“Grazie mille. Thank you a million times!” These were the words of Renisa Maki, a recent recipient of a Wright Family Guggenheim Scholarship, to donors at the “Celebration of Giving” event at University House on 18 June.
Home to the Alumni Relations and Development office, University House became an art gallery for an evening. It is itself a work of art, an historic building featuring intricate plaster work and stained glass windows. Hung on its walls were examples from the University’s art collection, selected and installed especially for the occasion. The two guest speakers were art historians, who spoke to the University donors about their love of art, how it has been fuelled by the support of others, and why art inspires them.
“My passionate belief is that art can function as a powerful tool through which we can have important conversations about the world we live in,” said Renisa, who is currently studying for her Master of Arts degree in Art History. “Art brings meaning to people’s lives and has the ability to spark debate and conversation on poignant issues – it is thus a wonderful avenue for political and social dialogue.”
Renisa told guests about her experience of working as an intern at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice and how, for the rest of her life, she would remember her scholarship experience as being where her career truly began. She spoke of the magic of working in an environment surrounded by artworks from master artists such as Picasso, Braque, Jackson Pollock and Brancusi. Twice she was selected from the pool of interns to organise and teach an education event for Italian primary students on Picasso and Boccioni. The scholarship also allowed her to travel to Paris to study at the Louvre and London to study at the National Gallery.
Instrumental in giving Renisa this experience was Dr Erin Griffey, who was one of Renisa’s lecturers at Auckland and who set up the relationship to fund students to do the internships in Venice, which are now funded by the Wright family. Erin arrived in Auckland in 2002 after growing up in the United States and then undertaking postgraduate study at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. She was the recipient of a Katherine Woodward Mellon scholarship while she was studying for her PhD. This helped her greatly financially but, even more importantly, validated her potential as a budding academic.
Arriving at Auckland, she was struck by the quality of education offered. Equally, she was struck by the quality of the students but found that they were often self-effacing, unsure of whether they could rival the best students at top-tier universities internationally.
“What I heard from the co-ordinator of the Guggenheim interns is that the Auckland students are amongst the best they have ever had; every year that they are the gold standard in interns, and this alongside students from Harvard and the Sorbonne.”
Erin spoke of difference made by such internships and by other donor-funded awards: “They are wellsprings, sources of personal validation and educational possibility that continue to give throughout a person’s life”.
Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart McCutcheon acknowledged the generosity and collective power of University donors, many of whom take up the call to help support bright, hard-working students who might otherwise not have the financial security to embark on degree study. “The rationale is that by joining with others, even a modest gift really can have a significant impact on the lives of deserving scholars,” he said. He spoke also of the legacies to learning created by bequestors to the University and encouraged guests to speak with Bequests Manager Fraser Alexander for guidance on achieving their philanthropic objectives.
Master of Ceremonies and Director of Alumni Relations and Development Mark Bentley reminded guests that education not only benefits individuals, but all of society.
“And donors such as you, by supporting the Erins and Renisas of our world, show you believe in the importance of education to change the world.”