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Denis Adam: a powerful force for the arts

Last week we heard the sad news that Denis Adam, prolific philanthropist and inaugural recipient of the Arts Foundation of New Zealand Award for Patronage, had died. Our heartfelt best wishes to Verna Adam and all who loved him.

Obituary by Simon Bowden

Denis Adam (pictured second from left) at the 2006 Award for Patronage at Government House, Auckland with his wife Verna (centre) and Award for Patronage Donation recipients from left to right behind them; Oscar Kightley, Tom Scott, Dave Armstrong and Tanya Ashken (wife of the late John Drawbridge). Photo by Scott Venning

A few years back the Arts Foundation also said farewell to prolific arts patrons Constance Kircaldie and David Carson-Parker. David was a Governor of the Arts Foundation and well known for hosting parties with his partner Jeremy Commons at their house in Mt Victoria, Wellington. One regular party was their annual Christmas dinner, which Denis, Verna and Constance attended alongside other guests.

While I did not have the good fortune of attending one of these Christmas dinners, I would look forward to asking David how it was every year. I imagined the wonderful raucous laughter, the quick wit and the bright loving eyes of those in attendance. These special people who gave so much to the arts, letting loose, having fun and enjoying Christmas like we all do.

Denis had a wonderful energy. Often, he and Verna were the first to arrive at openings and other important arts functions. They were a great presence at any function, with an energy emitting from their conversations that was infectious. When generosity comes with commitment and determination, then it is a powerful force. I think this may be why Denis and Verna’s philanthropy is so important – they care deeply and loved the outcome. They did it with style and were serious about it. As a result, thousands have benefited from their generosity, and they have made space for the arts and artists to flourish.

Denis was awarded the OBE in 1993 and was made Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2000. In 2001, Victoria University made him an Honorary Doctor of Literature.

In 2006, Denis and Verna were the first to accept our Award for Patronage. I remember meeting with Denis to offer the award. I had heard that he appreciated punctuality. I waited quietly outside his door at three minutes to ten and knocked when the second hand hit the hour. He said enter, commented on my promptness, and with that test passed, we got down to business.

The Award for Patronage was set up to recognise arts patrons in New Zealand, and came with $20,000 from the Arts Foundation for Denis and Verna to distribute to artists or arts projects of their selection. We hinted that they could contribute their own funds to the money for distribution. It was Denis that came up with the idea of doubling the money and splitting it into four donations of $10,000. This has been the practice of Award for Patronage recipients ever since.

You can read about some of the many projects supported by Denis and Verna on our website. I also highly recommend Denis’ autobiography, Profile of a New New Zealander: The Autobiography of Denis Adam, which I read with interest. We will remember Denis for his incredible commitment and passion for the arts in New Zealand.

Ngā mihi
Simon Bowden
The Arts Foundation