Kōrero: Arts and the nation

Whārangi 5. The nation accepts the arts, 1940 onwards

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

The view that arts were an aspect of national identity became an important argument for state support.


Although there had been isolated public funding for writers before the 1930s, and art works had been shown at international exhibitions, this was expanded from the late 1930s under the influence of Joseph Heenan in the Department of Internal Affairs, with the support of Peter Fraser, a senior government minister and later prime minister. The nation’s centennial in 1940 spawned a substantial programme of historical publications, a centennial orchestra, literary competition and a touring exhibition designed to show off New Zealand art.

Government arts funding

In 1947 these precedents were institutionalised with the New Zealand Literary Fund, which gave grants to writers, to Landfall literary journal, and also to the National Orchestra. In 1963 support was expanded with the creation of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, which was eventually rebranded in 1994 as Creative New Zealand. From 1978 the New Zealand Film Commission gave assistance to local film-making.

Such moves reached a high point after 1999 when, as prime minister, Helen Clark took the Arts, Culture and Heritage portfolio. Clark argued that a flourishing arts sector encouraged a sense of national identity and belonging, presented the country as an attractive tourist and immigration destination, and reflected a ‘creative’ economy.

International promotion

From the 1960s onwards successive governments also used culture to promote New Zealand overseas. They gave support for displays of art, music and dance at international expos in Osaka (1970), Brisbane (1988), Seville (1992) and Shanghai (2010). New Zealand art was showcased at the Venice Biennale, and literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

At home, the Real New Zealand Festival presented the creativity of New Zealand to visitors at the Rugby World Cup in 2011. There was major government investment in a new national museum, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which opened in 1998 to present New Zealand culture to both local and overseas audiences.

New awards

From the 1960s annual national awards and competitions were established for different media – writing, theatre, art, film and music. These heightened publicity and raised the mana of artists. A poet laureate scheme was set up in 1996 by Te Mata Estate winery and taken over by the National Library in 2007. The Prime Minister’s Awards for poetry, fiction and non-fiction have been presented since 2003. In the late 1990s the Arts Foundation was created by philanthropists to honour creative artists and provide them with substantial financial support. Arts and literary festivals were established around the country.

International success

As in sport, international success in the arts attracted national pride. Kiri Te Kanawa’s fame as an opera singer, Peter Jackson’s success in winning Oscars for his Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and Booker (later Man Booker) prizes for novels by Keri Hulme in 1985 and Eleanor Catton in 2013 became occasions for national self-congratulation. When the Te Māori exhibition of Māori art opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum to wide acclaim in 1984, it reshaped New Zealanders’ sense of the place of Māori culture in their identity.

A nation mourns

When writer Janet Frame died in 2004 her biographer, Michael King, wrote, ‘A writer died, and it seemed as if the whole country held its breath and then let out a collective sigh’.1 She became a cover story for the Listener magazine. When King himself died soon after, there was also massive newspaper, radio and television coverage and he too was featured on the cover of the Listener.


As a result of these influences, creative artists became treasured as important to the nation. In 2014 six of the 26 members of the Order of New Zealand, the nation’s highest honour, were creative artists; and those previously in the order included musician Douglas Lilburn, writers Allen Curnow, Janet Frame and Margaret Mahy, potter Doreen Blumhardt and artist Ralph Hōtere.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Mark Williams, ed., Writing at the edge of the universe. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2004, p. 3. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Jock Phillips, 'Arts and the nation - The nation accepts the arts, 1940 onwards', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/arts-and-the-nation/page-5 (accessed 15 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014