NZ Contemporary Art – Past, Present and Future


The New Zealand contemporary art movement is now at an all-time high. In 1986 there was a grand opening of the Auckland Arts Centre called ARTYA. This was the start of what has become a major exhibition and art movement in New Zealand. Since then there has been an explosion in interest in contemporary art in NZ. It has grown into a significant and thriving industry which exhibits not only contemporary art but also contemporary design and sculpture from various artists.

The first Artex, named ARTEX 86 was held at the Princes Wharf Passenger Terminal Building, Auckland New Zealand from 27 July 1986 to 3 September 1986. This was a major exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Peter Young. It was won first prize in the category of best Contemporary Art exhibition. It was Peter Young’s second exhibition as part of the New Zealand Contemporary Art Festival which was cancelled later that year due to lack of funding. His other major works from this period are The Belfry ( 1986), Landscape ( 1987), Landscape ( 1988), Landscape ( 1990), Busted (1990), Busted (1991), Still Life ( 1991), Still Life ( 1992) and Sun ( 1993).

After this New Zealand contemporary art exhibition artist began to work with the National Gallery of New Zealand in Wellington and also began travelling around to participate in international art and culture events. At this point Peter Young decided to form a group called the New Zealand International Contemporary Art Association (NZIA). These were a group of young artists who were interested in travelling and participating in international events and exhibitions as well as maintaining a consistent presence in gallery exhibitions and buying/selling venues in New Zealand and abroad. Their association took its first official meeting in December 1987 and remains today a strong and successful business organisation dedicated to promoting and networking between New Zealand artists and art buyers and sellers.

Another early member of the New Zealand contemporary art association was Michael Young, a painter and illustrator from Christchurch who was known for his radical and political paintings. Michael was to become a strong participant in the Anti-Globalization and Anti Corporatisation movements and was also to popularise street arts through his art. He was to meet with many other artists during the time he was exhibiting in New Zealand exhibitions and began travelling around the country which led to him meeting with other artists, some of whom he would later become friends with including John Pilsworth, John Key, Bob Coles, Warren Smith and Craig Wright. During this period, he also began to focus on travelling and participating in art events and exhibitions as well as buying and selling paintings in various formats. After travelling around the country, Michael realised that there was room for independent New Zealand artists to create art and develop careers.

The National Gallery of New Zealand, under the management of John Sullivan, did not respond positively to this growth in the field of new Zealand contemporary art and so they changed the format of their exhibits and invited local and international artists to submit examples of their work. Some of these included local artist Ron English, who was to feature in an exhibition entitled Walls of Language at the Gallery in Picton. At the same time, John Sullivan declined an invitation to be a featured artist at Christening in honour of Queen Victoria. An exhibition entitled New Zealand at the International Association of Fine Arts and Sculpture was hosted by the Gallery and featured local and international artists such as Frankrollersz, Richard Uttman, Peter Young, Rhodri Twedderers and David Lang. These were just a small fraction of the New Zealand contemporary art scene at that point in time.

At the end of February or beginning of March, the NZ Art Gallery hosted an exhibition entitled An Artist’s Exhibition: Celebrating Excellence in Contemporary Art in Auckland at their Gallery. This was a well received and highly publicized event that showcased work from a range of well known and respected New Zealand contemporary artists. One of the highlights of the exhibition was the announcement of the recipient of the prestigious Manus Prize, which is an annual merit award given by the New Zealand Society for the Arts and Design. Manus Prize committee member and artist Rosie Telford received the Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to the field of contemporary art in New Zealand. The announcement of the Manus Prize in Auckland was met with both delight and anticipation by many New Zealanders who enjoy the visual and performing arts.

The following month, in April, the second annual NZ Ascentennial Festival took place at Auckland’s Parklands Hotel, offering a range of events that included music, theatre and film. A select group of well known and respected New Zealanders were invited to share the Festival with the wider public. The invited artists were Ann Tran Clark, Philip Kennell and Zane Hemstrup. The festival showcased the best in contemporary new artists from around New Zealand including Corin Rago, Jade Johns and John Flough. In addition to the renowned names, this exhibition was notable with an exhibition of contemporary art by non-New Zealand artists that showcased non-traditional materials and themes such as pottery and kiwi designs.

In June the third exhibition of the year, Kiwi Contemporary Art, was hosted by artist Katarina Beyer. This exhibition was supported by the Wellcome Collection and was designed to celebrate New Zealand’s contemporary artists against the backdrop of the iconic Harbour Bridge. A range of works from some of the country’s most talented artists including Joseph Reed and David Walsh were showcased in this exhibition.