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John Gow: The salvation of Rotoroa Island

A tiny island has become philanthropist John Gow’s new public arts project

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John Gow’s new model of giving matches benefactors with rewarding projects for the public good

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Tucked away from prying eyes on the far side of Waiheke, tiny Rotoroa Island has, for the last hundred years, been literally off-limits.

The Salvation Army bought it in 1908 and ran it as an alcohol and drug rehabilitation facility— possibly the country’s most bucolic facility—until 2005, and during that time the island was closed to anyone but Sallie officers and their clients.

However, someone was watching from afar. John Gow, an ex-merchant banker turned musical theatre impresario, lived across the water in Waiheke’s Connells Bay. With wife Jo, in the 1990s he set up the Connells Bay Sculpture Park, for which they privately commissioned large-scale New Zealand sculptural pieces and opened it to the public. They are acutely tuned in to the value of art and the landscape.

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In 2006, the Salvation Army decided to relocate its treatment centre. “I was aware the Sallies were moving off,” says Gow. “Knowing the high value of the land around here, my concern was that it would be sold off to a rich American.” He pauses. “Not that I have anything against rich Americans, of course.”

And here’s where it gets interesting. The Gows had close friends called Neal and Annette Plowman, with whom they often discussed the idea of giving a “gift of access” to the country. In 2006, Gow put it to them directly: it was close to Auckland, and they admired the work of the Salvation Army—would they consider buying Rotoroa Island?

They would. However, the Salvation Army didn’t want to sell it. “It had so much social and emotional history for them,” says Gow. “And it really is the jewel in the crown of their assets.”

The solution the four came up with was to lease the island for the next 99 years through the newly created Rotoroa Island Trust, which has been generously funded by the Plowmans. So generously, in fact, that the lease has been prepaid. “We were happy to lease it for 99 years. They were happy to keep the keys,” says Gow. “It was a win-win for everybody. The first 100 years was about the Salvation Army, the second 100 years is about the salvation of a legacy— which is gifting access of this magnificent island to New Zealand, 365 days a year.”

The Trust has contracted a new ferry service run by 360 Discovery from downtown Auckland. Gow has project-managed the development of the island into an arts, conservation and heritage destination, restoring many original structures from the mid- 1880s, and commissioning an exhibition building from architect Rick Pearson, who is also responsible for McCahon House in Titirangi and the Mt Cook visitors centre. The team has planted half a million trees, and once the vegetation matures, wildlife—kiwis, for starters—will be introduced there.

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The in-situ art, which Gow has begun commissioning, will be themed around telling the story of the Salvation Army and its involvement with Rotoroa. “I’ve always viewed the Sallies as the people who will pick you up out of the gutter after everyone else walks past,” says Gow. “They don’t judge, they’re not a church. They just run their food banks and occasionally give the Government a hammering about things that aren’t being done. I’ve got a lot of respect for the Sallies after doing this project; they rally, they actually are an army.”

They also gave the Trust free rein on development. If the scheme is successful, it will create an ongoing income stream for the charity—payment in part for the trust it has placed in Gow and his friends.

Which begs the question—what’s in it for them? Gow tells me a story about visiting London last year for the 25th anniversary of the Les Miserables stage show, one of the many productions he financed in the 1980s. It culminated with 600 people onstage, including the original 1983 cast, the 2010 cast, the touring cast and a large group of young students. He identifies those students as the ones who’ll be keeping the production alive over the coming years. Likewise, the idea that neither of us will live to see the island’s lease renewed seems, to Gow, a wonderful thing.

“Those musicals gave Jo and I the ability to do other things. The field of arts philanthropy in New Zealand is strong, but it’s often the same group of people. I want to use Rotoroa as a way of leveraging others to get on board, and do philanthropic work through projects,” he says.

“There is significant self-made wealth in New Zealand—but people hang onto it, keep it for their kids or a rainy day. I want them to have confidence about philanthropic giving, sowing seeds and enjoying it now, rather than leaving lawyers to squabble over their estate once they’re dead. And let your kids do their own thing!”

Another important factor is the previous Labour government’s change to tax deductions on donations, which ensures tax benefits for big-ticket philanthropists. Gow would like to see a more American model of private patronage adopted here.

“There’s no tall poppy syndrome in America,” he says. “They are also very good at celebrating success. It’s part of my mission to help people find decent projects to invest in, to put people and projects together in a positive way. Basically, I want to have more New Zealanders celebrate.”

–Sam Eichblatt