Denis and his wife Verna began collecting art in the 1960s, and in 1975 established the Adam Foundation to manage their growing collection. The Foundation’s activities later extended to supporting the arts in Aotearoa New Zealand, with a particular focus on emerging artists. It has contributed millions of dollars to the community for arts and music venues, as well as supporting competitions and other arts events.
Denis died in 2018 at the age of 94, however his endowments of awards and buildings remain a constant and visible reminder of his generosity.
Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery director Associate Professor Christina Barton describes Denis as a “wonderful benefactor” whose philanthropy came with no strings attached.
“Denis has made an indelible contribution to the culture of Wellington across all arts—music, literature, and visual arts. He has helped organisations and artists over many years and that has made a real difference in this city. He was an open-minded and open-hearted person.”
An artistically talented family
Denis had an interesting background that he rarely spoke of but outlined in his autobiography Profile of a New New Zealander (1996).
He was born in Berlin to an upper-middle-class secular Jewish family with a Prussian military heritage. His father Fritz had been a cavalry officer with the Zieten Hussars and had been awarded the Iron Cross for his service in World War l. The Adams owned a high-end fashion and sporting goods company, and enjoyed a prosperous and comfortable existence when Denis was young.
His parents, two brothers, and a sister, all displayed various talents in the arts. His father played “the piano quite well and the violin badly”, but loved opera, orchestra, and organ recitals, and took Denis on happy trips to galleries and museums. He began to collect postcard reproductions of works he liked that adorned his bedroom until he could afford to buy originals many years later.
His mother, though ‘tone deaf’, painted and had a keen eye for the visual arts. Older brother Klaus, later Sir Ken Adam, was talented in both art and music and went on to became a great film art director earning two Oscars for his set design on several James Bond films. Brother Peter was a gifted amateur photographer, and sister Loni married a pianist and pursued a love of music both as a participant and a patron.
Denis himself claimed he was born without any talent for music or visual arts but with a keen appreciation for both.
Leaving Nazi Germany
This idyllic existence began to change when the Nazis came to power. Denis’ secondary school became ‘nazified’ and teachers with any Jewish ancestry were replaced by Nazi teachers wearing SS or Brown Shirt uniforms. Many boys joined the Hitler Youth and came to school with daggers tucked in their socks. He was excluded from a class field trip for being Jewish and then attacked by a bully in a Hitler Youth uniform. Denis fought back but the incident helped his parents decide to send him with Ken to boarding school in Scotland. Older brother Peter was already studying in England after attending university in France and encouraged the family to leave Germany.
While his mother wanted to emigrate, his father initially considered that the Nazis would be a passing phase. However in 1933 there was a boycott of Jewish businesses, one of his father’s employees was arrested and finally his father was put under house arrest. It became obvious that the rule of law would no longer protect German Jews so Fritz, Lilli, and Loni, as well as some of Denis’s aunts and uncles, finally fled to England in the summer of 1934.
Six of his aunts and uncles still in Germany perished in the concentration camps. The black sheep of the family was his cousin Herbert— a brilliant scholar who became a nationalist and close friend of Baldur von Schirach, the founder of Hitler Youth. Herbert was responsible for much of its organisation and philosophy but after his Jewish background was discovered he ended his life trying to escape from a concentration camp.
A new life in the United Kingdom
The family arrived in England almost penniless apart from some gold coins that his mother had smuggled out—a capital offence punishable by death. This was enough for her to establish a guest house in Hampstead where Denis encountered many visiting musicians. His father was badly affected by their change in circumstances and died at the age of 56 when Denis was only 11.
Denis spent a year boarding at Craigend Park school in Edinburgh where he became top of his class in English—spoken with a Scottish accent. After this he lived in London with his family and attended St Paul’s School. Even during the war years he attended classical concerts, theatre, and opera when possible and visited many London art galleries.
After leaving school, Denis obtained a loan from the Jewish Education Aid Society to attend the University of London. As he was keen on a business career he studied accountancy and commerce for a year, which he disliked but found useful later in his career. He then found a part-time job with a small insurance broker firm who were family friends, another useful experience.
Wartime RAF pilot
On turning 18, Denis joined the Royal Air Force (RAF) as air crew and reported to Lord’s Cricket Ground for training. This was followed by a stint in then Rhodesia where he learnt to fly Tiger Moth biplanes. On his return to England, Denis was keen to see action. He and brother Ken, who was already in the RAF, discovered an old ‘King’s Regulation’ by which an older brother could apply for a younger brother to be posted to his unit. After two years training Denis was able to fly Typhoons—with the help of a cushion due to his diminutive stature.
Together with his brother, he was one of very few German-born pilots to serve in the RAF during World War ll. Had they been captured by the Germans, they could have been executed as traitors rather than being treated as prisoners of war. Their uncle Werner had the rare experience of fighting in the German army for four years during WWl and the British army for five years in WWll.
Amazingly, all three Adam brothers survived the war. Denis had instructor training before being demobilised in 1946. He contemplated a career as a journalist but was discouraged by his commanding officer who told him he would have nothing to show for it at the end of his career. He maintained an interest however and was for many years an active member of the National Press Club in New Zealand.
Arriving in New Zealand
Denis had served with several New Zealanders during the war who had made a favourable impression on him. Three weeks after demobilisation he spent his service gratuity on the cheapest around-the-world fare and arrived in New Zealand in January 1947 with £6 in his pocket. Denis says he felt at home from the day he arrived. He was intrigued by the tin roofs and peculiar structures in backyards which “looked like very sophisticated direction-finding aerials but were later identified as revolving clotheslines”.
He had been offered a job in a rainwear factory owned by relatives in Wellington where he reached the position of assistant manager and discovered a flair for sales. He mixed with ex airforce personnel, journalists, and Wellington’s artistic and bohemian community. One of these was Harry Seresin who came up with the idea of Downstage’s theatre restaurant and founded the Wellington Settlement. A friend, Hardy Fischer, introduced Denis to an ill-fated stint of betting on horse races and held ‘gramophone concerts’ where he met many future greats of New Zealand professional theatre. He also met Czech Fred Turnovsky who established what became the Chamber Music Federation of New Zealand.
Meeting his lifelong partner
One night at the Majestic Cabaret, Denis met Verna Finlayson, a “strikingly beautiful and serious” girl, who turned out to share many of his interests in the arts. He took her to visit his family in London where they were married in January 1953 and honeymooned in Europe. They would be married for more than 64 years.
After working as a private secretary, Verna attended Victoria University of Wellington as a mature student obtaining a Bachelor of Arts in French. She enjoyed the University environment and began work as an administrator in the School of Economics and then Institute of Policy Studies. Following her retirement in 1994, Verna returned to study art history and contributed her knowledge to the selection of works in their art collection.
Pursuing a business idea
Denis had a desire to own his own business and had identified an opportunity in the insurance industry. Up until this time insurance brokers had been kept out of the New Zealand market but in 1957 this practice was changed.
Knowing it would take some time to upskill in insurance and lacking the necessary capital, they purchased a service station in Petone which was losing money. Denis soon discovered that some staff and customers were stealing from the business and that tanker drivers were delivering less than they invoiced. Once he put a stop to these practices, the business became the most profitable Atlantic Union service station in the region. By 1959, Denis made the transition from agent to insurance broker under the name Adam & Adam.
Denis foresaw the growth in motor vehicle insurance and pioneered insurance cover for the transport industry, fire and accident insurance, and professional liability insurance. Eventually he opened offices in Auckland, Christchurch, Rotorua, and Melbourne. At one stage he kept a Morris Mini parked at Auckland airport and would fly up for the day just to do business.
The brokerage proved very successful and came to dominate the sector. Denis enjoyed the finer things in life. Immaculately attired in a three-piece business suit and a tan overcoat he was a familiar sight driving around Wellington in a classic-era Rolls Royce.
Denis’ advice for business success when competing with the large multinationals:
- Provide better service than you have to
- Dare to be innovative in seeking to cater for your client’s needs
- Once you start accumulating assets, puruse a conservative investment policy.
The beginning of the art collection
In the early 1960s, Denis and Verna began buying original paintings, which they regarded as objects of beauty to enhance their home rather than as investments. The first original piece they bought was Bush Scene by John Snadden after they had admired one of his paintings at a Willis Street coffee bar. They felt that every generation should try to support its contemporary artists.
They soon added works by Melvyn Day, Milan Mrkusich, Don Binney, Mervyn Williams, Michael Illingworth, and Colin McCahon. As the collection developed their theme became “New Zealand Art—1900 to the present day,” a period that saw enormous developments in the local art scene which they tried to reflect in the collection. Denis referred to adding to the collection as a “labour of love”.
In 1995 a sculptors’ symposium was held at Frank Kitts Park on the Wellington waterfront, in which sculptors were given large lumps of Oamaru sandstone to work with. Denis found this fascinating and visited six or seven times. He was particularly impressed by Grant Bunyan’s sculpture Draped, which he and Verna donated to the University. It now stands on the Hunter Lawn.
The Adam Foundation and Adam Art Gallery
By 1975, their art collection had grown so large that Denis and Verna established the Adam Foundation, a charitable trust to own the collection and keep it together. Gradually the Foundation’s activities extended to supporting the arts in general and thus began a long association supporting New Zealand artists, sculptors, musicians, and writers.
In 1983 they began renovating the house next door to theirs on The Terrace to house the growing collection, but it was burnt to the ground by the ‘Kelburn arsonist’. This person was believed to have a grudge against the University and torched some 21 unoccupied houses that he believed the University owned. Police used the Adam home as a base to observe the suspect who was eventually caught. The day after the fire, Denis instructed his architects to start again and created a house with a lot of gallery space.
One of their largest donations was given to Victoria University of Wellington in 1998 to establish the Adam Art Gallery. The contemporary purpose-built gallery is a remarkable architectural statement, designed by award-winning architect, the late Sir Ian Athfield. It is a vital feature of life on campus and has been a major force in the cultural life of Wellington and beyond.
The Adam Concert Room
In 1987, Ross Harris, composer and senior lecturer at New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī, told Denis that there was a need for their rehearsal room to be extended into a concert room. Denis appreciated the University’s links between “town and gown” and provided most of the funding for the Adam Concert Room, which he saw as an asset for the city of Wellington.
To celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in a memorable way, Denis commissioned a piece by composer David Farquahar, then Professor of Music at the University. Serenade for Strings was dedicated to Verna and premiered at a concert in the Adam Concert Room, where the newly formed Victoria University of Wellington Foundation launched its campaign to raise funds for a variety of projects.
Extending their philanthropy to many creative endeavours
As Denis and Verna’s financial resources grew, they wanted to encourage New Zealand artists by sponsoring competitions in the visual arts, literature, and music. They generally supported Wellington-based events, but in 1995 they were happy to fund the Adam International Cello Competition in Christchurch, knowing the challenges of running these events in such a geographically distant country.
Due to their strong wish to support the development of creative writing in New Zealand, Denis and Verna have funded the annual Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing since 1996. It is awarded to the student producing the best folio in the Master of Arts in Creative Writing at Te Pūtahi Tuhi Auaha o Te Ao—Institue of Modern Letters. Previous Adam Foundation Prize recipients include authors Eleanor Catton, Catherine Chidgey, Ashleigh Young, and Hera Lindsay Bird.
Other notable contributions were to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, National Youth Orchestra, the Adam Auditorium at City Gallery Wellington, the Adam Violin Award, and the Adam Portraiture Award and Exhibition. In 1994, they funded a playwright’s award in conjunction with Circa Theatre who offered to produce the winning play. Learner’s Stand by David Geary was about a shearing gang and began with two sheep crossing the stage.
Transforming the cultural landscape
Denis was awarded an OBE in 1993 and made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2000 both for services to the arts and community. The University conferred him with a Distinguished Service Award in 1999 and an honorary Doctor of Literature in 2001. Denis and Verna received the Arts Foundation’s inaugural award for Patronage to the Arts in 2006, set up to recognise arts patrons in New Zealand.
Their generosity has transformed the cultural landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand. Dame Kerry Prendergast, former Wellington mayor and chair of fundraising for the national music centre, says, “The Adams have given thousands of people the opportunity to access world-renowned arts and music. The Adam Foundation’s gift to the national music centre will be a wonderful legacy to continue Denis’s vision and inspire others to lead through philanthropy.”