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Icon Award for pioneer artist

Portrait of Jim Allen taken by his daughter and multi-media artist, Ruth Allen
Visual artist Jim Allen (MNZM), widely considered a pioneer in his field, has been recognised by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand as an Icon.


Visual artist Jim Allen (MNZM), widely considered a pioneer in his field, has been recognised by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand as an Icon.

Visual artist Jim Allen (MNZM), widely considered a pioneer in his field, has been recognised by the Arts Foundation of New Zealand as an Icon.

In a special ceremony held at the Auckland Art Gallery on 15 September, Jim Allen has been presented with the Arts Foundation’s most prestigious award. The Arts Foundation Icon Awards – Whakamana Hiranga, honour senior New Zealand artists for their extraordinary achievements.

Arts Foundation Executive Director, Simon Bowden says, “Icons are artists whose work represents a legacy to, and a mark on, our culture. Jim Allen is a hugely influential artist and we are thrilled to be able to call him an Arts Foundation Icon.”

Limited to a living circle of artists, each Icon Award recipient receives a medallion crafted by stone artist, John Edgar. The recipient’s name is engraved in the medallion, and is later returned to the Arts Foundation for presentation to a future recipient. The artist also receives a pin, which is kept by the artists’ family in perpetuity.

The medallion, now held by Jim Allen, has a rich history. It was previously awarded to the late Barbara Anderson, who received it from actor and film maker, Don Selwyn. In a moving tribute to her Grand-Mother, Lucy Anderson, a 23 year old Auckland-based English Teacher, presented the accolade to Jim Allen.

Tina Barton, Director of the Adam Art Gallery, School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington delivered the citation. She said that Jim Allen has been described as “a pioneer of Post-Object Art in New Zealand in the 1970’s. He is widely regarded as the most influential art educator of his generation both in New Zealand and Australia. His transformation of the sculpture department at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Art into a ‘hothouse for ambitious experimental art’ occupies an almost ‘legendary’ place in the history of contemporary art in New Zealand.”

Sir Eion and Jan, Lady Edgar are Patrons of the Icon Awards, appointed by the Arts Foundation after Sir Eion's retirement as a Trustee in 2010 and following their remarkable $500,000 donation to the Foundation.

Sir Eion has long been a champion of the Icon Awards and says "too often our most celebrated artists have gone without recognition. The Icon Awards offer New Zealanders the opportunity to congratulate our most accomplished artists on their achievements and to celebrate their work with them."

Words from the artistic community:

Phil Dadson, Arts Foundation Laureate and contributor to the book Skin of the Years about the life and work of Jim Allen, says,

“Jim Allen is an art practitioner, motivator and educator who has established pathways to new ways of thinking and doing in the visual arts in both NZ and Australia. Besides being an artist with a personal output both prolific and varied, Jim provided a context and circumstance for others to flourish in. His philosophy has always promoted creative freedom, intellectual enquiry, cooperation and humanism as fundamentals for a healthy, productive society.

As the interviews that make up Skin of the Years reveal, Jim's art practice is grounded in a vast body of life experience. Of the several words I think of, that encapsulate Jim's character and personality, the one that keeps flashing in my mind is fearless. Jim embraces and loves a challenge. Whether on the front line of conflict during WW2; solo sailing the Tasman ocean; re-negotiating the boundaries of art making such as facilitating a series of experimental & provocative exhibitions at Auckland Art Gallery in the early 70's, or mounting the first Public International Sculpture Symposium for Auckland City – and the list goes on – Jim consistently projects an air of fearless confidence and enthusiasm, carried out with the minimum of words and an inscrutable certainty that all who know him grow to depend on.

If Jim is with you and along­side you, his door is an open and generous one. You opened doors for me Jim that I'm grateful for still. Your mentoring example, friendship and generosity have been of immense support through the years, and I know for a fact there are many like me who would say exactly the same. Jim, we salute you.”

Dr Leonhard Emmerling, Director Programmes South Asia at Goethe-Institut and a close friend of Jim Allen’s, says,

“To be accepted by Jim Allen, to be admitted to his home, to be invited on his boat to partake in the races between Rangitoto and Browns Island – it was a great honour. Especially for someone coming from Germany to work as a curator in Auckland and being foreign and unfamiliar with the “unsung heroes” of New Zealand art history. This is how painter Simon Ingram called Jim Allen, when we did the exhibition 'O-AR' at AUT’s St Paul St Gallery in 2007. Jim had been on the advisory board for AUT for a long time, but his artistic merits and what he had done as a teacher at Elam and as the founding director of the Sydney College of the Arts was widely forgotten.

I always felt that it was a huge privilege that Catherine Garet and I as curators of St Paul St were entrusted by Jim to do his first major solo exhibition in New Zealand for decades and to be able to contribute to bring his works back into the public eye. Jim had been a huge innovator in the field of post-object art in New Zealand and Australia; he had staged performances that still look contemporary these days. He is an outstanding artist and a person of integrity - someone you would always look up to. He is uncompromising and incorruptible, generous and forgiving, truthful and sincere – but gifted with an amazing sense of humor. For me, he represents what New Zealand was for me: fearlessness, love for adventure, courage, innovation, humor, generosity. The ability to find new ways of doing things. Humility and the strength not to give up some fundamental ideas of what humans should be able to be.

Even now, that our paths have parted as I had to move on to other professional assignments, my relationship to Jim remains unique and undisturbed: I still have him in my mind as a great artist, as a friend, as a mentor, as a hero, whose song I now can sing.”

The Arts Foundation has been privileged to have honoured these artists as Icons; 

Ian Athfield (1940 – 2015) ARCHITECT
Barbara Anderson (1926 – 2013) WRITER
Ralph Hotere (1931 – 2013) VISUAL ARTIST
Margaret Mahy (1936 – 2012) WRITER
Donald Munro (1913-2012) OPERA PIONEER
Arnold Manaaki Wilson (1928-2012) SCULPTOR
Dr Pakariki Harrison (1928-2008) CARVER
Alexander Grant (1925 – 2011) BALLET
Len Castle (1924-2011) POTTER
Don Peebles (1922-2010) PAINTER
Diggeress Te Kanawa (1920-2009) WEAVER 
Hone Tuwhare (1922-2008) POET
Don Selwyn (1935-2007) ACTOR/DIRECTOR
Janet Frame (1924-2004) WRITER
Jack Body (1944-2015) COMPOSER

Jacqueline Fahey VISUAL ARTIST
Marti Friedlander PHOTOGRAPHER
Maurice Gee WRITER
Peter Godfrey MUSICIAN
Patricia Grace WRITER
Sir Peter Jackson FILMMAKER
Sir Donald McIntyre OPERA SINGER
Milan Mrkusich VISUAL ARTIST
Geoff Murphy FILM MAKER
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa OPERA SINGER
Greer Twiss SCULPTOR
Sir Miles Warren ARCHITECT
Dr Cliff Whiting VISUAL ARTIST

Media Release: The Arts Foundation

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

15 Sep 2015

The Big Idea Editor