Q & A: Jennifer Flay on New Zealand and reinvigorating the French International Art Fair. — 25.06.18

Read our interview with the articulate and insightful Jennifer Flay. "I have always been very aware that New Zealand is both a secret weapon and my secret garden."

Jennifer Flay was recognised in the 2018 Kea World Class NZ Awards for her achievements in the art world. Amongst the recipients, Arts Foundation Laureate Cliff Curtis also received an award for his contribution to Maori storytelling.  We caught up with her for a fascinating insight into her career leading the French International Art Fair, which has gone from strength to strength under her leadership. She offers us insight into what it means to be a New Zealander, shares which New Zealand artists excite her, and takes the opportunity to say how saddened she is to hear about the  Auckland University arts library restructuring.

New Zealand is proud of your achievements, how does this award make you feel about your relationship with home?

I have always been proud to be a New Zealander. New Zealand has made me the person I am today. Although I have lived in France for 38 years - over half my life - and in many ways France has defined who I have become professionally - being from New Zealand is at the origin of who I am as a person. Living in France, I have always been very aware that New Zealand is both a secret weapon and my secret garden. It has always given me moral strength and poetic force.

The fact that I am being recognized by my homeland, New Zealand, is therefore extremely important and moving to me.

You are renowned for reinvigorating the FIAC, what is the secret to your success?

Initially I think it comes down to a very strong work ethic which I got from my family upbringing and my Kiwi background. I am also someone who is extremely passionate, something of a perfectionist and very determined. I never give up.

I was fortunate enough to be able to study art history from the age of 14 at Auckland Girls’ Grammar. I continued at the University of Auckland then moved to France to pursue my studies with a French Government Scholarship. Quite soon after my arrival I begun a internship as a gallery assistant, then I became a gallery Director in two successive galleries, both working internationally with artists of worldwide repute. Eventually I opened my own gallery which occupied a prominent place on the French and international scene throughout the nineties and into the new millennium. This spanned some 23 years, so over half my professional life has been spent working in the gallery world in one to one relationships with artists, collectors, museums, curators and critics. When I moved on to direct FIAC, I brought with me  what had developed into a an intuitive understanding of the needs, desires and aspirations of galleries and artists. This is of course essential in order to make the right decisions for the fair.

Being bi-lingual has also been an advantage. I began studying French at primary school, then continued at intermediate and at Auckland Girls’ Grammar. I did a degree in French at Auckland University while I was studying Art History. I wasn’t particularly gifted for French at school, but I didn’t want to let it go. I eventually became fluent, then totally bilingual. Now my written and spoken French is considered by many in France to be better than the majority of French people themselves ... But being a native English speaker with an academic background in Art History was an incredible advantage in the French art world. My ability to interact spontaneously and knowledgeably with artists of international significance - Carl Andre, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Robert Longo, Richard Serra, Lawrence Weiner to name but a few -  in their mother tongue was a much sought after skill. This has also helped me in the reconstruction of FIAC.

"New Zealand fascinates the rest of the world.We are so far away yet the achievements of New Zealanders stand out, and even dominate in many fields."

We often hear that Kiwis out in the world are highly valued. Is there any values or ways of doing business that you feel come from home and have helped you navigate the international art world?

Our country is very inspirational. It is magical in terms of its nature and bio-diversity, but it has also been exemplary in terms of social legislation. As a result, I think one aspect of the New Zealand character is a very strong sense of ethics and a willingness to pursue high ideals. Kiwi values such as respect for others, humility, clarity, rigor, transparency, straight-talking and uncompromising honesty have helped me conduct business on the international stage. These values are considered very Anglo-Saxon in Latin countries such as France. They are highly respected and have certainly helped me get where I am today.

Does New Zealand art have a reputation internationally or are we just too small to get noticed? If we do, how would you describe what the world thinks of our arts?

There are two things that are working in New Zealand’s favour. Firstly globalization: the arts are no longer considered solely from a Euro-centric and/or North-American-centric perspective. There is a real desire to see what is going on elsewhere. Secondly the internet: it had radically transformed the possibilities of access to information from all over the world in all sectors, and indeed has opened up new channels for creative expression. It is a total game changer for geographically isolated  countries such as New Zealand.

New Zealand fascinates the rest of the world. We are so far away yet the achievements of New Zealanders stand out, and even dominate in many fields: rugby, mountain climbing, extreme sports, sailing... New Zealand exerts a strong, almost magnetic, attraction.

In the past it has been considered difficult to build an internationally significant career based in New Zealand but I think this is changing somewhat. The cultural contributions of New Zealanders in other fields of art such as Jane Campion and Peter Jackson encourages the exploration of other aspects of New Zealand creativity. I am very optimistic about New Zealand’s situation. There are young artists out there who are getting significant attention on the world stage: Lisa Reihana who represented New Zealand at the last Venice Biennale and whose work was one of the most widely commented pieces in the show; Luke Willis Thompson who has been nominated for the prestigious Turner Prize and who opened a solo show at the Kunsthalle in Basel, Switzerland, which was on view during the week which guarantees the most high calibre audience in the art world calendar: the duration of Art Basel in Switzerland.

Recently, New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, told us that one of her ambitions for the arts sector is "to have an environment where we no longer question the value of the arts." Is the value of the arts questioned in France? What advice would you give to Jacinda about realising this ambition?

Clearly France has a far different background to New Zealand. It is a much older nation. A good part of its history - and for some people today, too much of its current day identity - is centred on culture and different fields of the arts. Some claim that Paris runs the risk of becoming a « museum city » but regardless of these occasional remarks, the place of culture in France is celebrated rather that criticized.

I have no advice for Jacinda. I had the good fortune of hearing her speak before a mesmerized auditorium of international students at the prestigious Sciences Politiques university in Paris. She is extremely articulate. I think she knows exactly what needs to be done. Clearly the teaching of humanities subjects, art history and music in secondary schools in hugely important. Basic knowledge in these fields is essential, even for those who choose a career in science or technology. I would also suggest compulsory courses in philosophy - the analysis of thought throughout the ages - in all secondary schools. I believe it is crucial for young people to be exposed to existential debates. It stimulates and encourages them to look at the world in different ways and to be wary of simplistic or  solutions to complex problems. Philosophy is taught in schools in France. 

The study of the humanities and the arts should be recognized in the same way as the STEM disciplines (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) rather than being consistently side-lined. This is something of an uphill road but something really needs to change. This change will itself increase the developmental potential of our society. Even in the STEM disciplines the real innovators are creative people who think outside the box and who would benefit from a broader perspective on the arts.

I would like to take this opportunity to say how saddened I am hear from students and professors at Auckland University and via the press that, the Vice-Chancellor of Auckland University intends to go ahead with restructuring the library infrastructure on campus. As a result, the three creative arts libraries - the Fine Arts Library, Architecture Library and Music Library - will close, with collections amalgamated and stored offsite. Surely this cannot be the right approach to having an environment where we no longer question the value of the arts... 

The Arts Foundation is all about supporting artists. We give cash awards to high achievers across career stages. In your travels, what effective ways have you spotted for providing career changing support to artists?

The key is creating useful and productive contacts and dialogue with artists, institutions and professionals in other countries. This will help New Zealand artists to durably integrate the international scene. Travel grants and financial support for traveling exhibitions are very important and cost effective if the venues are chosen well. Educational scholarships for post graduate studies in places which encourage international exchange and provoke encounters with world class artists such as the Rijksacademie are always productive. Residencies in stimulating contexts with potential for exchanges with artists, critics, curators and gallerists are also vital. I was listening to an interview with Luke Willis Thompson in which it was clear how fundamentally important his residency at the Serpentine had been for him in developing his practice. And of course, in the context of a real estate market which has become prohibitive in many parts of New Zealand, it is also important to provide subsidized studio space and production grants locally, while pursuing opportunities to establish international dialogue. These are the areas where I would be putting the finance if I was in a decision making position in New Zealand.

Which New Zealand artist/s are you excited about at the moment and why? Who should we be on the lookout for?

As I said, I am very excited about Luke Willis Thompson. I think he will go a long way. He is very articulate speaking about his work and has a mature visual language. The work deals with issues of great pertinence. And of course his nomination for the Turner Prize has given him considerable and well-deserved exposure. I saw Peter Robinson’s show at Hopkinson Mossman last time I was in New Zealand, and I thought that was also extraordinary work.

I would love to see a publication that groups together all the significant New Zealand artists from the modern and contemporary periods. I am not sure if such a publication exists, but I am convinced that broad diffusion of such a publication would prompt the realization that New Zealand art has a place within the global discourse.

Read about FIAC here.

Read about the KEA awards here.