Nelson Arts Festival


The Nelson Arts Festival is a well-loved event in Nelson, presenting a series of unmissable  experiences for, and with, the people of Te Tauihu and beyond.

Arts Festival 1977 Press 1Sep1977 PapersPast

Southern Ballet Theatre set off for first Nelson Arts Festival. Press 1 Sep 1977. Papers Past

The Festival grew out of the Nelson Event - organised by the Nelson Provincial Arts Council, which was founded in 1969. The first named Nelson Arts Festival was staged in 1977 as a three week event using venues across the city, from August 13 to September 3, to bring reality to the aspiration of Nelson as the “Art Centre of New Zealand”. The event included opera, dance, music, photography, painting and pottery. It was organised by the Nelson Public Relations Office and the Community Education Service – not by Nelson City Council.1

Arts Festival brochures 1

Nelson Arts Festival Brochures 1999,2010,2004,2009

The event was a success and a biannual festival was established. The second arts festival ran in 1979, with “My Fair Lady” in the newly renovated Theatre Royal, an English concert pianist, workshops and exhibitions and many other events across the city.2 The third Festival, in 1981, again in August, featured the first street Festival and included events in smaller centres across the region.3 

Arts Festival brochures 2

Arts Festival brochures 2012, 2013, 2016, 2017

Following a successful fourth Festival, with financial backing from the Nelson Provincial Arts Council and support from local businesses and industry it was decided that the Festival would become an annual event, linking in with the Australian Festivals circuit.4  The 1983 Festival was the first to feature an author’s forum. 

The Festival continued to run successfully as an annual event in “festival square” in the city. In 1994 the City Council decided to take a more active role in the Festival, contract a festival coordinator and provide more funding and support.The 1994 Festival was deemed to be the first Nelson Arts Festival6 – the first one to be fully supported by Nelson City Council - although Council reports have also cited 1995 as the year it was established as a Council event.7  There is agreement that the main driver for support for the festival was the recognition that Nelson could get more economic benefit from the increasingly successful World of Wearable Arts Festival (WOW), held in the Trafalgar Centre since 1990, by running the Arts Festival as a lead up to WOW in September. This would encourage more visitors to extend their stay in Nelson.

Nelson Arts Festival 2012

Nelson Arts Festival banner 2012

Annabel Norman, who had for many years been part of the Festival, was employed by Nelson City Council as Coordinator. Annabel remained a key part of the team, and Arts in Nelson generally, during her tenure with Council 1995-2011. Also at this time the Masked Parade became an important part of the Festival, with the arrival of Kim Merry in Nelson in 1994 and his appointment as the director of the Festival's community events. Kim remained a vibrant part of the Festival team until 2009 and his early death from cancer.  A wonderful street performer himself, the masked parade became the biggest event of its kind in New Zealand, embraced by the community. Kim also ran other events across the city and was much missed.

Kim Merry

Kim Merry and some Masked Parade creations

In 1997 the 16 day Festival was planned around WOW rather than as a lead in to it, and it continued to run in September as an annual event managed by Nelson City Council.8 The Council was strengthening  its commitment to arts and wellbeing at this time. The Annual Plan 2000 for the first time had a separate section for Arts & Heritage, committing to “provide 2 major celebrations – summer and arts festivals and 2 minor ones. Obtaining 50% sponsorship to cover costs.”

1999 saw the first Reader's and Writer's Festival becoming a regular part of the Nelson Arts Festival programme, with Page & Blackmore as sponsor for many years from 2008. The name was changed to PukaPuka Talks in 2019.

Nelson suffered a blow when WOW moved to Wellington in 2005. Director, Suzie Moncrieff, felt that it had outgrown Nelson and the Trafalgar Centre. The Arts Festival that year was the first Council run Festival to operate without WOW, success was essential, especially as Nelson was also celebrating Trafalgar 200. The event moved to October, kicked off by a celebratory Port Nelson Masked Parade.9

Masked Parade 2018

Masked Parade 2018. Nelson City Council

Since the sale of WOW to Wellington the festival continued to develop as a community event, funded by Council as part of its social and cultural wellbeing responsibilities and with contributions from external funding partners. The Arts Festival had a close relationship and shared programming with the Tauranga and Otago Arts Festivals which  helped make the festival more affordable. At that time Nelson’s was the only festival in New Zealand that ran annually, linking with Tauranga programming in odd years and the Otago programming in even years.10 

Another challenge, however, was presented in 2008, with the Nelson School of Music (now NCMA) and Theatre Royal both closed for refurbishment.11 The event was moved to Founders Park, where it ran successfully until 2011 and its move back to the CBD, with most of the events operating out of the Energy Centre and Granary and street entertainers, artists and food stalls creating a vibrant space. The Arts Festival was definitely the largest scale event that Nelson City Council produced,  involving a 12 day Festival with performances and installations including theatre, music, dance and community events such as the Masked Parade, Readers and Writers event and schools programme.12

Management of the Festival was coming under increasing scrutiny, however, after 2010. It was the only festival in the country to run annually or to be managed directly by the local Council. Most festivals were run by Trusts, giving them more independence and opportunities to fund raise. In 2014 Council recommended a formal review and in 2016 the Nelson Arts Festival Transition Group was established with the purpose of providing Council with recommendations and a Transition Plan relating to the governance and provision of the Nelson Arts Festival (including the Masked Parade and Readers and Writers Programme). The aim was to advance Council’s Long Term Plan 2015-2025 commitment to “move the Nelson Arts Festival to an independent governance structure”.13 

In 2018, following 24 successful years of development and support,  and as the longest running festival in New Zealand, Nelson City Council moved the Nelson Arts Festival into a community-based, autonomous organisation to enable it to grow and flourish.14  The first Festival to run under the Trust was in 2019, its 25th year. The 2020 and 2021 Festivals ran with much reduced programmes and no masked carnival due to COVID-19, but the event returned with a flourish in 2022 and for its 29th year in 2023.


Sources used in this story

  1. Simpson, B. (1977, August 9) Nelson's three week festival. Press, p.23
  2. Unrivalled culture centre for second Arts Festival (1979, July 26). Press, p.22
  3. Third arts festival in August. (1981, July 14) Press, p.23
  4. Nelson festival plans (1983, July 27) Press, p.18
  5. Nelson City Council Annual Plan 1995/96 
  6. Marguerite Hill, 'Arts festivals - Arts festivals take off, 1960s onwards', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 January 2024)
  7. Nelson City Council Arts Activity Management plan 2012-2022 p.14
  8. Festival bigger, bolder, better (1997, June 10) Nelson Mail, p.1
  9. Comedy, music and theatre at Nelson festival (2005, August 31) The Press, D.4
  10. Nelson City Council Arts Activity Management plan 2012-2022 p.14
  11. Nelson City Council (2005, May 10) Arts Festival to be held at Founders Park.
  12. Nelson City Council (2014, 20 August) Nelson Arts Festival turns 20 in style. Live Nelson. Issue 383, p.1 
  13. Nelson City Council Long Term Plan 2015-2025, p.125
  14. It's a wrap for the 25th Nelson Arts Festival (2019, 29 October) Scoop Culture. Retrieved Jan 2024

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