Ōtautahi Christchurch is a place of experimentation and artistic risk taking which over time has shaped both our local and international creative identity.

The following summary does not, and cannot pretend to, describe all of those who have influenced or contributed to our local, national, and international experience of arts and creativity.

Through dance, film, literature, theatre, object, music, painting, design, landscape architecture, architecture, many artists, designers, produces and community organisations have helped shape and define our culture and our place.

Early history

The arts have always been an important part of our lives. Generations of Māori brought their artistic and cultural traditions as they lived and travelled in the region.

Creativity then, much as today, was woven through everyday life including the creation and use of mōkihi, through carving and weaving traditions, as well as waiata, karanga and whaikōrero.

Canterbury contains many significant rock art sites, part of the more than 580 sites recorded in the South Island alone(external link).

Rock art(external link) is one of the oldest and most significant of the traditional arts, and considered by some an early form of written language: meaningful marks left for others to read. Some of those marks offer a glimpse of the world in the time of moa and pouākai (Haast’s eagle).

Architecture, design, and the Garden City

Benjamin Mountfort was one of New Zealand’s most pre-eminent architects in the nineteenth century and was responsible for the adoption of the Gothic Revival style which characterised Christchurch. Others such as Cecil Wood, Samuel Hurst Seager, Peter Beaven, Sir Miles Warren, Maurice Mahoney, Jonty Rout and David Sheppard have contributed to shaping New Zealand’s architectural history.

Despite the terrible toll the earthquakes had on our built environment their legacy and some of the buildings designed by these architects continue to shape public and private life including Christchurch Arts Centre, Canterbury Museum, Sign of the Kiwi and the Christchurch Town Hall.

While there are no opportunities to train as an architect in the city, Ara Institute now offers various courses architectural studies as a particular area of focus post-earthquake. From 1969 the country’s first courses in landscape architecture were offered through Lincoln College (now Lincoln University).

Landscape architects, architects, designers, planners and residents have long contributed to the city’s reputation as a Garden City.

Hagley Park, an inspiration for New York's Central Park, was established in the 1850s and was to provide "the greatest health for the greatest number" and about 50 years later English architect Ebenezer Howard kickstarted his own Garden City movement. His theories involved much more than a collection of manicured rose gardens.

He proposed self-sustaining cities which avoided the overcrowding of a metropolis and the isolation of rural life. He aimed to deliver the best of town and country.

Two years later Letchworth in Hertfordshire, Howard's first garden city, was founded but according to Lincoln University associate professor Dr Rupert Tipples, Christchurch had the jump on Howard(external link).

Visual and object arts

The Canterbury Society of Arts (CSA) was founded in 1880 and held its first annual exhibition in 1881. The CSA played a leading role in the social and cultural life of the early city.

As well as amassing a considerable arts collection featuring work of British and New Zealand artists, the CSA exhibited many of the country’s leading artists. The organisation had "the express purpose of spreading a love of artistic work through the community(external link)".

Since 1880, we have played a significant role in supporting and advocating the arts in Canterbury, exhibiting the early work of generations of leading New Zealand artists, including Petrus van der Velden, Raymond McIntyre, Margaret Stoddart, Rhona Haszard, Frances Hodgkins, W. A. Sutton, Colin McCahon, Michael Smither, Neil Dawson, Andrew Drummond, Billy Apple, Julia Morison and Pauline Rhodes.

The Group launched onto the Christchurch arts scene in 1927, established by ex-students of the Canterbury College of Arts. The Group rapidly grew to prominence attracting many of the country’s notable artists over time, including Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann, Rata Lovell-Smith, Toss Wollaston, Doris Lusk, Colin McCahon, and Philip Trusttum.

The Group created no manifesto nor stood on any platform, instead encouraging individual expression and vision. It became a counterpoint to the more conventional CSA. The Group’s sphere of influence extended to other art forms through collaborations and friendships with the likes of writer and editor Charles Brasch and composer Douglas Lilburn. It was occasionally referred to as “Bloomsbury South".

The city’s public art gallery was opened in the Botanic Gardens in 1932, funded by a gift from local businessman Robert McDougall. After outgrowing its building, the new Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū was opened in 2003. The Gallery exhibits a changing programme of New Zealand and international art, and collects both historical and contemporary work in a wide range of mediums.

Literature and publishing

In 1935 the Caxton Press was founded in Christchurch by Denis Glover and John Drew, and brought together writers, artists, and typographers. It went on to publish many well-known New Zealand writers.

From 1947 Caxton Press published the Landfall magazine, a literary journal created by Charles Brasch, which gave voice to a generation of younger writers including James K Baxter, Janet Frame, Bruce Mason, Ursula Bethell and Keith Sinclair. 

From Neoismist Press in Lyttelton, Catalyst is a literary journal publishing poetry, fiction, experimental writing as well as artwork, design and spoken word recordings on CD from around NZ and the world. In addition it supports a ‘Poetry Open Mic’ every month.

The School for Young Writers was founded in 1993 in aims to inspire young writers aged 7 to 19. In addition to classes and workshops outside of school hours, the School offers support for teachers and distance learners. 

Music and broadcasting

Elder statesman and grandfather of New Zealand music composer Douglas Lilburn(external link)’s time in Christchurch was his most prolific. His work forged new pathways for musicians and composers who would follow such as C Foster Browne, Vernon Griffiths, John Ritchie (who founded the John Ritchie Orchestra in 1958 which became the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra in 1974), John Cousins, Philip Norman, Dorothy Buchanan and soundscape artist Chris Cree-Brown.

RDU (Radio University)(external link) first started broadcasting on February 23, 1976. It was the first FM station in the city and second in the South Island.

Christchurch has long been perceived as a staid, conservative, more-English-than-England town that is a little, well, boring. But alongside this culture of rugby and farming, a more subversive counter-culture has existed, and since 1976, student radio station RDU has been a part of that.

From humble beginnings, transmitting intermittently during the university orientation period, to a permanent studio with a permanent licence, RDU’s story mirrors that of many of New Zealand’s other student radio stations. However, it also has a peculiarly rich history that could only come from growing up in Christchurch.

The influential Flying Nun Records was established in 1981 by music-store manager Roger Shepherd inspired to record “the bands he loved to watch each weekend.

The record label most strongly identified with the incredible flurry of recording activity in New Zealand in the post-punk era, Flying Nun is perhaps the nation’s most important record label of the 80s and 90s(external link), with a reputation and a global influence that went far beyond its humble beginnings in Christchurch in 1981.

Famously launched by record store manager and local face around town Roger Shepherd, to document the bands and artists playing around the South Island who were regularly filling the venues and halls of Christchurch and Dunedin….

Having made the move to Dunedin in the early days Flying Nun Records(external link) continues to produce and record NZ music today, though now based in Auckland.

Tahu FM(external link) has provided and promoted the use of te reo and tikanga Māori since 1991 while contributing to the growth and identity of Ngāi Tahu through iwi focussed content.

The only iwi station in Te Waipounamu, the station’s bilingual format includes a wide range of content from a catch-up with Aunty down the road and discussion of local issues, to established and emerging New Zealand music trends.

Alongside a host of independent musicians and producers locally, sonic art has been a feature of the local music scene through various artists such as Chris Cree-Brown and Bruce Russell as well as the Cantabrian Society of Sonic Artists from 2007.

Theatre and performance

Arguably one of the country’s most successful professional theatre companies, the Court Theatre(external link) was established in 1971. From 1976 the company was based at the Arts Centre. By the late 1990’s the Court was experiencing significant audience growth to establish a professional improvisation troupe (the Court Jesters) which continues today.

In addition to being a full-time professional theatre company, The Court Theatre operates numerous other activities in the community. The company annually tours a show regionally around the South Island.

Its education programme provides training for school-age students and adults, regularly liaising with high school and tertiary institutions as well as other community groups. The company also produces four school holiday kids’ shows and an annual touring primary school show.

The experimental Free Theatre(external link) was formed in 1979. A manifesto written in 1982 set out the company’s intention to perform and develop experimental and alternative theatre, located then, at the Arts Centre.

As the country’s longest-running producer of experimental theatre, the company offers a unique experience for artists and audiences not catered for by local commercial theatres or the amateur theatres that imitate them. The Free Theatre works as an ensemble, conceiving work from an initial idea and developing it over a longer period of time. This work often takes place in spaces that are not conventional in terms of theatre.

Established in 1992 Pacific Underground, a performing arts collective(external link), aimed to bring to life the stories of pacific peoples living in New Zealand.

Members of the Pacific Underground would become influential across music, film and theatre as well as a generation of creative talent and were recognised with a lifetime achievement award in 2016 at the Pacific Music Awards.

The city has a wealth of community and emerging theatre companies presenting work in halls, theatres and gardens across the year.

Events and festivals

Christchurch, as with other NZ centres has played host to a range of arts festivals since the early 1900s(external link).

The International Exhibition held in Christchurch in from November 1 1906 till April 15 1907 was the brainchild of Prime Minister Richard Seddon. Over the course of the exhibition there were some 2 million visitors; New Zealand’s population at the time was around 1 million. The Exhibition art gallery featured British, Australian and NZ artists, music and a recreated Pā (Te Araiteuru)(external link).

Christchurch held a Pan Pacific Arts Festival with a mix of traditional arts festival fare with some more unusual presentations in 1965 and 1968 which aimed to ‘foster and promote good will and understanding of the peoples of the great Pacific Basin’. The first festival included the notable Japanese master potter Shoji Hamada.

The Auckland Film Festival was founded in 1969 while the Wellington Film Festival began in 1972. Dunedin and Christchurch established festivals in 1977. The individual festivals came together in 2009 and the festival, now known as the New Zealand International Film Festival, tours the country each year. The Isaac Theatre Royal is now the festivals ‘home’ in Christchurch.

The World Buskers Festival, first staged in 1994, was imitated by local street performers becoming vocal about exclusion from other city festivals and over the following 23 years some 1000 artists travelled to the city to perform. In 2019 the festival launched as Bread and Circus.

The Christchurch Arts Festival was established in 1995. Presented biannually the festival has brought many local, national and international performers to the city. In 2019 the festival launches with a new director and chief executive and a focus on local arts.

The Pacific Arts Festival in Christchurch was established in 2001 by Pacific Underground, running through till 2010. The Festival initiated a change in focus for Pacific Underground but did not diminish their impact on pacific arts nationally.

The SCAPE Public Art Season (formerly Biennial) is unique in the NZ context. The organisation curates an exhibition and workshops of temporary sculptural and two dimensional artworks across the city. Celebrating its 20th year in 2019, SCAPE has also produced a significant number of permanent artworks which now form part of a growing city council collection. WORD Festival is the largest literary event in the South Island(external link) with a stand out reputation for adventurous programming and collaborations. Formerly the Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival the name change reflected and evolution to focus on “words to convey ideas”.

At their best, literary festivals are places for debate, for multiple voices, for politics and subversion, or to be surprised and moved. WORD Christchurch has a reputation for being all of these things, and for having some of the most progressive and imaginative programming.

In addition to the more familiar and established arts festivals and events other festivals have evolved reflecting the increasing diversity of the population, interests in architecture, sustainability and light such as Holi, Lantern Festival, FESTA, Nostalgia, Botanic Delight and Necessary Traditions.

Contemporary Māori arts

Despite the arrival of new materials and technology in the 1800s, raranga (weaving) traditions survived and have undergone something of a renaissance across the country.

The first arrivals in Aotearoa found a climate much cooler than the one they had left behind in Te Ao Tawhito, or the old world. The new arrivals needed to adapt and create clothes and tools from the new plants they found here. Harakeke proved to be a strong, versatile mainstay for plaiting and weaving(external link) clothes, mats, kete, and tools for everyday life.

Other plants for weaving included kiekie and pīngao. Weaving was used not only to produce items of clothing but practical objects like whāriki (mats), kete (baskets) of all description, kūpenga (fishing nets and eel traps) and rongoā mats, baskets of all descriptions, fishing nets, and eel traps.

There are a good number of practicing weavers across Canterbury contributing to national programmes, exhibitions and public artworks.

As with other traditional art forms, whakairo (carving) was in critical decline when Te Ao Marama carving school was established in Rotorua in 1926. This was superseded by the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute in 1963, also located in Rotorua. Only a small number of Ngāi Tahu(external link) have been accepted into the school since that time, though a number of NZMACI graduates have gone onto to call Christchurch and Canterbury home.

Paemanu Ngāi Tahu Contemporary Visual Arts was formed by a group of established Ngāi Tahu contemporary visual art professionals, dedicated to advancing Ngāi Tahu visual culture through creative and innovative artistic expression.

Paemanu first convened in Christchurch though activity extends across the Ngāi Tahu takiwā (region) and member artists and trustees are based across the motu (country). While active through a range of events including Te Matatini in 2015 at Hagley Park and Hui-a-Iwi (tribal events), a significant milestone for the organisation was the lauded Nohoaka Toi Ngāi Tahu Artists in Residence in partnership with CoCA in 2017.

The post-earthquake environment has brought mana whenua and Ngāi Tahu narrative to the fore, repositioning Māori arts in the city and so to the role of Māori producers, artists and designers in the region.

More recently

Following on from the earthquakes a number of initiatives served to connect communities and nourish heart and soul. GapFiller, Rekindle, XCHC and Te Pūtahi are community created and driven organisations which have elevated the role of arts in healing, connecting and activating the central city and suburbs.

Artworks themselves resonated with the public who saw their experience and aspirations reflected in their creation. Chapman’s Homer by Michael Parekowhai exemplified this and was subsequently acquired for the city.

Small informal artworks which sprung up on broken and abandoned building sides captured the mood of the city and grew into a street art festival. We continue to explore the possibilities of a new built environment through the Festival of Transitional Architecture and allow ourselves moments of joy at the Dance-o-Mat.

What’s next?