When it comes to foreigners making an impact in the Whakatipu Basin, few have achieved more than Julian Knights in just four years here. PHILIP CHANDLER talks to the arts patron about why he moved here after long stints in South Africa, England and Australia, and he reveals his favourite art form

An arts patron and former financier has made it his business to put Queenstown on the arts map since moving to the Whakatipu Basin four years ago this month.

Julian Knights — who settled with his wife, Lizanne, into their home at Arrowtown’s Millbrook on the first day of the first Covid lockdown — had already been made an Officer of the Order of Australia for services to the arts and philanthropy.

Since arriving here, the 67-year-old’s set up arts initiative First Thursdays, in which Queenstown CBD galleries open extended hours every
quarter, brought into town the Sydney Art Quartet and UK photographer Mandy Barker’s exhibition featuring plastic waste, and financed visits by contemporary dance companies Black Grace and Footnote — the latter performed last night.

He’s become a donor to, and trustee of, the Three Lakes Cultural Trust.

And he’s also become a board member of Black Grace, the Auckland Writers Festival, New Zealand Opera and Arrowtown Creative Arts Society.

Born in London, Knights left for South Africa, aged five, when his dad got a job there.

Following school and university, he worked as a lawyer, then in investment banking with English bank Hill Samuel, which transferred him to London when he was 28.

He says he was ‘‘incredibly lucky’’ the firm had a box in the Royal Opera House.

‘‘The three senior directors always picked the opera, no body picked the ballet.

‘‘I didn’t know very much about ballet at all, but I thought it would be lovely to go and see it.

‘‘It happened to be the first night Darcey Bussell — probably the greatest dancer in the UK, if not Europe, since Margot Fonteyn — danced as a principal for the Royal Ballet, and we sort of fell in love with ballet and with watching dance.’’

In 1998, Knights, Lizanne and their two children moved to Australia, where he founded and ran, successively, two private equity firms.

There he discovered contemporary dance, which he says became his favourite art form.

As to why, ‘‘I guess it’s the interplay between the emotional content of the dance combined with the beauty of the movement’’.

He ended up chairing Sydney Dance Group for six years and was on six or seven other arts boards, including Sydney Art Quartet.

In 2013, he was appointed chair of an umbrella group responsible for all 28 major performing arts companies in Australia.

Knights and Lizanne also set up a foundation that supports the arts, social justice and climate change.

Having had his social conscience pricked growing up in South Africa, he was a co-founder and chair of the Aussie branch of Human Rights

Meantime, the couple bought a holiday home at Millbrook about 13 years ago which they’d visit about twice a year.

‘‘Each time we probably wished we’d stayed longer,’’ Knights says.

‘‘There used to be a sign at the front gate to Millbrook — ‘come for a day, stay for a lifetime’ — and I never imagined that’s what we’d end
up doing.

‘‘We [enjoyed Sydney] but I can honestly say we were both looking for a true sense of community.’’

The area’s outdoors lifestyle also appealed.

‘‘We decided it would only work if we really gave it a full go, so we sold our house and packed up our furniture and literally flew in to live
permanently here [in another Millbrook home they’d bought] the day lockdown started.’’

Knights says they both felt they should get on the front foot and look for ways to contribute, rather than wait to be invited.

Through his vehicle, Mountain Art Projects, his mission is to help put Queenstown on the arts map.

‘‘I am trying to find things where I’ve got contacts or I can maybe help a bit financially to bring different arts and art experiences to this region.

‘‘We often say to friends in Australia, we go to more arts events here than we did in Sydney, which is amazing.’’

Knights says he was also delighted to serve on the local recovery and regeneration taskforce convened by ex-mayor Jim Boult during Covid.

As for the future, ‘‘you never know, but so far we’re really, really pleased we came’’.

And, after a 40-year hiatus, he’s even taken up golf again.

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