Story: Wellington region

Page 15. Arts and culture

All images & media in this story

As the capital, Wellington is the home of many artistic and cultural organisations, including the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Royal New Zealand Ballet. It has a lively urban culture, with many cafés, restaurants and performance venues.

The arts capital

Established in 1986, the biennial International Festival of the Arts attracts thousands of visitors to its performances, concerts and exhibitions. The Fringe Festival, a showcase for local talent, runs concurrently. These festivals are largely responsible for Wellington’s reputation as the ‘capital of the arts’. Live theatres include Circa and Bats.

Since 1971, the Wellington Film Festival has been held each July – an antidote to the rigours of midwinter. Commercial cinema is also popular, and suburban movie theatres were revived in the 2000s.

Art galleries and museums

The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, a distinctive harbourfront building, houses the national museum and art collection. It is a top tourist attraction, drawing 1.5 million visitors a year in the mid-2010s. Wellington’s City Gallery holds major international and national touring exhibitions and shows the work of aspiring artists.

Other museums and galleries include the Museum of Wellington, Victoria University of Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery, the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, Petone Settlers’ Museum, and Pataka Museum and Gallery in Porirua. There are also many dealer galleries.


Music has been part of Wellington life since the first days of European settlement. The Wellington Orchestra Society, founded in 1879, was the first of many ensembles. Among refugees from Hitler’s Europe were a number of talented musicians who enlivened music in Wellington. The Wellington Chamber Music Society, set up in 1945, was soon followed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir. The New Zealand School of Music was formed by the combined music departments of Victoria and Massey universities.

Wellington has been the home of composers Alfred Hill, Douglas Lilburn, Gareth Farr, Jonathan Besser and John Psathas, among others. A lively and creative popular music scene has produced nationally and internationally successful performers such as the Fourmyula, Jon Stevens, Shihad, Upper Hutt Posse, Brooke Fraser, Hollie Smith, Fat Freddy’s Drop, the Phoenix Foundation and the Black Seeds. Film maker and performer Taika Waititi and comedians the Flight of the Conchords are recent Wellington sensations in the performing arts.

Live music is also played at clubs and pubs, and outdoor concerts and films are part of regional summer festival programmes.

Literature and painting

Wellington was the birthplace of New Zealand’s most famous writer, Katherine Mansfield. Other prominent writers, past and present, include Robin Hyde, Lauris Edmond, Maurice Gee, Elizabeth Knox, Vincent O’Sullivan, Jenny Bornholdt, Patricia Grace, Bill Manhire, Lloyd Jones and Ian Wedde. Nationally important Wellington painters have included Rita Angus, Evelyn Page, Jeanne Macaskill and Melvin Day.


The role of religion in Wellington life has waned. However, the city has many important ecclesiastical buildings. These include Old St Paul’s – a wooden, Gothic-revival structure built in 1865 – and Futuna Chapel, designed by Māori architect John Scott in a modernist style. There are also several synagogues, mosques, temples and other religious buildings.

Alexander the Great Booklover

Wellington’s best-known research institution is the Alexander Turnbull Library. Born into a wealthy Wellington family in 1868, Turnbull began collecting books when he was 17. He later inherited a fortune and used it to build a world-class library, which he left to the nation in 1918. Now part of the National Library, the Alexander Turnbull Library holds over 270,000 books, 1.8 million photographs and negatives, and seven kilometres of archives and manuscripts.


Victoria College (later Victoria University of Wellington) opened in 1899 with about 200 students. In 2013 it had nearly 17,000 students and nine faculties. Scholars of international standing who have taught at Victoria include historian J. C. Beaglehole and physicist Paul Callaghan. Massey University has had a Wellington campus since 1998.

Research and reading

Historical and contemporary films are kept at Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision. Other research institutes and libraries include the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Archives New Zealand and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Most government departments and crown research institutes – such as the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences – have specialist libraries.

Film and media

Since film director Peter Jackson’s film studios were built in Miramar in the 1990s, Wellington has become an important film-making centre – nicknamed ‘Wellywood’. New Zealand’s public radio network (Radio New Zealand) is based in Wellington, as are a number of television production companies. The region’s only daily newspaper is the Dominion Post.

How to cite this page:

Chris Maclean, 'Wellington region - Arts and culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Chris Maclean, published 9 Jul 2007, updated 1 Aug 2015