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Arts education and training

by Megan Cook and Caren Wilton

Fine and performing arts have been practised and taught in New Zealand since the 19th century. While private tutors reigned in the early stages of art training, the need for larger institutions arose. These were developed to further the creative talent dispersed around New Zealand and continue to nurture artistic New Zealanders today.

Visual artists

In colonial New Zealand, being good at watercolour and other painting, and particularly drawing, was socially desirable and economically useful. Builders’ plans, surveyors’ maps, family news, weekly newspapers and advertising (among other things) relied on artistic ability.

From the 1840s private lessons were available, and by the 1850s those who wished to learn to paint or draw could buy books on the subject (Weigall’s Art of figure drawing, Penley’s Elements of perspective, Merrifield’s Practical directions for portrait painting in water colours), along with brushes, palettes, chalks, crayons, oil and watercolour paints.

New Zealand’s first art teacher

William Bambridge arrived in New Zealand in 1842, one of a group of Anglican missionaries. An accomplished artist, Bambridge had come to teach, and along with reading, writing and arithmetic, he taught drawing.

Publicly funded art schools

Because drawing was useful, publicly funded art schools were set up, making art the first of the fine and performing arts to be taught in this way. The first art school opened in 1870 in Dunedin, followed by Christchurch (1882), Wellington (1886), Auckland (1889) and Whanganui (1892).

Auckland’s art school was known as Elam (after its founder, John Edward Elam). The art school in Christchurch, later known as Ilam (after the suburb it was located in), was set up in association with the Canterbury College of the University of New Zealand.

Several of the early art schools were started by or received funding from boards of education. The boards needed a supply of teachers able to teach children to draw.

Art for education and industry

Some art schools became the base for technical schools as these developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the technical college-based art schools were widely attended, some students preferred private lessons, providing artists with a source of ready cash and students with personal tuition.

Centennial sculptor

William Thomas Trethewey was the first New Zealand-born and-trained sculptor to become nationally known. He studied at Canterbury College School of Art and Wellington’s School of Design. His ‘Kupe group’, made in plaster in 1940 for the centennial celebration, was cast in bronze 60 years later and stands on Wellington’s Taranaki Wharf.

Further training

After studying at art school or with a private tutor, many New Zealand artists went overseas for further training. Britain and France were the places they were most likely to go. Margaret Butler spent 10 years in Europe; her study with leading Parisian sculptor Antoine Bourdelle earned her critical praise. Archibald Nicoll studied in London and Edinburgh, where he won prizes and had paintings accepted for exhibition, and went on painting excursions to continental Europe.

Extending the range of art training

In the 1950s and 1960s art in schools was radically extended, requiring specialist teachers trained in a broad range of art practices. This training, done by teachers’ colleges, produced significant artists, including Ralph Hōtere, Marilynn Webb and Paratene Matchitt.

Fisher’s children of nature

Archie Fisher, Elam’s director, described ‘a measure of indifference’ in the University of Auckland’s attitude to the art school. ‘I discern still, even in academic circles, a tendency to regard art as being a wholly irrational and largely unnecessary activity, the province at best of the simple child of nature’.1

In the 1950s Ilam and Elam art schools moved into the university mainstream. Ilam became a full department of the University of Canterbury; Elam joined the University of Auckland. Bachelor of fine arts degrees were offered at Elam from 1967 and at Ilam from 1982.

From the 1960s, as student demand increased beyond the facilities available, private art schools opened.

The 2000s

In the 2000s the three kinds of fine art education – private, technical institute and university – continued side by side.

    • Quoted in Elam 1950–1983: an Auckland University Centenary Exhibition, Auckland City Art Gallery, 26 August to 25 September 1983. Auckland: Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, 1983, p. 2. Back

Dancers and actors

In the 19th and early 20th centuries in New Zealand, opportunities to dance and act were abundant. Amateur, semi-professional and professional theatre and dance were widely attended and enjoyed, and provided a living for some of those involved.

Dancers and actors were trained by private teachers or on the job. After taking classes and appearing in local amateur productions, some joined stock or touring companies. Travelling overseas for further training, usually to Britain, was the standard route to a professional career.


From the 19th century onwards, private tutors provided classes in elocution (speech) and stage craft for would-be actors. From the 1920s achievement was assessed using the Trinity College London examination system.

Amateur theatre groups (which spread through New Zealand in the 1920s) and university drama clubs provided opportunities to perform. From there, actors could move into stock companies, which required them to specialise in a type of role, such as juvenile, old man or ingénue. Touring productions relied on the stock companies to fill less important roles.

Mid-20th-century expansion

A New Zealand branch of the British Drama League was set up in 1931 and in the 1940s New Zealand theatre expanded. The league ran summer schools and courses, with guest tutors brought in from overseas. New companies and provincial drama groups were formed in the decades after the Second World War, providing training and performance opportunities.

University drama clubs were another source of theatre training. Canterbury College Drama Society was set up in 1921 and transformed itself into a repertory company in 1928. A later Canterbury drama club, under the direction of crime novelist Ngaio Marsh, achieved professional standards.

In 1970 the New Zealand Drama School opened its doors in Wellington. In 1989 the Drama School changed its name to Te Kura Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa: New Zealand Drama School and adopted a bicultural approach to the teaching of drama. In 1997, the school moved into a purpose-built permanent home, which it shared with the New Zealand School of Dance. In the 2000s theatre and drama courses were available at most New Zealand universities, with Victoria University doing some collaborative teaching with Toi Whakaari.


Many teachers of dance ran their own schools, often employing senior students as assistants; in country districts, a dance teacher often held classes in several small towns. Dance-teacher training used an informal apprenticeship system, supplemented by the British-based Royal Academy of Dance’s teaching certificate (first offered in the 1930s). The types of dance taught varied – ballet, tap, Scottish reels, ballroom dance and flamenco might all be taught at the same dance school. Private schools remained an important source of senior-level dance training in the 2000s.

Modern dance

Modern dance was an exception to the private teaching system. It was taught at the University of Otago’s School of Physical Education from the 1940s, and at the national ballet school from the late 1970s, as well as by a small number of private teachers.


The National School of Ballet was set up in 1967 to ensure the availability of well-trained dancers for the New Zealand Ballet. Although government-funded, the school had a shoestring budget and held classes in a former cinema and a church hall.

By the time the school changed its name to the New Zealand School of Dance in 1982 it offered training in classical ballet and contemporary dance. In 1998 it gained a permanent home in Wellington, complete with purpose-built studios and a theatre.

Dance education expansion, 1990s

From the late 1980s the provision of tertiary-level dance education, including Māori and Pacific dance, surged. Dance education in Auckland was particularly strong. The private Auckland Performing Arts School offered diplomas in dance. In 1994 Unitec took over the school and continued to develop its dance component. In the mid-1990s the University of Auckland set up a dance studies programme. Private schools were set up, notably The Palace (which produced several award-winning breakdance crews).

Musicians and singers

New Zealand’s very active 19th-century musical community included local orchestral and harmonic societies, brass and military bands and small dance bands. There were numerous church choirs and choral societies at which many were taught to read music and sight-sing. There were also voice teachers, among them choir masters, and numerous private teachers of music. From the early 1890s students could sit the exams set by London’s Trinity College.

The lost chord

By 1844 Auckland’s Harmonic Society was up and running, and being appealed to by Major Thomas Bunbury. Bunbury had mislaid a folio volume of music, destroying his complete set of ‘valuable Overtures and choice Orchestral music’.1 In an 1844 newspaper advertisement he alerted the harmonic society’s committee to his loss.

Study overseas

Like artists, dancers and actors, musicians and singers travelled to Europe to complete their training (a pattern that would continue in the 2000s). From 1906 New Zealanders could win scholarships to the Royal School of Music in London, and from 1948 government bursaries were available. Those leaving to study often held benefit concerts to raise money, and in some instances benefactors provided financial assistance.

Many returned and taught, including pianists Janetta McStay and Ernest Empson, singer Irene Ainsley and composer Douglas Lilburn. Musicians and singers touring New Zealand also offered master classes to senior students.

Music teachers and music schools

Many music teachers worked from their own homes. Although interest in learning to play an instrument was high, many teachers did not earn a great deal. Notable schools included the Nelson School of Music, set up in 1894 and still in existence in the 2000s. Notable teachers include the three generations of the Towsey family – Arthur, Cyril and Patrick – who taught piano.

In 1946 a summer music school, the first of many, was held in Cambridge. Its workshops provided budding composers and musicians with an opportunity to meet and learn together. The school was organised by the Community Arts Service (CAS), which existed from 1946 to 1966. CAS not only supported the annual Cambridge summer school, but also provincial theatre groups, ballet and cultural dance.

University teaching

Although composition was taught at university level (notably at Victoria University from the 1940s), it was the 1960s before performance was added.

In 1975 members of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra set up the Wellington Polytechnic Conservatorium of Music. Under founding director Harry Botham it taught classical and some jazz papers. In 1998, when Wellington Polytechnic was absorbed into Massey University, the Conservatorium was given a permanent home.

New Zealand School of Music

Set up in 2006 by Victoria and Massey universities, the Wellington-based New Zealand School of Music (NZSM) teaches classical and jazz performance, composition, music therapy, musicology and ethnomusicology. It united the Massey University Conservatorium of Music and the Victoria University School of Music.

In March 2014 the two universities proposed a new structure, with Victoria running the current school of music and Massey developing a new programme focusing on popular music practice, music technology and business-based music education. A decision was likely to be made by the end of 2014.


Voice training was available but limited in New Zealand. Aspiring performers could join touring companies, helping make up the chorus, but to go beyond this, overseas study was essential. Rosina Buckman, one of the great opera singers of the early 20th century, was typical. Born in Blenheim in 1881, Buckman had her ability recognised by a local choirmaster, who arranged tuition for her in Birmingham.

The Mobil Song Quest (1956–), later known as the Lexus Song Quest, became an important stepping stone for opera singers, bringing them to the attention of the public and potential benefactors.

Formal tertiary study

It was the late 1960s before teaching of singing began in New Zealand universities. In the 2000s most universities offered performance courses, with the main university schools for vocal and opera studies at the University of Auckland and the New Zealand School of Music in Wellington.

The National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art (NASDA), part of Christchurch Polytechnic, is prominent in teaching popular vocal styles, including musical theatre.

    • Daily Southern Cross, 23 March 1844, p. 1, (last accessed 26 May 2014). Back


Early creative writing courses

In New Zealand before the 1970s writing was generally not taught in formal classes (except in schools). Writers often clustered together informally, sometimes around a mentor (such as Frank Sargeson in mid-20th-century Auckland), sometimes simply meeting in pubs.

Writers continued to group together in more or less formal ways in the 2000s.

Day job for writers

Well-known authors who have taught creative writing include Owen Marshall at Aoraki Polytechnic, Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton at the Manukau Institute of Technology and C. K. Stead, Witi Ihimaera and Albert Wendt at Auckland University. Catton was also a graduate of the International Institute of Modern Letters.

An undergraduate creative writing course was first offered at Victoria University of Wellington in 1975. Taught by English lecturer and poet Bill Manhire, the Original Composition course became increasingly competitive over time, with around 150 applicants for its 12 places in 1996.

Other early courses included an undergraduate writing course, at first mostly focused on poetry, at the University of Auckland (from 1984) and a six-month full-time fiction course at Aoraki Polytechnic (1993). High schools ran night classes in writing from at least the early 1980s. Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua first offered a full-time year-long creative writing course in 1993.

Can it be taught?

People have sometimes debated whether writing can be taught. ‘I think writers are born, in a sense, rather than made,’ says fiction writer and long-time writing teacher Owen Marshall. ‘But their development can be accelerated.’1 Whitireia Polytechnic writing course co-ordinator Adrienne Jansen concurred: ‘I think people probably end up in the same place, with the same success, but it would take a lot longer … A writing course … greatly speeds up the process.’2

Playmarket (an organisation representing playwrights and their work) held playwrights’ workshops biennially from 1980 to 1994. In the seven-to-10-day workshops, new play scripts were tested by actors and directors working alongside the playwright.

International Institute of Modern Letters

In 1997 New Zealand’s first Masters in Creative Writing began at Victoria University. Three years later American businessman Glenn Schaeffer offered support to develop the university’s creative writing programme, and the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) was established within the university in 2001. The IIML offered a PhD from 2008.

Well-known graduates of the institute and of Manhire’s earlier courses include fiction writers Eleanor Catton and Elizabeth Knox, poets James Brown and Hinemoana Baker, and film-maker Tusi Tamasese. However, the IIML has had its detractors – in 2003 Canterbury University English professor Patrick Evans complained about the ‘growing dominance’ of writing courses and described the Victoria programme as a ‘conveyor belt’ producing homogenised writing.3

Finger-lickin’ good

For many years Victoria University’s creative writing programme was known as ‘the Bill Manhire course’ after the IIML director. When Manhire retired in 2013, new director Damien Wilkins was asked how he felt about this close identification with his predecessor. He said, ‘I think Bill is now a brand. And actually the brand is free of the person. I think he’s like Colonel Sanders. People now know there’s not actually a white Southern gentleman cooking the chicken but they still go there.’4

Growth of creative writing courses

From the 1990s creative writing courses proliferated. In 2014 a number of institutions, including the IIML, Whitireia, AUT, the Manukau Institute of Technology, Massey University and Canterbury University, offered degrees in creative writing. There were many more courses around the country, focusing on various genres, including children’s writing, short stories, scriptwriting and poetry. Some courses were run online; others were part of community education programmes, held at weekends or in evenings by secondary or tertiary institutions. There were also privately run courses.


Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Megan Cook and Caren Wilton, 'Arts education and training', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Megan Cook and Caren Wilton, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014