Story: Arts festivals

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.

Story by Marguerite Hill
Main image: The Boiler Room, Big Day Out, 2005

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Festival beginnings

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 and was described as a public, musical and financial success.

Celebrations and centenaries, 1930s to 1950s

Amateur drama festivals were popular throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The British Drama League was established in New Zealand in 1931 and soon began competitive festivals of one-act plays. The 1940 centennial was an opportunity to celebrate New Zealand’s artistic progress, so drama and music festivals were included in the celebrations. The 1950s saw the development of regional arts festivals, which presented professional music, drama and arts in one package.

Music festivals from the 1960s

The National Jazz Festival, which is held in Tauranga each Easter, began in 1963 and is the longest-running jazz music festival in the southern hemisphere. The 1970s saw New Zealand’s first rock music festivals – influenced by the American counter-culture music festival, Woodstock.

During the 1990s and 2000s Australian music festivals like the Big Day Out and Raggamuffin became established events in New Zealand. Other music festivals include Splore, which began in 1998, Camp A Low Hum, held between 2007 and 2014, and Homegrown, held on Wellington’s waterfront since 2008.

Arts festivals take off

The New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, renamed the New Zealand Festival in 2014, began in Wellington in 1986. It is now the biggest arts event in New Zealand. The New Zealand Fringe Festival, originally part of the international festival, has a nationwide programme. The New Zealand Comedy Festival began in 1994 in Auckland and Wellington.

Film and other festivals

The Auckland Film Festival began in 1969. Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin soon followed suit, establishing their own film festivals. In 2009 they joined together to create what is now known as the New Zealand International Film Festival, which tours the country each year.

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

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.

How to cite this page:

Marguerite Hill, 'Arts festivals', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Marguerite Hill, published 22 October 2014, updated 1 August 2016