Story: Creative life

Page 1. New Zealand creativity

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Creative activities – music, literature, visual arts, design, architecture and performing arts – are central to New Zealand’s identity. Telling New Zealand stories is an accepted part of New Zealand art, but connecting with ideas from around the world is an equally strong feature. Cultural exchanges between New Zealand and other countries have been enriching both ways.

Different traditions

New Zealand creativity arises from distinct traditions: those of the indigenous Māori people, the mainly British immigrants who arrived after 1840, and post-Second World War arrivals from Pacific, Asian and European countries. In recent years interaction between these cultures within New Zealand has resulted in some distinctive art.

Support for artists

New Zealand has produced many artists of international stature – people like composer Douglas Lilburn, painter Colin McCahon and novelist Janet Frame. Once, such people struggled for recognition because of the country’s isolation and small population, and its focus on practical rather than creative skills. Many had to go overseas to make a living, and many still do. However, public and private support for arts and culture began to grow noticeably during the 1940s and 1950s, and gained pace in the later 20th century.

Suffering for art

A survey of New Zealand artists, including musicians, writers and craftspeople, revealed that in 1999 their median annual income from all sources was just $20,700, compared with the national median of $27,934. Two-thirds earned less than $10,000 from their art alone. Suggested reasons include the small audience, few jobs, and comparatively limited government subsidies. As one artist says, ‘In other parts of the world, if you were working as hard and consistently as a number of us are … you wouldn’t be struggling financially.’ 1

Post-1970s expansion

Since the 1970s the cultural sector – audiences, and artists and others who make a living from the arts – has blossomed. New arts organisations have been established, many with public funding. A new national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, opened in Wellington in 1998. Increased government support is managed by a ministry, established in 1991, and spearheaded by Creative New Zealand (The Arts Council of New Zealand: Toi Aotearoa). There are more training courses and institutions for visual arts, drama, kapa haka (Māori traditional performing arts) and dance. Art galleries and theatres have multiplied, as have awards for artistic achievement and grants for emerging artists. Festivals showcasing everything from film to chamber music to ‘wearable arts’ have become regular events. The best known is the biennial New Zealand International Arts Festival. The organisation began in 1984 in Wellington, and the first festival was held in 1986.

Culture and identity

The reasons for this burst of creative activity are economic and social. Since the 1970s New Zealand has undergone profound change. It is now a more open, deregulated and multicultural society, with stronger ties to neighbouring Pacific and Asian countries. This has been reflected in the arts, from the creation of home-grown television programmes, to the Polynesian influence on popular music, to the design innovations of the 1980s. An important development has been the ‘Māori renaissance’, involving a resurgence of Māori traditional and contemporary arts.

Culture on the move

Singer and dancer Mika is a veteran of four consecutive Edinburgh International Festivals. With his dance company Torotoro he has presented such shows as Mika Haka – a dynamic blend of Māori kapa haka (traditional performing arts), hip hop, funk and break dance.

Taking New Zealand culture to the world

Since the 1970s, too, the process of taking New Zealand art to the world has accelerated. Expatriate artists such as short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, painter Frances Hodgkins, kinetic sculptor Len Lye and opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa have achieved world prominence as individuals, but until recently New Zealand art and creative artists generally have received minimal exposure overseas. Increasingly New Zealand film, literature, visual arts and design, theatrical and musical performances have achieved international accolades. Now New Zealand arts are represented at major cultural events around the globe.

  1. Sarah Boyd, ‘Suffering for their art.’ Dominion Post, 27 March 2004, E1. › Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Creative life - New Zealand creativity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 Feb 2005