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Awards and prizes

by Mark Derby

Achievement and excellence in the arts and sciences are recognised by a range of awards and prizes. Internationally, New Zealanders have won Nobel and Booker prizes.

Awards and their origins

What are awards and prizes?

The terms ‘award’ and ‘prize’ are often used interchangeably. An award generally refers to a form of institutional recognition for achievement or other merit, with the winner chosen by an appointed panel. Sometimes, winners are not aware in advance that they have been considered for an award.

A prize is usually a sum of money, a symbolic object such as a medal, or some other tribute. People generally enter or apply to win a prize, and the winner is determined by a competitive process.

Why are they given?

In general, awards and prizes for the arts and sciences encourage and recognise excellence in these fields of endeavour. They can also provide financial support, especially valuable in small countries such as New Zealand, where working in the arts or sciences may not provide a living income. Awards and prizes of money, accommodation, travel and other benefits can support the winners to carry out further activities in their field. Awards and prizes can also increase public awareness and the status of specific art forms or scientific activities, making it more attractive for people to pursue those activities.

Awards for writers

Until the mid-20th century, competitions run by newspapers and magazines such as the Auckland Weekly News were almost the only source of prizes for writers. The first Labour government, which took office in 1935, valued cultural activities and believed they should be made widely available, if necessary through state funding. The 1940 official commemorations of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi included one-off prizes for the best novel, short story, play, essay and poems.

Jessie Mackay Poetry Award

The writers’ organisation PEN NZ (later the New Zealand Society of Authors) convinced the government to sponsor an annual poetry award, the first such award in New Zealand. Named for the recently deceased Jessie Mackay, the first locally born poet to achieve national prominence, it was first awarded in 1940. Notable winners of this award for best first book of poetry have included James K. Baxter, Allen Curnow, and Selina Tusitala Marsh.

Poet laureates

The Poet Laureate award was established by the Hawke’s Bay winery Te Mata Estate in 1997 to mark its centenary. It was modelled on the long-standing British Poet Laureate award. Bill Manhire was the inaugural Te Mata poet laureate. The National Library assumed responsibility for this award in 2007. Each laureate is supported for two years to write new work and promote poetry throughout the country. They are presented with a tokotoko – a ceremonial carved walking stick created by Hawke’s Bay artist Jacob Scott.

Hubert Church Award

In 1945 PEN NZ introduced an award for prose writing, named for Hubert Church, a poet, novelist and critic who died in 1932. The Hubert Church Award for the best first book of prose published in the previous year has been won by many of New Zealand’s most distinguished writers. Both this award and the Jessie Mackay Poetry Award later became part of the Best First Book Awards in the New Zealand Post Book Awards (from 2016, the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards).

Esther Glen Award

Another early literary award was the Esther Glen Award for children’s literature. Glen was a Christchurch journalist and children’s writer. She received early encouragement when, at age 11, she won a story competition run by an English magazine. Glen died in 1940 and five years later the first annual Esther Glen Award was won by Stella Morice for The book of Wiremu. Since its inception the award has been administered by the Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (LIANZA, originally the New Zealand Library Association). In 2014 the annual LIANZA Children’s Book Awards also included the categories of young adult fiction, illustration, non-fiction, te reo Māori, and a Librarians’ Choice award.

State Literary Fund

In addition to founding individual awards for poetry and prose, PEN NZ lobbied the government to set up a permanent state Literary Fund, which was formed in 1947. The fund was managed by the Arts Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs.

Literary awards, 1950s onwards

Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award

A privately sponsored short-story award, the biennial Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award, became available from 1959. This was funded by the Bank of New Zealand (BNZ). Sir Harold Beauchamp, the father of the short-story writer Katherine Mansfield, chaired the bank’s board of directors for many years. In the 2010s the BNZ sponsored awards for short stories by unpublished and secondary-school-age writers, as well as established writers.

Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards

In 1968 a second privately sponsored award, the Sir James Wattie Award, was formed with the support of the New Zealand Publishers’ Association. This recognised the overall quality, not just the literary merit, of a new fiction or non-fiction publication. The first winners were John Morton and Michael Miller for The New Zealand sea shore. This award later expanded and became the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards, and subsequently the Montana Book Awards.

Children’s Book Awards

From 1982 the State Literary Fund presented an annual award for best first children’s book. In 1988 the fund’s activities were transferred to the literature programme of government arts funding body the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council (later Creative New Zealand). From 1991 the annual Children’s Book Awards (awarded at a separate ceremony from the LIANZA Children’s Book Awards) were sponsored by Aim, a brand of toothpaste. New Zealand Post was the sponsor from 1997 to 2014. In 2015, a number of organisations and publishing companies contributed funds so an award could be made. In 2016 the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults merged with the LIANZA Children’s Book Awards. It continued to be supported by a number of different sponsors.

Prime Minister’s Awards

Since 2003 the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement have been awarded annually to writers who have made a significant contribution to New Zealand literature in the genres of non-fiction, poetry and fiction (including plays and scriptwriting). Each winner receives $60,000. Nominees for these awards are proposed by the New Zealand public, and an expert panel recommends the winners for approval by Creative New Zealand. By 2023, Prime Minister’s Awards had been won by 37 men and 26 women.

New Zealand Book Awards

From 1976 the State Literary Fund presented annual New Zealand Book Awards which celebrated literary merit in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and, later, book production. In 1996 these awards (now managed by Creative New Zealand) were merged with the Montana Book Awards to form the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, administered by the bookselling association Booksellers New Zealand.

In 2010 sponsorship of these awards was assumed by New Zealand Post. In 2014, their final year, the New Zealand Post Book Awards covered the categories of poetry, fiction, illustrated and general non-fiction, a book of the year, three best first book awards, a Māori language award and the People’s Choice award (chosen by public vote).

From 2016 the awards were sponsored by property developer Ockham as the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

Writers’ fellowships

Although most literary awards take the form of cash grants, others are residencies, which give writers the opportunity to stay at a particular location with their accommodation costs, and sometimes extra funding, provided. The first of these was the Robert Burns Fellowship, set up with anonymous funding at Otago University in 1958. Other universities later followed suit.

Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship

New Zealand’s most prestigious literary residency in the 2010s was the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, founded in 1970 and funded by a trust. The award provided the winner with a year’s income and a residency of at least three months in Menton, France, where Katherine Mansfield lived and wrote at the Villa Isola Bella late in her life.

Visual arts, music and theatre awards

Visual arts awards

Since the late 1950s, annual national awards and competitions have been introduced for art forms other than literature, and for media. The Kelliher Art Prize, for ‘a realistic natural representation’ of a New Zealand landscape, was first contested at the Auckland City Gallery in 1956, and thereafter was an annual event in the Academy Gallery until 1970. 1 The privately sponsored National Bank Art Awards were held from 1958 to 1980, and the Benson & Hedges Art Awards from 1969 until the 1980s.

Wallace Art Awards

The Wallace Arts Trust was founded by philanthropist Sir James Wallace to promote New Zealand contemporary visual art, including printmaking, photography and video. Its activities include the annual Wallace Art Awards, first awarded in 1992. In 2010 these awards included six overseas residencies and had a total value of over $275,000.

Walters Prize

The $50,000 Walters Prize is awarded for an outstanding work of contemporary New Zealand visual art produced and exhibited during the previous two years. Named in honour of the late New Zealand artist Gordon Walters, the prize was established in 2002 by Erika and Robin Congreve and Dame Jenny Gibbs, working with Auckland Art Gallery. The Walters Prize, awarded every two years, aims to make contemporary art a more widely recognised and debated feature of cultural life.

Adam Portraiture Award

Wellington arts philanthropists Dennis and Verna Adam sponsored many arts awards and institutions through their Adam Foundation. These include New Zealand’s premier portrait competition, the Adam Portraiture Award, run annually by Wellington’s New Zealand Portrait Gallery. In 2020 the winning entry received $20,000. A public vote decided the People’s Choice, which was awarded $2,500. 

Singing awards

When the first annual Mobil Song Quest was held in 1956, more than 1,300 people entered nationwide. At their local radio station, they each sang a song in their preferred genre – country and western, pop or classical. These were broadcast nationally to determine the winner. Later the competition focused on opera, and winners included the sopranos Malvina Major and Kiri Te Kanawa, both of whom went on to have very successful careers.

In 2005 the competition’s sponsor changed and it became the Lexus Song Quest. Competitors had to perform a wide-ranging classical repertoire in three languages. Overall winners have included Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Jonathan Lemalu and Madeleine Pierard. In the 2010s the competition was held every two years. Auckland bass-baritone Joel Amosa, the 2018 winner, won $20,000, a scholarship worth $27,000, and international travel to the value of $3,000.

Recorded music awards

The first awards for New Zealand recorded music were co-founded in 1965 by the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation (NZBC) and the soap-powder manufacturer Reckitt and Colman. These awards, named after the company’s anti-dandruff shampoo, were called the Loxene Golden Disc Awards. An expert panel selected 10 (later 12) songs, and the public voted for their favourite. A number of compilation albums of finalists were released.

From 1978 these awards were administered by the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand (later Recorded Music NZ), and named for a succession of commercial sponsors. From 2004 the main sponsor was Vodafone New Zealand. In 2019 the awards included prizes for the best classical, soul, pop, hip hop, Pacific, folk, country and jazz artist, along with many other categories.

Since 2010 the Taite Music Prize has been awarded annually for the outstanding New Zealand album of the past year. The prize is named for the late Dylan Taite, one of New Zealand's most respected music journalists.

Awards drama

The Chapman Tripp theatre award ceremonies have frequently been known for spontaneity and flamboyance. The event’s invitation specifies ‘Dress: formal or outrageous’. The MCs for the ceremony have sometimes departed from the script, providing memorable dramatic and comic moments. Two MCs once unashamedly promoted their own forthcoming show, and another subtly sent up awards shows in general.

Theatre awards

New Zealand was relatively slow to introduce lasting awards for theatre practitioners. In 1992 a group of Wellington theatre critics convinced law firm Chapman Tripp to sponsor the first such awards evening. For the first six years the awards went mainly to Wellington theatre productions, but they later became a nationwide competition. Although Chapman Tripp ended its sponsorship of the national awards in 2015, a number of annual regional awards events continued to be held.


TV, film, news media and radio awards

Television and film awards

New Zealand’s first television awards, the National TV Awards, were run by the New Zealand Television Workshop in 1965 and 1966 to promote training for local production. An early winner was producer Shirley Maddock in 1965 for her documentary The distant shore.

From 1970 to 1985 a carpet manufacturer sponsored the New Zealand Feltex Awards, covering both film and television. From 1986 to 2003 these were superseded by the Guild of Film and Television Arts (GOFTA) awards. In 2000 the GOFTAs were run as two separate ceremonies, for film and television.

Oscar winners

The first New Zealander to win the world’s most prestigious film award, an Academy Award (also known as an Oscar), was Jonathan Hardy. In 1980 he shared the best adapted screenplay award for Breaker Morant. Jane Campion’s film The piano won three Oscars in 1994, and in 2022 she was named best director for The power of the dog. By 2014 Peter Jackson’s films had won 17 Oscars.

In 2005 two new award ceremonies were introduced. The Qantas Television Awards, honouring television and television journalism, were run by the NZ Television Broadcasters Council, later renamed ThinkTV. The New Zealand Screen Awards honoured film and television production, and were run by the Screen Directors Guild of New Zealand. The two sets of awards merged in 2008 as the Qantas Film and Television Awards. They became the Aotearoa Film and Television Awards in 2011. The following year the awards for television were again split off as the New Zealand Television Awards.

In 2013 TVNZ ceased supporting the New Zealand Television Awards. Instead the Moas, an alternative awards ceremony for the film industry first held in 2012 (later renamed the Rialto Channel New Zealand Film Awards), introduced an additional award for Best Television Feature or Drama Series. The 2019 New Zealand Television Awards were sponsored by Huawei.

News media awards

The annual Qantas Press Awards were first held in 1974 to recognise excellence in news photography. They were organised by the Newspaper Publishers Association and later expanded to include many other fields of journalism, including television and radio. In 1993 they became the Qantas Media Awards, and in 2010 they were renamed the Canon Media Awards. In 2017, now the Voyager Media Awards, they attracted 2,174 entries across 70 categories.

Radio awards

The New Zealand Radio Awards were first held in 1978 to support and recognise excellence in radio broadcasting in New Zealand. By 2012 the awards were administered by the Radio Broadcasters Association, and accepted entries from both commercial and non-commercial networks, including Māori and ethnic radio stations. In that year awards were presented in 21 categories, including Air Personality of the Year, Station of the Year and Sir Paul Holmes Broadcaster of the Year. In 2020 there were 16 award categories.

Science awards

Royal Society of New Zealand awards

The Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ) was founded in 1867 as the New Zealand Institute. It was modelled on the British Royal Society, the world’s oldest continuously existing scientific academy. The society aims to advance and promote science, technology and (since 2010) the humanities in New Zealand, and administers a range of funds, medals and awards. These include the Marsden Fund, established with government funding in 1994 to support leading-edge research in science, engineering, mathematics, social sciences and the humanities.

In 2014 the RSNZ awarded 20 medals and prizes for excellence in specific fields. The most distinguished of these was the Rutherford Medal, named after physicist Ernest Rutherford. This medal was awarded annually, together with $100,000 of prize money, for ‘exceptional contributions to the advancement and promotion of public awareness, knowledge and understanding … in any field of science, mathematics, social science, or technology’.1 The RSNZ also sponsored prizes for creative science writing and for science books.

Marsden Medal

The Royal Society of New Zealand includes a large number of constituent organisations which offer science awards and medals. For example, the New Zealand Association of Scientists has awarded the Marsden Medal annually since 1997 for ‘a lifetime of outstanding service to the cause or profession of science’.2 The medal is named for physicist Ernest Marsden.

Prime Minister’s Science Prizes

The Prime Minister’s Science Prizes were introduced in 2009 to raise the profile and prestige of science among New Zealanders. The five annual prizes, with a combined value of $1 million, are:

  • the Science Prize, for an individual or team who has made a transformative discovery or achievement in science
  • the MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist Prize
  • the Science Teacher Prize
  • the Future Scientist Prize, for a secondary school student
  • the Science Media Communication Prize.

Sir Paul Callaghan EUREKA! Awards

Since 2012 the Rotary Club of Wellington has held annual Sir Paul Callaghan EUREKA! Awards to enable promising secondary- and tertiary-level science students to demonstrate their knowledge to an audience of national leaders. The competitive awards were held first at regional and then at national level. The 12 national finalists received cash prizes and trophies. Rotary formed the EUREKA! Trust in 2013 to ‘take the legacy of Sir Paul [Callaghan] forward into future years’.3


General and international awards

Fulbright fellowships

New Zealand’s geographical isolation means that awards to study and work overseas can be particularly valuable. One of the first sets of awards of this type was the Fulbright programme, festablished in 1948 through a bilateral treaty between the governments of New Zealand and the US as part of a worldwide programme. New Zealand was the fifth country to join the programme, which offered awards for New Zealanders and Americans wanting to study, research, teach or present work in each other’s country. By 2014 more than 1,700 New Zealand graduate students, artists, academics and professionals had received Fulbright fellowships.

Artists to Antarctica programme

In 1996 the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting recommended promoting understanding and appreciation of the values of Antarctica through the contribution of writers, artists and musicians. In each subsequent summer season two or three New Zealand artists, in any discipline, have travelled to the ice through the Artists to Antarctica Programme, established with Creative New Zealand.

The first recipients were painter Nigel Brown, writer Chris Orsman and poet Bill Manhire, in 1997–98. Other Antarctic arts fellows have been ceramicists, photographers, sculptors, choreographers, jewellers, designers and composers. Since 2008 Antarctica New Zealand has also run an invitation-only arts fellowship, selected by an expert panel and aimed at high-profile, senior New Zealand artists.

Arts Foundation of New Zealand

The Arts Foundation of New Zealand was formed in the late 1990s to encourage philanthropists to support New Zealand artists. In 2014 the foundation administered awards in seven categories, including the Marti Friedlander Photographic Award and the Mallinson Rendel Illustrators Award. The foundation established Laureate Awards in 2000 to encourage artists to develop their careers. These have since been presented annually to five artists, who each receive $50,000 and a bronze statuette. Arts Foundation of New Zealand awards are not decided through a competitive process, but are presented to selected recipients who do not know they are under consideration. By 2020, 205 artists had received a total of $6 million.

International literary awards

In addition to the national prizes and awards for which only New Zealanders are eligible, a wide range of international arts and science honours have also been won by New Zealanders, in competition with the rest of the world.

The Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious awards for a work of fiction, was won in 1985 by Keri Hulme for her novel the bone people. In 2013 this award, now the Man Booker Prize, was won by another New Zealand writer, Eleanor Catton, for The luminaries. The Hans Christian Andersen Award for children’s literature, the world’s most prestigious award in this field, was won in 2006 by New Zealand author Margaret Mahy.

Nobel Prizes

Nobel Prizes for science have been awarded annually since 1901. The Swedish-based Nobel Committee selects prizewinners from a list of nominees. In 2018 the prize money was worth more than NZ$1.5 million. By that year, three New Zealand scientists had received a Nobel Prize for science:

  • Ernest Rutherford, chemistry, 1908
  • Maurice Wilkins, physiology or medicine, 1962
  • Alan MacDiarmid, chemistry, 2000.

Artists in the Order

In 2020 six of the 25 members of the Order of New Zealand, the nation’s highest order, were creative artists. Previous members of the order include composer Douglas Lilburn, poet Allen Curnow, author Janet Frame, potter Doreen Blumhardt, children’s writer Margaret Mahy and visual artist Ralph Hōtere.

Awards can be made to institutions as well as individuals. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand has received a number of national and international awards, including the BearingPoint innovation in public service award (2005); BearingPoint innovation in services to Māori award (2005); New Zealand finalist in the World Summit awards, e-culture category (2005); a Webby award (2006); and a WriteMark award for best plain English website in the public sector (2008).

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Mark Derby, 'Awards and prizes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Mark Derby, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014, updated 1 o Āpereira 2020