Wellington Scoop

Death of Denis Adam, arts philanthropist

News from WCC
Wellington Mayor Justin Lester has acknowledged the death of philanthropist Denis Adam, CNZM, OBE, a major contributor to the Wellington and New Zealand arts scene. Mr Adam, 94, died in hospital on Wednesday.

“Denis and his wife Verna were exceedingly generous donors to the arts,” the Mayor says.

“The sector we know today would be quite different without their contributions. Many well-known institutions and awards bear their name, and more recently they donated to the planned Te Kōkī – the national centre of musical excellence, which will be based in Te Ngākau Civic Square.

“The New Zealand arts scene owes Denis a huge debt of gratitude, and he will be remembered as a pillar of the arts scene.”

According to his autobiography, Denis Adam was born in Berlin and educated in Scotland and England. He fought as a fighter-bomber pilot in the RAF during World War II under a New Zealand commanding officer, and after the war emigrated here.

He worked in a factory and service station before starting a career in insurance broking which brought him sufficient wealth to become a leading philanthropist.

Denis and Verna started to collect art in the 1960s. In 1975 they established the Adam Foundation to consolidate the ownership of this growing collection. The foundation’s activities then extended to support arts in general, and have tended to focus on emerging artists.

Their support includes the Adam Art Gallery and the Adam Concert Room at Victoria University of Wellington, the Adam Foundation Prize for Creative Writing, the Adam Portraiture Award and Exhibition, the Adam Chamber Music Festival, the NZSO National Youth Orchestra, the Adam Auditorium at City Gallery Wellington, and the Adam International Cello Competition.

In 2006, the couple were awarded the inaugural Award for Patronage to the Arts.

Report from RNZ
Colleen Marshall, Chair of the Adam Chamber Music Festival, knew Denis for about 25 years. She says his contribution to art is considerable. “He offered to sponsor the festival with the proviso that we called it the Adam festival,” she says. “Denis laid foundations for what it would be. We owe everything to him.”

Denis was actively involved with the shape of the festival, with the team working closely with him. “He always supported us in a positive way and was open to suggestions,” Marshall says. “He was a darling. I was very fond of him. He has a great love of chamber music.”

Since the late 1990s the Adam Foundation contributed significantly to the NZSO National Youth Orchestra. This included sponsoring a number of concerts in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch this year. The NYO will celebrate its 60th birthday in 2019 and those concerts in Auckland and Wellington in July will also be sponsored by the Foundation.

Adam outlined his background in his autobiography Profile of a New New Zealander. He was of German Jewish ancestry, a refugee at 10 and was just 15 when World War II broke out. He was arrested and interned just after his 16th birthday. He was behind bars for four weeks. “…being behind barbed wire at 16 – it was a rebellious age. I was anti everything and everybody,” he said in an interview in 2009 on RNZ National’s Sunday Morning programme.

He went on to be an RAF pilot in 1942, trained in Zimbabwe and was sent to the Red Sea, Port Augusta and Britain. The headquarters for the RAF at the time was Lord’s Cricket Ground, he said. During this time he met a number of New Zealanders, including a captain who was from Christchurch. He left the RAF in 1946 and came to New Zealand, where he had cousins. He got a job in a factory and then moved into insurance where he was able to build wealth that allowed him to support the arts.


  1. Kristin Gibson, 18. October 2018, 12:14

    I grieve the passing of the wonderfully generous Denis Adam and send his wife, Verna, my heartfelt condolences.
    What a fantastic couple, who have given so much to creative causes.

  2. Grant Robertson, 18. October 2018, 15:41

    Such a generous man who has contributed hugely to our city and country. He will be greatly missed.

  3. Bill Manhire, 18. October 2018, 15:41

    Very sad to hear that Denis Adam has died. A real philanthropist, who got such genuine pleasure from everything he made possible.

  4. Brian Blackford, 18. October 2018, 20:48

    Denis was a real business leader, an expert in his chosen field of corporate insurance, and always pleasant and easy to do business with. I’m sure he will have inspired many younger men in his industry by his attitude and energy.

  5. Pauline Swann, 18. October 2018, 23:22

    Denis has been so missed at concerts. To Verna sincere sympathy and hope we will see you at many concerts to come.