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Regional cultural life

by Pip Howells

Creative people and activities often cluster in particular places. Rotorua has long been a hub for Māori arts and culture, while mid-20th-century Christchurch was home to a fertile literary and arts community. In the 2000s Auckland had a vibrant Pacific arts and fashion scene, while Wellington was known for writing, films and the arts generally.

Early regional arts and culture

Iwi regional cultures

The cultural life of 19th-century Māori varied for iwi and hapū living in different parts of the country. Cultural practices such as weaving, carving and singing waiata were diverse in form, reflecting local traditions, histories and landscapes. Whakairo (carving) reflected distinct whakapapa (genealogy). Some regional distinctions of style can also be observed. A ‘serpentine’ style is associated with northern iwi such as Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi and Te Roroa, while eastern iwi such as Ngāti Porou were known for square-style carvings.

Good timing

When teacher and musician Charles Merton arrived at Lyttelton in December 1856, after a journey of over three months, ‘his face brightened up upon being told we had a Choral Society, and that he was just in time for a concert’.1

Some iwi adopted Western artistic techniques. For instance, the whare of Rongopai, at Waituhi near Gisborne, was decorated with paint rather than carved. The painted houses are a significant feature of the region.

Colonial cultural life

There were strong cultural similarities between the early European settlements of New Zealand because settlers based their townships on those of the United Kingdom. Cultural institutions were established in different regions almost simultaneously. Between 1852 and 1863 Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin set up choral societies and vocal unions. By 1868 all had museums; by 1893 all had public libraries.

Dunedin’s cultural riches

There were, however, regional distinctions built on the nature of the settlers and local conditions. With Scots settlers bringing strong educational and cultural traditions, and with wealth from gold, Dunedin was the most vibrant of the colony’s cities in the later 19th century. As returns from the gold rushes declined, the city explored new ways to promote itself.

  • The 1865 New Zealand Exhibition, the first held in the country, attracted many visitors and attention.
  • The University of Otago was founded in 1869 in an attempt to cement Dunedin’s cultural eminence (and perhaps increase its cash flow).

Dunedin was home to several important writers and poets like Thomas Bracken, John Barr and Vincent Pyke. Dunedin professionals such as Thomas Morland Hocken, a physician, and William Mathew Hodgkins, a lawyer, helped develop the city’s cultural life. Hocken built up collections of Pacific and Māori ethnography, which went to the museum in 1891. He collected published works, photographs and paintings, which were the basis of the Hocken Library (established in 1910). Hocken also wrote and lectured keenly on New Zealand’s early European settler history.

Hodgkins established the Otago Arts Society in 1875, and in 1884 founded the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. His circle included notable painters such as the Italian Girolamo Nerli, George O'Brien and Grace Joel, as well as his own daughters, Isabel Jane Field and Frances Hodgkins.

Storm chaser

Leonard H. Booth, a pupil of Petrus van der Velden, recalled the artist’s working methods: ‘When I was last at Otira, a resident of the place who remembered van der Velden told me that the Dutchman was evidently quite mad. Evidently? Yes; because at all those times when the thunder rolled, and wind howled, and rain poured, van der Velden would go into the Gorge, whereas all those times when the sun shone from a cloudless sky, he would lie with his back to the grass near the hotel and sleep.’2

Canterbury: a class act

In Canterbury, largely settled by the English, brass bands and music-hall acts were popular among the working class. Some of the city’s Oxford- and Cambridge-educated Anglican elite brought Gothic revival architecture and choral music. Architects such as Benjamin Woolfield Mountford designed special chancels (the part of the church near the altar) for motet-singing and psalm-chanting. Mass choral singing was highly popular. By the 1920s the Christchurch Musical Society had received a royal charter, and the rival choir, the Harmonic Society, was also highly regarded.

Significant individuals

In the fine arts, key figures - trained in Europe – influenced other artists in their regions.

  • Scotsman James Nairn arrived in Wellington in 1890, and taught at the Wellington Technical School. He led a breakaway group from the New Zealand Academy who were interested in open-air painting in an impressionist style. Nairn’s summer house in Silverstream, Pumpkin Cottage, became a meeting place for a group which included painters like Nugent Welch and Fred Sedgwick.
  • In Auckland Edward Friström, a Swede who painted in post-impressionist and symbolist styles – radical for the time – taught at the Elam School of Art and Design from 1911. He was so popular that students protested his forced resignation in 1915, and formed a breakaway class with Friström as their mentor.
  • In Canterbury Scottish marine painter John Gibb and Dutchman Petrus van der Velden painted the region’s dramatic landscapes. Van der Velden’s moody depictions of Ōtira were particularly influential.

Regional creative life, early 20th century

Rotorua – a Māori cultural centre

As a major destination for early international tourism, Rotorua provided a good environment where Māori culture could become established on a commercial basis. Concert parties were set up and a Te Arawa group led by tourist guide Mākereti Papakura performed in England in 1911. Rotorua was also a site for early film-making, with Te Arawa Māori playing many roles. In the early 1930s Rotorua cousins Ana Hato and Deane Waretini, singing well-known waiata, were among the first artists recorded in New Zealand.

Politician Apirana Ngata’s desire to revive Māori carving encouraged him to recruit Ngāti Tarāwhai carvers from Lake Rotoiti, including Neke Kapua, Tene Waitere and Eramiha Kapua. The Maori School of Arts and Crafts opened in 1927 at Whakarewarewa. In 1969 a national weaving school, Te Rito, was established in Rotorua alongside the carving school.

Literary revolutions

Auckland and Christchurch were both centres for major literary developments emerging from the universities in the early 1930s. In Auckland in 1932, while the university was getting rid of a young history lecturer, J. C. Beaglehole, for his alleged radicalism, the college’s Literary Club, led by James Bertram, launched a lively but short-lived political and literary publication called Phoenix. Its contributors included R. A. K. Mason, Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover and A. R. D. Fairburn, all of whom became well-known poets.

Christchurch radicalism

Similarly in Christchurch, left-wing writers and intellectuals who had met through Canterbury University began to create their own publications. Denis Glover’s Caxton Club produced the short-lived Oriflamme and its successor Sirocco in 1933. The next year Kennaway Henderson, Winston Rhodes and Frederick Sinclaire founded the weekly journal Tomorrow ‘to encourage free expression on any subject of social importance’.1

Popular paper

Although printed in low numbers, Tomorrow prided itself on its widespread readership. A 1939 editorial boasted and bemoaned, ‘Quoted in Parliament, reduced to rags in public libraries in spite of its strong format, lent and re-lent, and discussed everywhere, this paper has a coverage out of all proportion to its printer’s bill.’2

Glover went on to found the Caxton Press, a printing house which published new work by a burgeoning literary subculture, including the poets Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch and A. R. D. Fairburn. Caxton Press was the first to publish important new fiction writers such as Frank Sargeson and Janet Frame, and was the printer of Brasch’s literary journal Landfall, which began in 1947. Christchurch composer Douglas Lilburn composed music to accompany Curnow’s poem ‘Landfall in unknown seas’.

In 1937 artist and illustrator Leo Bensemann became Glover’s partner in the press. Bensemann joined The Group in 1938. Established in 1927, The Group brought together Christchurch artists to hold annual exhibitions. Its 50 shows included some of New Zealand’s most progressive artists: Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, William Sutton, M. T. (Toss) Woollaston, Olivia Spencer Bower, Evelyn Page, Rata Lovell-Smith and Doris Lusk. South Island landscapes found a major place in New Zealand painting, as in the nation’s poetry.

Group carnival

Leo Bensemann wrote of the flurry of activity when Group shows were installed. ‘Four or five days and evenings of broken time were usually sufficient to unpack, sort out, arrange, hang, and catalogue the show … so it is not to be wondered at that by the time the doors were flung open a rather heady, carnival atmosphere took over.’3

Christchurch’s central role in modern nationalist culture continued until the early 1950s. An important Writers’ Conference was held there in 1951. But by the end of the decade Denis Glover, Allen Curnow and Colin McCahon had all left to go north, and the city lost its cultural leadership.

    • Tomorrow 1, no. 39 (24 July 1935), p. 7. Back
    • Quoted in Rachel Barrowman, A popular vision: the arts and the left in New Zealand, 1930–1950. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1991, p. 27. Back
    • Quoted in Peter Simpson, Fantastica: the world of Leo Bensemann. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2011, p. 158. Back

Flourishing regional cultures, 1945 to 2000

Capital coffee culture

During and after the Second World War European immigrants, including Jewish refugees, brought cultural life to the cities. Wellington had a number of coffee houses where artists and intellectuals met. The earliest, the French Maid Coffee House, was opened by Dick Singleton in 1940. Besides hosting new music, the French Maid exhibited artworks by Theo Schoon, Sam Cairncross, Gordon Walters, Colin McCahon and others. Later coffee houses of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Coffee Gallery, The Windmill, Suzy’s and Monde Marie, played a similar role.


Suzy’s Coffee Lounge was immensely popular among Wellingtonians, and was in business for 23 years. It was run by Suzy van der Kwast, an eccentric and lively host, who would often disrupt diners to shuffle tables closer together so she could create room for more customers. Rita Angus was a notable frequent patron.

Wellington was also home to a creative group of poets who questioned the nationalism and the South Island landscapes of the Curnow/Christchurch school. They included James K. Baxter, Louis Johnson, Fleur Adcock, Peter Bland and Alistair Campbell.

Auckland avant garde

In the early 1950s important groupings of writers and artists emerged in Auckland. At his Takapuna property, short-story writer Frank Sargeson hosted various writers, such as Janet Frame after her voluntary psychiatric institutionalisation in 1955. Allen Curnow moved to Auckland in 1951 and encouraged other poets including Kendrick Smithyman and Carl Stead. In the late 1960s a younger group of poets and writers emerged from Auckland University, including Alan Brunton, Ian Wedde, Leigh Davis and Murray Edmond. They published in magazines like Freed and And.

Artist Colin McCahon also shifted to Auckland in 1953. His presence at the Auckland Art Gallery (alongside director Peter Tomory from 1956) and at the Elam School of Fine Arts was influential. Significant artists such as Don Binney, Gretchen Albrecht and Pat Hanly represented a new generation of politically active Elam graduates. At the university’s architecture school in 1946 an ambitious group of second-year students went on to form Group Architects, committed to modernist design principles.

Peace, sun and beauty

The Group Manifesto expressed the members’ fresh approach to architecture: ‘We know there is another way of living in which a house is logically contrived for peace and comfort, where the sun brings life without faded carpets, and in which leisure and beauty are not interred in respectable museums. And we mean to find it for ourselves and make it real to everyone who feels as we do … Because we want this in New Zealand, overseas solutions will not do. New Zealand must have its own architecture, its own sense of what is beautiful and appropriate to our climate and conditions.’1

In 1970 Auckland University academic Ranginui Walker organised a Maori Leaders’ Conference, which attracted many urban educated Māori. The hui encouraged the creation of activist group Ngā Tamatoa, initially based in Auckland, which led protests over the confiscation of Māori land and the loss of te reo Māori (the Māori language).

Provincial clusters

In the later 20th century distinct artistic traditions emerged in provincial centres.

Toss Woollaston had painted in Nelson from the 1940s. He attracted other artists to the area for short stays, such as Colin McCahon, Rita Angus and Doris Lusk. European immigrant Mirek Smisek moved to Nelson in the 1950s, and began making studio pottery using local clay. He was joined in the 1960s by British potters Harry and May Davis and Stephen Carter, and later Jack and Peggy Laird, who established Waimea Craft Pottery. The Danish silversmith Jens Hansen settled there in 1968, and by the 1980s Nelson was known as a centre for crafts. Out of this culture emerged Suzie Moncrieff’s World of WearableArt show in 1987.

With the support of the Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui city also attracted an arts community, which was encouraged by the opening of the Wanganui School of Design in 1987. In neighbouring Taranaki art was stimulated by the building of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth in 1970. It became known for challenging, boundary-pushing exhibitions, and was home to significant Len Lye works. Local artists Don Driver and Michael Smither made important contributions.

Sounds like Dunedin

Verlaines frontman Graeme Downes remembers recording his band’s contribution to Dunedin double, an early Flying Nun EP, in a ‘pretty grotty little flat. One room was the studio and the next room was the control room … Katherine was playing a tambourine as well but every take we did, the tambourine was so bloody loud that they couldn't get it low enough in the mix because it was all pretty much being recorded acoustically so they ended up burying her under a mattress in the corner of the room. It was absolutely primitive.’2

Regional music scenes

Some regions developed distinctive music scenes. The first punk bands – including the Suburban Reptiles and the Scavengers – formed in Auckland in the late 1970s. In Dunedin a form of indie-pop known famously as ‘the Dunedin sound’ emerged in the early 1980s, coinciding with the advent of Otago University student radio. Bands like the Chills, the Clean and the Dead C were prominent.

From the mid-1980s hip hop flourished in South Auckland, with such acts as Semi MCs, Sisters Underground and Enemy Productions. Another hip hop scene developed in Lower Hutt, especially within the Samoan community, with groups such as the Mau. At the same time in Waikato, heavy metal bands such as Blackjack and Knightshade helped create the region’s reputation for ‘bogan’ culture. By the 2000s Wellington boasted a strong dub and roots music scene, epitomised by bands Fat Freddy’s Drop, Trinity Roots and the Black Seeds.


Regional cultural life in the 2000s

Eventful times

Regional cultural life in the 2000s was often associated with economic tourism opportunities. Cultural events attracted both publicity and revenue to a region. Since 2005 New Plymouth has been home to WOMAD, a three-day world music and dance festival (initially biennial, later held annually). In February each year Napier, a city known for its art deco architecture, held an Art Deco Weekend, in which people dressed in period style. Since 1993 the Hokonui Music Festival has been celebrated on the outskirts of Gore, a place renowned for country and folk music.

Fashionable Pacific Auckland

Auckland’s cultural profile reflected its position as the commercial centre of New Zealand and the most ethnically diverse city. Auckland was New Zealand’s fashion capital, since 2001 hosting New Zealand Fashion Week, the country’s premier fashion event. Auckland’s fashion scene began to blossom in 1979 when Elizabeth and Neville Findlay started the influential label Zambesi. They were joined by more local designers, including Workshop, Kate Sylvester, Karen Walker and Trelise Cooper.

Auckland was home to Polyfest (officially the ASB Auckland Secondary Schools Māori and Pacific Islands Performing Arts Festival), which began at Hillary College, Ōtara in 1976, to maintain dance and music traditions. It grew to be the largest Polynesian festival in the world. In 2013, 9,000 performers were watched by more than 90,000 spectators over four days. There was also the Pasifika festival, which began in 1992 to showcase the city’s Pacific cultures.

Tales from the Coast

The West Coast has the unique distinction of being the setting for the only two New Zealand novels that have won the Man Booker Prize. Keri Hulme set much of the 1985 winner the bone people at Ōkārito, where she lived at the time, and Eleanor Catton set the 2013 winner, The luminaries, in Hokitika.

Capitalising industry

In the 2000s Wellington had a strong reputation for the arts. The city hosted the annual World of WearableArt, the biennial International Festival of the Arts (from 2014 the New Zealand Festival) and an annual Fringe Festival. Theatres such as Circa, Bats and (until 2013) Downstage staged a wide array of performances, while Toi Whakaari (the New Zealand Drama School) attracted young theatre talent. Victoria University brought a literary presence to the city, with its International Institute of Modern Letters supporting the work of many prominent writers, including Damien Wilkins, Bill Manhire and Eleanor Catton.

Wellington boasted a robust film industry, partly due to the presence of successful director Peter Jackson. Weta Workshop, a local costume, props and special-effects design company founded by Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger, received international attention from its involvement in Jackson’s Lord of the rings trilogy. The company contributed significantly to the city’s creative sector.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Pip Howells, 'Regional cultural life', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Pip Howells, published 22 October 2014