Story: Creative life

Page 2. Visual arts and crafts

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A long tradition

The history of visual arts, crafts and design in New Zealand stretches back some 700 years to the first Māori arrivals from East Polynesia, with their rich inheritance of carving and weaving. Western arts, crafts and photography, introduced by 19th-century settlers, soon adapted to a new land while remaining open to overseas influences. Wide public appreciation of both traditions is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Art appreciation

A 2002 survey found that 36% of New Zealanders purchased an original work of art or craft in the previous 12 months, while 48% visited a gallery or museum. There are many public and private galleries in New Zealand, catering to the large audience for visual arts. Artists such as painters John Reynolds, Bill Hammond and Peter Robinson, sculptors Neil Dawson and Jacqueline Fraser, photographer Anne Noble, and glass artist Ann Robinson have a strong following.


The metropolitan centres have major art galleries, including the Auckland Art Gallery, the City Gallery in Wellington, the Christchurch Art Gallery and the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington holds the national art collection. Some collections and galleries such as the Suter art museum in Nelson are long established, but others, such as The Dowse in Lower Hutt and the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth, have been founded in the last 30 years. Dealer galleries did not become permanent fixtures until the 1960s; now they are numerous. The internet is increasingly used as a means of selling art and craft work.

Developing artists

The Arts Council (known as Creative New Zealand) provides funding for established and emerging artists and curators to develop exhibitions and projects, or to travel to gain experience. Various professional associations, from Photoforum to the New Zealand Society of Potters, support groups of artists or craftspeople in their work. Art education is widely available through universities, polytechnics and private art schools. The major New Zealand art publication is Art New Zealand, which features writing from the popular to the scholarly.

The creative drive

‘This is the Trekka’, artist Michael Stevenson’s installation for the 2003 Venice Biennale, was a reflection on New Zealand’s relationship with the rest of the world. The Trekka was a utility vehicle modelled on the jeep, combining New Zealand components with a Czechoslovakian chassis and Škoda engine. Manufactured in the 1960s and 1970s when new cars were scarce in New Zealand, it symbolised Kiwi ingenuity and dreams of self-sufficiency. But its imported design and materials revealed New Zealand’s economic and cultural dependence on other countries.

Māori art

Māori artists have increased in number and influence since the 1970s, when Ngā Puna Waihanga (the Association of Māori Arts and Writers) began. Long-established contemporary artists such as Ralph Hotere, Para Matchitt and Robyn Kahukiwa have been joined by new talent such as Michael Parekowhai and Shane Cotton. A landmark event was the Te Māori exhibition of 1984 which took traditional Māori art to the world and also opened the eyes of New Zealanders. Traditional and contemporary Māori art is fostered by Toi Māori Aotearoa, an artists’ network, and the integrity of Māori arts and crafts is protected by toi iho, the ‘Māori-made’ trademark.

The bigger picture

New Zealand art and craft is gradually achieving greater exposure overseas. The Sydney Biennale and the Asia-Pacific Triennale have influenced the development of New Zealand art in recent decades. However it was 2001 before New Zealand participated in the Venice Biennale, and the first major exhibition in the United States of contemporary art from New Zealand and the Pacific opened in 2004.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Creative life - Visual arts and crafts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 8 Feb 2005