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The art collector, the singer & the silence

By 24 July 2023August 17th, 2023Cover Story, Feature Article, North&South

The art collector, the singer &
the silence

After four years of enforced silence, Dudley Benson talks about what really went on that night at James Wallace’s mansion. In this intensely personal account, he reveals the deep hurt he feels about what he sees as the arts community’s failure to hold a rich man to account.

By Dudley Benson

Despite James Wallace being found guilty of indecent or sexual assault against myself and two other men, I still hear claims that his “minor indiscretions” should be shrugged off. That we can let this stuff slide, since he’s given so much money to artists and arts organisations over the years. I’ve also heard the view, often from the upper echelons of the arts world, that “we knew what we were in for” when we chose to meet with James Wallace. And I suppose that therefore, we deserved what we got.

This twisted attitude suggests to me that these victim-blamers knew who Wallace really was, and what he was up to. They had the knowledge for years that this man was a creep at best, and super- predator at worst, and yet they chose to do nothing other than indulge in a bit of gossip. In one way or another, many have suckled on the poison teat of James Wallace, but since charges were laid against him in 2017, very few have come forward to admit that they regret it.

The Wallace Arts Trust retained him as a trustee for over three more years. In 2021, when after two trials he was found guilty and sentenced to two years and four months in prison, still a stark silence.

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Of course, Wallace enjoyed name suppression throughout, so that makes it difficult for official condemnation to be made. Finally, in early July of this year, the trust issued a statement to the New Zealand Herald. The trust has not published this on its own website. I find it galling there’s no acknowledgement of the victims nor a proposal for an internal review.

Meanwhile, in the months between being found guilty and his sentencing, Wallace was back at exhibition openings and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra performances, accompanied by a small but loyal cadre of supporters, still clinging on. No one bothered to boot him out. When his name suppression finally lapsed in June of this year, no apologies were made by the major arts organisations, dealers or artists who had relationships with him.

I understand why they’re all keeping quiet — in acknowledging the horror of Wallace’s assaults, they’d also be reckoning with their own place in the solar system that allowed it all to take place. They’d have to admit their relationships with Wallace garnished his public image as a man of taste, respect, fine art, wealth and, ultimately, power. But there was a not-so-hidden cost to this deal: irrevocable damage to the lives of young men, many of whom I suspect have not been able to tell their stories.

Dudley Benson performs at St Matthew-in-the-City, Auckland, 2008. Photo: Ed Lust.

PART I: That night

I’m 39 now, a much more grizzled and wiser person than the 24-year-old musician on the cusp of releasing his first album, and a national tour. It was 2008, and I’d been living in Auckland for three years or so, doing everything I could to realise my dream of releasing an album. I’d moved up from Christchurch, where as a boy I was the head soloist of the Cathedral Choir, and had wanted to be a songwriter ever since. Over the evenings of 2007 at Radio New Zealand in Hobson Street, my sound engineer and I recorded the songs that were to culminate in an album, The Awakening. I remember observing the paintings and photographs that lined the hallways of the studios, and the plaque in the lobby that said the works were supplied by either James Wallace, or the Wallace Arts Trust — I don’t remember which. This was the first time I heard of him.

With the imminent release of The Awakening, I was also in rehearsals for the tour, performing the album with a choir, string quartet, harpist and taonga pūoro authority Richard Nunns. My partner at the time, Josh Thomas (who remains my best friend), was producing the tour with me from our tiny upstairs flat on Williamson Ave. We’d raised about $20k to fly and accommodate the 22-person group, but we needed $5k more. It was then that someone suggested James Wallace.