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Arts festivals

by Marguerite Hill

Since the 19th century a wide variety of festivals have showcased dance, music, theatre and more throughout New Zealand. Attracting thousands of performers and spectators, the festivals enliven the hosting cities and bring economic benefits, with tourists spending money on food, accommodation and other activities.

Beginnings of festivals in New Zealand

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.

Celebrations and centenaries, 1930s to 1950s

Drama festivals

Amateur drama festivals were popular throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The British Drama League was set up in New Zealand in 1931 and quickly established competitive festivals of one-act plays, often by New Zealand playwrights. The first competition was held in 1932 in Auckland, and by 1936 British Drama League festivals were occurring throughout New Zealand. By 1937, the Federation of Women’s Institutes also ran its own annual drama festival.

New Zealand Authors’ Week

New Zealand Authors’ Week was held in April 1936. Based on an Australian model and established by members of PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists), the committee aimed to educate the public about New Zealand writers and writing. The president of the national committee was Sir Harold Beauchamp, father of the writer Katherine Mansfield. The programme included lectures and exhibitions about New Zealand writers and books as well as performances of New Zealand music and plays. The festival received funding from the government and the patronage of the governor-general.

Celebrations and centenaries

The 1940 centennial was an opportunity to celebrate New Zealand’s artistic progress, so drama and music festivals were included in the celebrations.

The National Festival of Community Drama included a competitive festival of one-act plays. Competitors included members of the Women’s Institute, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and teacher training colleges.

A series of regional Centennial Music Festival events were held in June 1940. The Wellington events included an orchestral concert, a thanksgiving song service, a performance of Faust and choral and symphonic concerts. In Christchurch, the festival included performances of Faust, Carmen and Elijah, as well as a Highland band concert and the national centennial symphony orchestra.

Provincial centenaries were celebrated by the provincial centres in the 1940s and 1950s. Otago (1948) and Canterbury (1950–51) celebrated with music and drama festivals as well as exhibitions.

Foreign films

Auckland’s Festival of the Arts included an eclectic film programme. Filmed operas such as I Pagliacci and foreign-language films like Le salaire de la peur were shown. In 1959 the festival screened the first part of the epic six-hour Russian film And quiet flows the don. Other more familiar films were The great dictator, The third man, All about Eve and 12 angry men.

Regional arts festivals develop

The 1950s saw the development of regional arts festivals, which presented professional music, drama and arts in the one package.

The success of four Auckland Musical Festivals (from 1949 to 1952) led to the first Auckland Festival of the Arts in 1953. Held in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the festival began with a service of dedication and thanksgiving at St. Matthew’s church. It also featured a youth concert, a series of lectures and exhibitions at the Auckland Art Gallery, brass and Highland bands and a festival play (George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan).

By 1954, the event was described as ‘a festival of a standard which would be regarded as high in any town in Great Britain’.1 The festival continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s, eventually becoming irregular and finally petering out in 1982.

Wellington got on board with its own festival in 1959. This festival encompassed more than just the arts, with cricket games as well as outdoor ballet performances. The festival was also held in 1961 and intermittently during the 1970s. Dunedin (1950) and Christchurch had their own arts festivals. Palmerston North held its first arts festival in 1959.

    • Auckland Festival of the Arts souvenir programme. Auckland: Auckland Festival Society, 1954, p. 2. Back

Music festivals from the 1960s

National Jazz Festival

The National Jazz Festival held in Tauranga each Easter began in 1963 and by the 2000s was drawing crowds of 60,000 jazz fans. Wellington and Nelson have their own jazz festivals. The Manawatu International Jazz and Blues Festival has been running since 1967.

Summer nights of jazz

Inspired by the movie Jazz on a summer’s day, which documents the Newport Jazz Festival, musician Dave Hall got together nine bands for ‘Jazz on a summer’s night’ in Tauranga in 1963. Around 1,000 people attended this first event of the National Jazz Festival. It has been held every year for over 50 years, making it the third-longest-running jazz festival in the world.

The first rock music festivals

Influenced by Woodstock, a counter-culture music festival held in up-state New York in 1969, the 1970s saw New Zealand’s first rock music festivals. Redwood 70 was dubbed the first ‘national music convention’ while the Great Ngāruawāhia Music Festival of 1973 headlined Black Sabbath.1 Neither broke even but they laid the groundwork for other festivals such as Nambassa, which was held in 1978, 1979 and 1981. A three-day festival of ‘music, craft and alternatives’, Nambassa was organised by Peter Terry on hippie principles.2 Over 60,000 people attended the event in 1979, held on a farm near Waihī.

Revellers in Waihī

Organising Nambassa in 1979 was no mean feat. When an additional 25,000 people made their way to the festival site on Phil and Pat Hulse’s farm in rural Waihī, organiser Peter Terry had to arrange for more paddocks for parking and camping, and water had to be trucked in.

Sweetwaters and beyond

The first of the big 1980s rock music festivals was Sweetwaters. Held in Ngāruawāhia and featuring Elvis Costello, Sweetwaters’ tagline was ‘festival of music, culture and technology’.3 Forty-five thousand people attended Sweetwaters in the first year (1980) and it was held each year until 1984. Other smaller festivals like Brown Trout and the Rainbow Festival continued throughout the 1980s, but none reproduced the attendance numbers and counter-culture atmosphere of Nambassa and Sweetwaters.

During the 1990s and 2000s Australian music festivals like the Big Day Out and Raggamuffin became established events in New Zealand. The Big Day Out was first held in New Zealand in 1994 and continued at Mount Smart Stadium each year until 2012. It returned in 2014 but has not been held since. Laneway, held in Auckland, is a more recent Australian import (2010).

Other music festivals include Splore, a three-day festival held in Tapapakanga Regional Park, which began in 1998; Camp A Low Hum, which was held annually from 2007 to 2014 in Wainuiomata; and Homegrown, held on Wellington’s waterfront, since 2008.

Some music festivals appeal to a more specialised audience. Some focus on a music genre, such as Raggamuffin, which showcases reggae, dub and hip hop artists. Parachute was an annual Christian music festival which began in 1992 and was discontinued in 2014. The special values of the festival meant that it was an alcohol and drug-free zone and families were encouraged to attend. Country settlements such as Clareville in the Wairarapa and Niagara in Otago host their own country and bluegrass music festivals, while Canterbury has a folk music festival. The Gathering was a New Year’s Eve dance party held in Nelson Bays from 1996 to 2002.

R ’n’ V

Rhythm and Vines began in 2003 as a New Year’s Eve celebration for three Otago University students and their friends. They decided to throw a party at a family vineyard, Waiohika Estate, in Gisborne. 1,800 people, mostly friends and locals, attended the first concert, headlined by New Zealand band the Black Seeds. The festival was later extended to a three-day event and 25,000 people attended in 2014. Headline acts have included both New Zealand and overseas talent, including Kimbra and Franz Ferdinand. In 2011 Rhythm and Alps was introduced in Queenstown and Cardrona.

Alternative festivals

In the tradition of Nambassa, Kiwiburn is an experience where participants are encouraged to be an active part of an alternative community, with a focus on performance, music and visual arts. Kiwiburn, held in Hunterville, is the New Zealand arm of Burning Man, an American festival held in Nevada. It has been run in New Zealand since 2004.

The Parihaka Peace Festival has been held annually since 2006 at Parihaka . The festival attracts poets as well as performing artists such as Ladi6, Moana and the Tribe and Fat Freddy’s Drop. WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) is an international showcase of world music and dance. It first came to New Zealand in 1997 and after being held in Auckland twice, WOMAD found its home at the Bowl of Brooklands in New Plymouth.


Arts festivals take off, 1960s onwards

By the 1960s there was a growing audience for arts and cultural festivals. Educated urban dwellers expected to be able to experience cultural events in their own cities, as they had when visiting overseas. The introduction of jet travel meant that performers, sets and artworks could be more easily transported.

Whistlers and vintage cars

The Pan Pacific Arts Festival of 1965 included a vintage car display, an American jazz band and a display of Japanese floral art. Japanese master potter Shoji Hamada’s work was also exhibited. The 1968 festival featured whistling virtuoso Tamas Hacki and the Fiji military band.

Becoming international – the Pan Pacific Arts Festival

Christchurch held a festival of the arts in 1965 and 1968. Aiming to ‘foster and promote good will and understanding of the peoples of the great Pacific Basin’, the Pan Pacific Arts Festival mixed traditional arts festival fare with some more unusual acts.1

New regional arts festivals

Regional arts festivals waxed and waned from the 1960s to the 1990s, with many cities’ festivals being held irregularly. Wellington’s Summer City began in the 1980s while Dunedin’s arts festival was held irregularly from 1963 to 1999, when it was redeveloped.

The 1990s saw a proliferation of regional arts festivals, including the Taranaki Arts Festival (established in 1991), the Nelson Arts Festival (1994) and the Christchurch Arts Festival (1995). Others were established in the 2000s, including the Auckland Arts Festival in 2003 (a new incarnation of the earlier festivals), the Southside Arts Festival (previously the Manukau Festival of the Arts) in 2008 and the Festival of Colour in the Southern Lakes area (2003).

New Zealand Festival

The first New Zealand International Festival of the Arts was held in Wellington in 1986, inspired by Adelaide’s festival. Despite initial financial difficulties, the successful staging of Wagner's opera Die meistersinger in 1990 cemented the festival’s international reputation. This made booking international performers such as the Frankfurt Ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Company easier. The festival has continued to be held biennially, and in 2012, 275,000 people attended its events. Known as the New Zealand Festival from 2014, it was the biggest arts event in New Zealand.

Other performing arts festivals

Other performing arts festivals include the World Buskers Festival, which began in Christchurch in 1994. The New Zealand Fringe Festival, originally part of the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, has a nationwide programme. The New Zealand Comedy Festival began in 1994 in Auckland and Wellington.

There are two main dance festivals. Christchurch’s Body Festival began in 2002 and includes both competition and performance; Auckland’s Tempo festival began in 2003.

    • Christchurch Pan Pacific Arts Festival souvenir programme. Christchurch: Christchurch Pan Pacific Arts Festival, 1965, p. 7. Back

Film, literary and other festivals, 1960s onwards

First film festivals

Growing from the film programme in the Auckland Festival of the Arts, the Auckland Film Festival began in 1969. Ten thousand tickets were sold in the first year, 30,000 in 1971 and 98,500 in 2013. The film festival filled a gap for cinemagoers, who were suffering under a commercial cinema duopoly. The Auckland Film Society worked with the Adelaide Film Festival to cut costs and bring a greater selection of films to New Zealand.

Five films a day

The International Film Festival is a highlight on many a film buff’s calendar. Svend Andersen, who works in the film industry, takes annual leave for the Wellington festival. Andersen attends about 89 of the films at the festival –around five movies per day. He later blogs about the films. He says the festival encourages him to take risks with the movies he sees and that even if he sees something he doesn’t like, he knows that something good will come up soon.

The Wellington Film Festival began in 1972, and in 1977, Dunedin and Christchurch joined in, establishing their own festivals. The individual festivals joined together in 2009 and the festival, now known as the New Zealand International Film Festival, tours the country each year.

Specialist audiences

Out Takes, a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, takatāpui and fa'afafine film festival, was founded in 1995 and in 2014 continued to run annually in Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland. There were also a variety of specific foreign language film festivals, including the Alliance Française French Film Festival. The Mountain Film Festival (beginning in 2002) and the Reel Earth Environmental Film Festival (2004) appeal to New Zealanders’ love of the outdoors. Documentary and short film festivals have also developed, with Show Me Shorts established in 2006, Documentary Edge in 2004 and Tropfest in 2012.

Māori on film

A Māori film festival is held at Taihoa Marae in Wairoa every year. Established in 2005, the aim of the festival is to present the indigenous voice. The event supports young film makers and film students as well as presenting a number of awards. The films are then toured nationally as the Matariki film festival. Another indigenous film festival, the Māoriland film festival, was first held in Ōtaki in 2014. The programme included over 30 events, with indigenous actors, directors and producers discussing their work as well as film showings.

Literary festivals

The Storylines Festival of New Zealand Children's Writers and Illustrators was established in 1993. It brings authors and illustrators to children all over the country, organising family days, school tours, dramatic performances and competitions.

The Auckland Writers Festival began in 1999 as an annual event on the literary calendar. It started with around 5,000 attendees in 1999 and grew to 29,000 in 2013. By 2013 1,200 writers had participated in the festival. In Wellington, Writers and Readers Week is part of the New Zealand Festival, and Christchurch hosted the WORD festival in 2014.

Māori and Pacific cultural festivals

Te Matatini is a competitive kapa haka festival established in in 1972. Held in different locations every two years, it attracts over 30,000 performers and spectators.

Auckland’s Pasifika was the first stand-alone Pacific Island festival and began as a one day event in 1992. The largest Pacific Island festival in the world, Pasifika attracted 90,000 visitors over two days in 2014. There were other Pacific Island festivals, including Pacific Arts Festival in Christchurch (2001–10) which was established by Pacific Underground, and Positively Pasifika in Wellington.

Polyfest is a competitive cultural festival for secondary school students. It began in 1976 with just four schools participating, and in 2018 it attracted over 10,000 participants and over 100,000 spectators.


In the early 2000s a midwinter festival developed centring on Matariki, the Māori New Year. Auckland City Council and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa held Matariki events and activities. Concerts from Māori performing artists and events related to celestial navigation have been popular.


The World of Wearable Art (WOW) showcases wearable art and design. Over 300 designs are submitted for competition each year from all over the world. WOW began as a promotion in 1987 but it outgrew its Nelson venue and in 2005 shifted to Wellington to capture a larger audience. Over 50,000 people view the show each year and the festival is a popular part of Wellington’s arts calendar.

Hero and Pride festivals

The Hero and Pride festivals were New Zealand’s main lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender festivals. Auckland’s Hero festival ran from 1992 to 2001 and included the famous Hero parade. After a long gap, the Pride Festival (a new lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender festival) was held in Auckland in 2013 and 2014.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Marguerite Hill, 'Arts festivals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 27 February 2024)

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