Early cultural life
Music, art and science developed an early following. The founding of the Mechanics Institute and Library in 1842 became the springboard for other cultural societies such as the Choral Society (1855) and the Auckland Society of Arts (1871). The Auckland Institute (1867) encouraged scientific enquiry.
Nineteenth-century artists like John Hoyte and Alfred Sharpe depicted the Waitematā Harbour and surrounding landscape. In 1887 the Auckland Art Gallery, among New Zealand’s first, was opened.
During the first part of the 20th century a number of important writers emerged from Auckland. Among them were R. A. K. Mason – sometimes called the ‘father of Auckland poets’ – and A. R. D. (Rex) Fairburn.
A new vitality: 1950s and 1960s
The arrival of expressionist painter Colin McCahon in 1953, and the appointment in 1956 of Peter Tomory as the art gallery’s curator stimulated the arts. A stream of significant new artists taught or were students at Elam School of Fine Art, including Don Binney, Gretchen Albrecht, Gordon Walters and Pat Hanly. Their inventiveness, use of Māori imagery, and activist politics gave Auckland art an edgier style than elsewhere in New Zealand.
Writer Frank Sargeson depicted urban life in his stories, and made his cottage at Takapuna the focal point for a community of local writers. Maurice Gee’s writing evoked the creeks and orchards of West Auckland.
European immigrants arriving in the 1950s and 1960s strengthened local interest in photography, abstract painting and furniture design. New Vision Gallery (1960) fostered the work of painters and potters, and pioneered the establishment of other dealer galleries. Len Castle, New Zealand’s leading potter, visited Japan in 1967 and returned to influence a generation of potters. Pacific immigrants introduced their own distinctive styles, with John Pule leading the way in art and poetry and Black Grace, founded in 1995, enlivening modern dance.
In recent years arts festivals have enriched Auckland’s cultural life. Created in 1999, the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival attracts local and international writers to the city. The Auckland Festival began in 2003 and supports new work in the performing and visual arts.
Founded in 1962, the Mercury Theatre Company was New Zealand’s largest professional theatre. Its demise in 1990 led to the establishment of the Auckland Theatre Company – the most popular professional theatre in the region. Another company, Silo Theatre, offers alternative works. Amateur theatres – such as the Howick Little Theatre – thrive in Auckland’s suburbs.
Professional music in Auckland is led by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and the Auckland Chamber Orchestra. Auckland’s choral music is exceptional. Terence Maskell has built up superb choirs from South Auckland roots, with a strong Māori and Pacific influence. Sistema Aotearoa, a children's orchestra based in Ōtara, started in 2011. Students of Asian origin are also making a strong contribution to classical music.
University of Auckland
The University of Auckland (founded in 1883) has been a key player in fostering the arts. In the 1950s and 1960s its anthropology department reawakened scholarly interest in Māori studies. The English department – where J. C. Reid introduced New Zealand literature to the curriculum – granted tenure to writers such as the modernist poet, Allen Curnow. At the same time, historian Keith Sinclair encouraged new academic interest in New Zealand’s past. Auckland University Press became a strong supporter of local poets.
In 1950 the poet and artist Rex Fairburn applied for a lectureship at the Elam School of Fine Arts. Being a local, he doubted he would be appointed: ‘If I were to go abroad, drink steadily for twelve months, buy a black homburg and big pile of coloured postcards of the Masters, and come back again, I should no doubt be considered a gift from Heaven to the art school.’ 1 He need not have worried. He got the job.
Museums and art galleries
The Auckland War Memorial Museum in the Domain has important Māori and Pacific collections and a strong research focus. The National Maritime Museum charts Polynesian and European seafarers. The Museum of Transport and Technology, MOTAT, tells stories of New Zealand technological invention and innovation. The Auckland Art Gallery houses historical collections, and the nearby New Gallery displays contemporary art.
Other galleries include the Gus Fisher Gallery at the University of Auckland, Artspace in Newton, and Northart Gallery on the North Shore. There are also many dealer galleries.