the Gimblett quatrefoils could have been priced at "a huge amount more" and the reason they haven't been is because "I wanted regular people to be able to buy them. So there is a democratic aspect to this project. Some are buying them as art work; some buy them as objects of remembrance. How often is that done?"
Is he a regular person? His website features a Neil Dawson sculpture floating in a whopping great swimming pool in the grounds of what is obviously a whopping great house. I was trying to work out what it is he does when he is not saving an old Presbyterian church. I had a stab: He goes to rich people's houses and tells them what art to buy and how to hang it. "No. I go to their house and talk to them ... understand who they are, what their background is ... and what their dreams are."
He might have better taste than most people. "I wouldn't say it's better. It's just different. We've all got different ways of being and looking at the world." But he must have a better eye than most people, I said, because otherwise why would people pay him money to advise them on taste, or dreams? He said: "I would say I've dedicated my life to calibrating my eye." This sounds like some sort of experimental operation and it is, sort of. How does one calibrate one's eye? "By looking at a huge amount of art." He insists he is not an art snob. I thought that he ought to be an art snob, actually. If his clients wanted to buy work by an artist whose work he didn't like, would he arrange a sale? "I have to respect everything that I sell." In other words, no, he wouldn't.
So I think he can be an art snob but I also think that he should be one. It's his job. But he is also resolutely non-snobby. I think that this is partly because he really believes what he says about art - which is that it changes lives. In addition to working for rich people, he does a huge amount of work with public institutions, such as low decile schools and hospitals. He is public-spirited and earnestly (is there any other way?) determined to make a difference. He must have been a rather strange and earnest little boy. He says he had a sense of his own mortality from a very early age and that what this meant was: "You've only got a certain number of days on the planet so you may as well make them count."
Still, trying to save a church - he says there is no trying about it; it will be saved and he sees it becoming a place people can visit to "pray, or meditate, or read a book" - really is an unusual thing for a bright youngish thing about town to be doing. I asked if any of his friends and peers were doing similarly unusual things and he said: "I think most people around are more just forging ahead. I mean, not many people would take this amount of time out from their professional [lives]. To do a project like this is quite unusual. Maybe that's why I'm mad! Maybe that's evidence for you!"
I hadn't, actually, asked whether he was mad. I had asked whether he was an obsessive person, generally, and not just because of the church project and spending 18 hours a day on it. There may be further evidence. He gets up at 5am and does his Sri Sri Ravi Shankar Art of Living breathing exercises for up to an hour. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar! I once had a bonkers audience with him, in a hotel room lined with sheets and a cast of fawning dozens. He sent me an email later in which, among many other points, he said he "understood" my views about Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. But that he would recommend the breathing techniques "to anyone seeking good health and sense of well being". He did spend two years searching for the perfect Turkoman rug for his workspace. "It's one of the biggest in New Zealand!" It is a beautiful old carpet, but two years?
Anyway, he said that he didn't think he was particularly obsessive but he obviously went off and thought about this, perhaps obsessively, and emailed to say: "As to whether I am obsessive, I think it's probably obvious that I am. I just don't see it that way. I am very passionate about what I believe is important, and will not stop until it is achieved." His email contained almost as many words as there are on this page - which may or may not provide some proof as to his obsessiveness.
I don't know why he would regard my question about his obsessiveness as a criticism in any case. It might be a very good thing and in his case it plainly is. It just might mean that he's a bit tiring to be around. So, probably just as well he doesn't have a partner, I said. "Ha, ha! There's no time. Honestly. I have had partners." What happened to them? "Ha, ha. Put it this way. I don't have one currently in my life. I'm happy on my own." He does have a dog, a rescue mongrel called Fernando because: "He had a hard childhood so he needed a romantic name."
He lives in Orakei. This had to be dragged out of him: "I don't want to go into my private realm." Asking where he lives is hardly delving into whatever a private realm is. I may have got a little grumpy at this point. He said: "I want to share!" Bloody Geminis, one of them is always changing their mind. I asked what his house was like and if it was like the house with the Neil Dawson pool sculpture and he said it certainly wasn't and that he certainly wasn't about to tell me whose house it was. His house is "just a regular house" and he has flatmates and "it's not on Paritai Drive, if that's the next question".
It wasn't my next question but presumably it is the sort of question he is often asked and why he is prickly about his private realm. It is assumed, because of his family name, that he is a rich kid, with a trust account. I did ask about that and he doesn't. He had to borrow $180,000 (from family and friends and donees) for the St David's project. His father is the judge, Sir David Baragwanath; his mother, Barbara, is a Winstone, from the Winstone Aggregates family. But, as he was at pains to point out, the company was sold years ago and if there are still wealthy Winstones, he is not one of them. "The 'mummy paid for it' question is 'no'." I hadn't asked that particular question either, so he is obviously fairly fed up with the assumption. He says his parents (they are divorced; his father's second wife, Susan, a former New Zealand First candidate) were "anti-snobs. We were always brought up with people with no money or lots of money and it just didn't matter and that is how my life is". And, he also pointed out, his paternal grandfather was a Presbyterian minister, and they never have a spare bean.
His inheritance, then, in a way, ended up being a crumbling old Presbyterian church in Grafton. His grandfather, Owen Baragwanath, a much-loved and respected clergyman, was the minister at St David's for 25 years until he retired in 1978. His grandson was christened there. But he says it is not about personal history, or sentiment, it is about Auckland's heritage buildings being lost and that if it wasn't St David's church: "I might be doing it with another one. I'm doing it with this building because I thought: 'Well, if I don't do something about it, who will?'"