Story: Arts festivals

Page 1. Beginnings of festivals in New Zealand

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What is a festival?

A festival is a collection of arts and cultural events, which can include dance, music, theatre, lectures and exhibitions of every kind. In the 2010s festivals attract performers, artists and visitors from all over the world. Staging a festival brings a creative buzz and atmosphere to a city for visitors and locals alike.

Challenges for festival organisers

New Zealand’s distance from Europe and other cultural centres caused difficulties for festival organisers. The expense and logistics in bringing performers, sets, artworks and films to New Zealand was often shared with other nearby festivals, especially Adelaide’s arts and film festivals. Many festivals began on a volunteer basis with no external funding or support. In the 2010s many receive funding or related support from local councils or Creative New Zealand.

Economic value of festivals

Festivals bring economic benefits to the towns and cities that host them. They attract visitors and tourists who spend money on accommodation, food and other activities. They also make cities lively and interesting places to live and visit. It has been estimated that Wellington’s New Zealand International Festival of the Arts generated almost $23.1 million in new spending in 2010, while Gisborne’s Rhythm and Vines is thought to bring a $12 million economic benefit to the region.

First festivals

The first festivals in New Zealand were either musical or part of the great exhibitions of the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The first musical festival was held in Wellington in 1888. Two hundred people attended the opening night at the Garrison Hall. Performers travelled from Auckland and Christchurch and there was a chorus of 150 and an orchestra of 50. The week-long programme of vocal and instrumental performances included works by Wagner, Handel and Beethoven. Newspapers of the time described the festival as a public, musical and financial success. The Wellington musical festival was repeated in 1894 and 1903.

In 1890 in Dunedin, the New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition incorporated a two-week-long festival which included internationally known baritone Charles Santley, classical concerts and a band competition.

Biggest festival ever

The biggest festival ever held in the southern hemisphere was in Wellington in 1911. The two-week-long First Annual Competitions Society Festival was for both children and adults, and competitors travelled from all over the country to participate. Critic Charles Baeyertz was the primary judge of the competition. The largest prize was awarded for solo piano performance. The winner, Baxter Buckley, received a Bechstein piano, valued at 80 guineas (almost $13,000 in 2013 terms).

The International Exhibition held in Christchurch in 1906 featured an exhibition orchestra and a Lancashire brass band called Besses o’ th’ Barn. An exhibition of British and Australasian art was also well attended.

Competitive festivals included vocal and instrumental music, elocution and essay competitions as well as debating and dramatic performances. The first competition society was established in Dunedin in 1901. Other cities and towns followed suit and there were soon regular competitive festivals all over the country. A large competition was held in Auckland in 1911, with a prize pool of £500. In 1912 the Dunedin Competitions Society Festival had over 1,300 registered competitors. The 1914 West Coast Competitions Society Festival was a wartime fundraiser.

How to cite this page:

Marguerite Hill, 'Arts festivals - Beginnings of festivals in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Marguerite Hill, published 22 Oct 2014, updated 1 Aug 2016