Story: Culture and recreation in the city

Page 7. City culture and recreation since 1965

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The early 1960s were a quiet time in the city. The arrival of television in 1960 hit attendances at the movies severely, and city streets were deserted at weekends and in the evenings. But things were about to change.

Eating, drinking and shopping

In 1967 pubs’ closing times were extended from six to 10 p.m., keeping people in the city later. The licensing laws were further relaxed from the late 1980s. Restaurants could also serve alcohol, so people came to town to eat as well as drink. There were increasing numbers of married women in the paid workforce, so they had less time to cook, and eating out became increasingly attractive. By the end of the 20th century the big cities had precincts of eating and drinking establishments – Christchurch had ‘The Strip’, Wellington had Courtenay Place and Cuba Street, and Auckland Parnell and the Viaduct Basin.

The extension of weekend shopping hours after 1980 also brought large numbers of people into the city. However, in some cities – especially Auckland – the suburban mall was as much the scene of weekend browsing as the inner-city street.

New city culture

There were still traditional ‘high-culture’ performances in the second half of the 20th century – people attended the symphony orchestra, ballet and opera in the cities. There was also a new generation of international touring acts – especially popular musicians, from the Beatles to Michael Jackson. The major growth, however, came from the late 1970s in local live music gigs at pubs and music venues.

More challenging and intellectual forms of cultural expression were also provided. This in part derived from the spread of university education and educationally based employment in the cities after the Second World War. Many people had spent time in big cities overseas, and looked to enjoy alternative urban cultures in New Zealand as they had done in other countries. Professional theatres emerged in the place of amateur groups and international touring companies – Wellington’s Downstage (1964) and Circa (1976), Auckland’s Mercury (1968) and Christchurch’s Court Theatre (1971).

Making dinosaurs extinct

Susan Wilson, a founding member of Circa Theatre, explained its aims: ‘Those old British dinosaurs occupying the New Zealand professional theatre landscape [of the time] built large administrations, extravagant sets and costumes, and gave focus, as it were, to the cover rather than the book … Our goal was to dazzle the audience with the sheer excellence of the performance … where economy and ingenuity took the place of money. We aimed to keep costs … to a minimum so that the rewards could be equally shared by artists and practitioners.’1

Film societies showing non-commercial movies had first appeared in the 1940s. Auckland’s film festival began in 1969, and all the main centres had mid-winter festivals by 1977. In 2005 the Auckland event reached an audience of more than 100,000 with 150 films.

In the art world amateur societies were joined by commercial dealers, with small galleries selling works to the urban élite. A lively modernist art community emerged in several cities, especially Auckland. In Dunedin and Christchurch the city galleries moved to smart inner-city locations in 1996 and 2003 respectively. In Wellington a new city gallery was created in 1980, and the national art gallery became part of the new Te Papa national museum on the Wellington waterfront. Auckland Art Gallery received a facelift in 2009.

Other galleries emerged, such as the Govett-Brewster in New Plymouth (1970) and the Dowse in Hutt city. New museums were built in Hamilton (Waikato Museum, 1982) and New Plymouth (Puke Ariki, 2003). Such places catered for urban audiences, but also for international tourists, who increasingly visited New Zealand for its interesting urban culture as well as its mountains and lakes.

Cities also gave birth to new festivals and parades, among them Christchurch’s biennial arts festival (from 1995), and Auckland’s Writers and Readers Festival (from 1999) and gay Hero Parade (1992–2001). Wellington was home to the biennial International Festival of the Arts (from 1986) and yearly Cuba Street Carnival (from 1999). Cultural activities were increasingly crucial to city economies.

In 2008, 75% of arts, culture and heritage activities occurred in the five main centres (including Hamilton), where 52% of the population lived. Theatre, film and music were particularly strongly concentrated in the cities.


City sport became increasingly professional, and new venues were developed. In 1995 rugby followed cricket and athletics and became a professional game. Major Super 12 rugby franchises (known as Super 14 since 2006) were set up in Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Hamilton and Auckland.

Wellington and Hamilton built new stadiums, while Dunedin’s was due for completion in 2011. Christchurch and Auckland upgraded their old stadiums. Corporate boxes and big screen replays became the norm. Compared to the 1950s the attendances were not huge, and in Wellington the most popular games were the international sevens rugby tournaments, when the city filled with partying spectators in fancy dress. Participation in competitive sports by urban people slowly declined. Increasingly sport had become a commercial entertainment competing with museums and film festivals.

  1. ‘Circa Theatre history.’ (last accessed 23 October 2009). Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Culture and recreation in the city - City culture and recreation since 1965', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 April 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 11 Mar 2010