The arts are what bind us by Madelaine Empson
Dame Patsy Reddy has been appointed a trustee of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO) Foundation, a charitable trust established to raise funds for the future of classical symphonic music in Aotearoa. The former Governor-General of New Zealand, Dame Patsy has had significant involvement in the governance of creative and charitable organisations, including as a trustee of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, the Victoria University Art Collection Trust, the Wellington Jazz Festival Trust, and the Symphony Orchestra Foundation, of which she was a founding trustee in 1996.
NZSO Foundation chair Peter Rowe says it is “an incredible honour that Dame Patsy has agreed to become a trustee of the NZSO Foundation. She will add significant mana, expertise, and experience to the valuable work of the foundation”.
Dame Patsy and I caught up to talk about the appointment and her enduring passion for the arts in New Zealand.
Do you have a particular love of symphonic music?
One of the great enthusiasms of my life has been the arts – in New Zealand in particular. I love going to the symphony. I think it’s very special. It’s lush. But I guess if you were to ask me, what is it I really love? I really love opera, and opera with the NZSO accompanying it is sublime. I think the combination of the NZSO with New Zealand Opera or Wellington Opera is really magnificent. A great symphonic experience is truly wonderful. Just going whenever we can to the Michael Fowler Centre, sitting down with other people that share that passion and listening to that extraordinary sound.
Have you noticed the arts taking a more prominent role in our lives in light of the pandemic?
You go through times, as we have, particularly where there’s been a sense of isolation and a fear for the future, our culture becomes more important than ever, and our culture is expressed by creativity. Art becomes quite a solace for people. Just now having the opportunity to, without too much fear, go into experiences that you can share with other people, that’s terrific. I think that the arts are what bind us. They encompass the way we express ourselves.
What do you think sets the NZSO apart from other national orchestras?
It’s our national orchestra. We don’t get the opportunities to experience – unless we travel – that sort of level of orchestra. We’ve got great regional orchestras, but the NZSO is a true national orchestra. It tours, even now it’s an international drawcard. We have lots of artists from around the world who perform with it, who are employed by it, and we have, of course, the visiting conductors and soloists who come on a regular basis. It's just a wonderful opportunity to hear world-class music played by world-class musicians.
Is it your passion for the arts that led you to governance roles in many of New Zealand’s key creative organisations?
Governance is something that I got into relatively early, and somewhat accidentally, partly because I was a lawyer for the Film Commission. And – this was a long time ago, I’m talking early 80s – they were responsible for supporting the newly begun New Zealand Film Archive, which Jonathan Dennis had almost single-handedly got up and running. It was an independent trust but the Film Commission was providing funding and provided a trustee. I remember the then-chief executive, Jim Booth, remarkable man, saying to me, ‘Look, if you want to be our lawyer, you have to represent our Film Archive Board, because we need someone who knows about the law’. The challenges for the Film Archive in those days was to actually get enough funding to be taken seriously, to get people to provide their precious film. We were trying to get nitrate (old film) into some form that would not expire. And so that introduced me – I would have been just 30 or so – into the world of governance in the arts. It’s hard to find people for governance roles, it always has been, especially in areas where funding is really tight. It’s a thing you do for love, not money, put it that way.
You’ve also done a lot of work for gender equality, including co-founding Global Women of New Zealand in 2009. What is that organisation all about?
It started off with a number of women rather like me, who had achieved some leadership roles in business and in the community, realising that we didn't have the strong social networks that men did. We really needed to be able to support each other, and to do what we could to encourage younger women in leadership roles and advocate for them in those roles. It grew from those small beginnings if you like. Realising, and quite quickly, that supporting one another is important, but being able to stand up and advocate and almost shame organisations into addressing their own lack of gender equality and recognition of women in development roles and leadership roles would become more important. I think Global Women has done a really good job of that over the years. You can see that there have been some changes in New Zealand. We’ve all learned quite a lot about what’s needed, and that we can’t rest on our laurels and think that all the hard work is done. There’s more to do.
Looking back over your time as Governor-General of New Zealand from 2016 to 2021, what experiences feel significant to you?
The whole experience. It’s a unique – truly in the real sense of that word, which is overused – role and a great privilege to have had that role for five years. I’ve got to visit the length and breadth of New Zealand. Not as much international work as I might have expected, given two years of pandemic for my last two years, but nonetheless, some pretty significant occasions representing New Zealand at the WW100 commemorations in Europe and Israel and Gallipoli. But also seeing New Zealand, going around the country seeing people from every walk of life, entertaining people, hosting people at Government House for some of the great celebrations. Representing New Zealand and New Zealanders in joyous occasions, but also very sad ones like the memorial for the mosque massacres, or the memorial for the Whakaari White Island victims. You have profound sorrow and profound joy, and that’s a remarkable opportunity. I really will never forget it.
There are a few things that I wanted to do that I didn’t get to do. I never did get to The Chatham Islands, but I did get to Whenua Hou and meet a kākāpō named Ian, which I was thrilled about.
I love that the kākāpō was called Ian.
I did say that if you can call a kākāpō Ian I’m expecting one of the next chicks to be Patsy. They assured me there would be a Patsy but I haven’t actually seen any evidence of it yet [laughs].
How did it feel to see out the full term as Governor-General and for that chapter of your life to close?
Suddenly it’s six months ago that I left, it’s just gone like that. I don't think you can ever go back to your old life. It’s just a bit different. I’m taking my time working out the things that are really important to me, and that I really enjoy. The NZSO Foundation is a good example of that.