His dodgy behaviour towards young men who sought his favour had been an open secret in the arts scene for years, but Sir James Wallace never gave up his fight to keep his name secret. Those who came into his orbit describe a man who took what he felt he deserved, writes Julie Hill.
Content warning: This piece discusses sexual assault.
Sir James Wallace, the 85-year-old rich-lister, art collector and patron, finally lost his right to name suppression last week, six years after facing his first charge of indecent assault. It’s been more than two years since the “prominent businessman”, as he has been known in media reports, was convicted of and jailed for assaulting three men at his Auckland home, and perverting the course of justice by trying to pay one of them off.
The trial involved giant egos and deep pockets, and seemed to drag on forever. After the guilty verdicts started rolling in, Wallace and the entertainer Mika X, one of his accomplices, went rogue, scoring own goals by sending bizarre messages to those who they presumed were still their supporters. At its centre was a man who acted as if he was royalty (please read on for the fake knighting ceremony), entitled to take what he felt he deserved.
James Wallace grew up rich, in a family that made its fortune on animal hides and by-products. In 2020 NBR estimated his net worth as $170 million. He started collecting art in the 1960s, when he was a young lawyer, with an eye for up-and-comers like Colin McCahon and Pat Hanly. His collection of thousands of works has since been transferred to a trust at the elegant Pah Homestead.
The annual Wallace Art Awards, which ran from 1992 to 2019, were our most lucrative, worth over $200,000 in prizes including overseas residencies. He’s the founding underwriter of the Auckland Chamber Orchestra; founding patron of the Auckland Theatre Company, NZ Opera, NZ Ballet; a patron of the Auckland Philharmonia. Helen Clark appointed him to a three-year term on the board of the NZ Film Commission. But Wallace’s dodgy deeds around young men have been an open secret for years and even decades.
A decade ago, Dale* got a job as a custodian at Rannoch, Wallace’s four-storey Arts and Crafts residence, surrounded by an acre of forest in the Auckland suburb of Epsom. He didn’t know much about Wallace, but was broke and in need of somewhere to stay. Wallace offered him 12 hours’ work around the house in return for food and board, which he thought was a pretty great deal.
But his role was blurrier than it first appeared. At least one of the four custodians had to be at home at all times, and Wallace required them to drive him around, so Dale says he spent many unpaid hours minding the house or waiting for him to call. “So you end up living in a jail with golden bars. Your time isn’t your own.”
That blurriness, he says, extended to the staff at Pah Homestead, which houses what was until recently known as the TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre. “Some people would have really specific roles – curation, conservation and that kind of stuff. But then you have the general managerial staff who seem to be doing a whole bunch of fix-it type jobs. And that role confusion was a real problem because you didn’t know whether or not James was your friend or if you were his slave, and it would change on a dime.”
Initially, at least, Dale thought the arrangement could be “a great thing” and it was, until Wallace tried to seduce him a fortnight after he moved in. “We went up into his video room. We watched Midsomer Murders and he held my hand and he hit me up. And I said no.”
Wallace, by the way, has never publicly said he prefers men and, in a 2011 Michele Hewitson profile for NZ Herald, implied he was straight: “I risked a poke: Does he have a partner?,” Hewitson wrote. “‘No, no!’ What did he mean, ‘no, no!’ ‘Well, I could never have afforded all of this if I had a wife dangling about.’”
Dale, however, reckons Wallace is “practically allergic” to women’s voices. And, dangling wife or no, casual visitors to Rannoch even today can’t help but notice that, while it’s stuffed to the brim with an exceptional collection of work by many of our greatest contemporary artists, it also contains a heck of a lot of dick art.
I can vouch for this, having visited once as the friend of a nominee for the Wallace Art Awards. The highest concentration of penises, Dale told me, and confirmed by way of a video, was in a screening room near Wallace’s bedroom. “I mean, each to their own, but it’s a rather lurid environment to corner people in.”
Dale said after the credits rolled on Midsomer Murders, up went the screen, revealing a life-sized image of a man with an erection. Dale tried to turn down Wallace’s advances, telling him he was straight and only liked to sleep with people he was in love with. He told Wallace he’d let him know if he changed his mind “because I wanted to get him off my back”. Later, he considered the way custodians at Rannoch and the staff at Pah spoke about “managing James” and wondered if he was “doing that with everyone who comes into the house”.
One of the three complainants in the case against Wallace, known as H, also moved into Rannoch with the promise of free rent in return for cleaning, gardening and maintenance work. Then aged 24, H testified that soon after he moved in in 2016, Wallace pulled down H’s pants and commented on his penis. Later in the year, Wallace entered H’s room uninvited when he was unwell, then got into his bed and fondled him. While Wallace was still in the room, H discreetly called his manager at Rannoch for help, who took H to hospital, where he spoke to police. This resulted in the first charge being filed against Wallace in February 2017. The following year, Wallace and his accomplices twice attempted to bribe H to drop his complaint, a move that resulted in convictions and home detention sentences for Mika X and Wallace’s house manager Mustafa Yikar. The PR consultants who helped them, Jevan Goulter and Allison Edmonds, were immunity witnesses in the trial.
Art writer Francis McWhannell was invited to do some administrative work for Wallace when he was a university student. One night, after a few drinks, Wallace proposed they go travelling overseas together. Then he came up from behind McWhannell and wrapped his arms around his waist with “surprising force”. Years later, when McWhannell could finally face returning to Rannoch, Wallace described him over dinner as “someone who used to be young and beautiful”. (I spoke to McWhannell for this story back in 2018. A day later, I received a letter from a lawyer, mysteriously asking me to stop writing about someone who they didn’t name.)
I had another brush with Wallace when he came to see a play I wrote that was on at Basement Theatre. We’d replaced the seats with bean bags and it was the thick of summer so we provided ice creams at the start. It’s an indelible memory: Wallace, then in his 70s, perched on a bean bag, ice cream in hand and the usual handsome male companion in tow.
Apparently Wallace enjoyed the show because afterwards he invited our director John* to a dinner party, which I’ve no doubt we all would have hoped was a faint glimmer of possible financial support. But John told us that during dinner, instead of discussing his love for experimental theatre, Wallace “outed” John as straight to the other guests. It was hardly criminal, just very awkward, and of course there was zero mention of funding John’s future projects.
Complainant S, then aged 33, had also turned up for dinner, hoping for some funding for a charitable foundation in 2001. S alleged Wallace swerved the conversation away from charity to how pleased he was that the foundation had sent “an attractive man”. During the evening, S alleged, Wallace grabbed him from behind and asked him to go to his bedroom for a “cuddle”. S declined but later, when he was outside preparing to leave, Wallace put his hand down his pants.
When the third complainant, known by the court as B and now identified with his approval as musician Dudley Benson, arrived for dinner in 2008, then aged 24, he was given a gin and tonic. Afterwards, Wallace took him on a tour of the house that included his bedroom. Benson was by now feeling dizzy and nauseous. Wallace approached from behind, squeezing his bottom and kissing the back of his neck. Benson managed to leave the house and caught a taxi home, where he vomited on arrival.
According to the Court of Appeal judgment, which earlier this year dismissed Wallace’s appeals of his convictions and two-years-and-four-months jail sentence, “The similarities between the three complainants were, on the Crown’s analysis, very clear. All three complainants were young gay men who had come to Sir James for assistance because of his reputation as a philanthropist and supporter of the arts. Although the support which H obtained from Sir James was different in kind from that sought by S and B, H nevertheless hoped to be a recipient of Sir James’ benevolence. All three complainants alleged that they were the victims of unwanted sexual advances by Sir James at night and in his home. B and H had the additional distinction of being physically unwell when Sir James took advantage of them.”
Soon after the video room incident, Dale had trouble opening Rannoch’s electric gate. Wallace berated him, calling him “a useless human being”. “He could be very mean. He would shame people in front of guests. Then other times he’d be perfectly civil and nice, a gentle, kooky old man.”
Kookiest of all were Wallace’s faux knighting ceremonies. Dale sent me a video of this too. Wallace (an actual Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit since 2011, though the process to strip him of his knighthood has been initiated since his name suppression was lifted) and his custodians, dressed in their finest livery, anoint one another with a sword, as Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries swoops in the background.
On the issue of Wallace’s behaviour towards young men, Dale has heard of one Auckland theatre director “who basically threw him up against the wall and said, ‘fucking stop doing this’”. But he says no one else ever spoke up. “My feeling is that a vast swathe of New Zealand’s art sector, who’ve got money from the Wallace Arts Trust, have known about James’s dodgy behaviour for years and have turned a blind eye. The New Zealand arts are completely impoverished, so someone in James’s position is able to exploit that power.”
John agrees. Artists’ lives are as precarious now, he says, as the ballerinas being pimped out to wealthy dudes in 19th century Paris. “The manipulation of young and precarious people in order to exchange favour with the rich and powerful in the arts industry is a systemic problem,” he says. “It isn’t confronted because it is fundamental to how the arts operate under our current form of capitalism, prizing exploitation and knowingly turning a blind eye to what is exchanged.”
“My dark feeling about the whole thing,” adds Dale, “is that James has been trying to get his sexual and emotional needs met by providing agency to artists so that he can get proximity to them. To young men. For me, that sort of turns his art collection into a serial killer’s trophy cabinet.”
Despite the epic wait for his name suppression to be lifted, Wallace actually breached it himself in 2021, by sending out an email to a who’s who of artists, arts organisations, local politicians and media folks, begging them to help clear his name, adding it was likely he’d perish in jail.
“I need support from people who know me and believe in me, and can attest to my good character and contribution to society over many years.
“I have been portrayed in the trial as someone I’m not and would like those who actually know me to speak to my attributes and positive characteristics.”
He ended on an ominous note, writing that if recipients felt the “perjured evidence of the accused and witnesses is more believable than mine, then let me know or do nothing and it will be clear”.
There was no response from Dick Frizzell, Kiri Te Kanawa, David Farrier or the 170-odd others he’d messaged. This was actually the second mass email he’d sent out – he’d had nothing back from one he penned a month earlier, and thought there must have been some mistake.
That same year, Wallace’s accomplice, Mika X, sent a similar missive to his fans, instructing them either not to talk about the case or to insist that, in fact, he had saved the day. It was leaked to Express magazine.
“If you feel you need to respond, may I suggest this silence, however if the need does arise for a comment then perhaps something along the lines of …
‘Mika pleading ‘guilty’, contributed to bringing down two (2) men who will most certainly serve a lengthy period in NZ prisons for their crimes.’
Importantly I shall not be defined by this and indeed intend to continue my support for the marginalised, voiceless and vulnerable.”
From Wallace and his accomplices, accountability has been in short supply. And for his victims and anyone following the trial, his unmasking has been an excruciatingly long time coming. But the reckoning is just beginning. “I feel the verdict marks the end of his ability to abuse,” says Dale, “and the beginning of understanding the scope of his abuse throughout the arts in Aotearoa.”
*not their real names
Update: This article was updated to show that Wallace was a patron of the Auckland Philharmonia, not a board member as previously reported.
Where to get help
Safe to Talk is a 24/7 sexual harm helpline: free call 0800 044 334 or text 4334
Help Auckland is a 24/7 helpline for survivors of sexual assault: free call 0800 623 1700 or text 8236
ACC’s Find Support is a free online search tool for organisations with therapists who can help those who have experienced sexual assault or abuse.
Tautoko Tāne | Male Survivors Aotearoa: find support nationwide