The Taranaki Arts Festival has a rich and vibrant history dating all the way to an ice-cold winter morning in the 1980s.
Two Taranaki men by the names of Roger King and Grant Kerr dreamt up the festival from the side-lines of a children’s soccer game in 1988.
Both had been to the Wellington Arts Festival and had returned brimming with inspiration.
Roger says that before their kids’ soccer game was over, he and Grant had come up with the “crazy idea of doing something like that in New Plymouth”.
Three years later, in March 1991, the Taranaki Arts Festival was launched.
An estimated 45,000 people attended the inaugural Festival, which presented a total of 500 artists and more than 150 shows.
The Festival was deemed an unprecedented success and Taranaki was “set alight for those special three weeks”.
The nation’s media reported on Taranaki’s triumphant Festival, and the event even landed an extended segment of the Holmes show, with national broadcaster Paul Holmes.
Retail businesses, hotels, restaurants, airlines and even taxis reported a spike in business and the event injected nearly half a million dollars of direct spending into the local economy.
The stars of the 1991 festival were many and included names like Dame Malvina Major, Michael Houstoun, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, the Topp Twins, Footnote Dance Company, Circa Theatre, Suzanne Prentice and Sam Hunt.
The major performances drew crowds of up to 15,000 people, while the Schools Programmes played to more than 20,000 students.
The Festival remained a feature of Taranaki’s summer until 2005, when Womad New Zealand came to town and the Arts Festival made the move to warm up the region in winter.
The move to winter was launched with New Plymouth’s first ever outdoor ice rink, in the heart of the city. This proved to be an extremely popular centrepiece and thousands of people flocked to dance on the ice.
This Festival was the most extensive yet, and reached out through Urenui, Kaimata, Inglewood, Stratford, Eltham, Makahu, Opunake and Hawera.
The first winter line-up boasted exciting international acts like the Vienna Boys Choir, Sing-A-Long-A Sound of Music and Quebec’s stunning Cirque Éloize.
The move to winter was lauded as the single best thing to happen to the Taranaki Arts Festival.
Since its humble beginnings on the side-lines of a soccer field, the Taranaki Arts Festival has gone on to become the longest-running regional arts event in the country.
Over the years it has hosted the likes of Russia’s delightful Slava’s SnowShow, Montreal’s explosive Traces, and the world premiere of opera The Prodigal Child.
Over the years, one thing has been clear, and that is the festival wouldn’t be able to deliver such high quality shows, from throughout the world, without the help of generous sponsors and partners.
The 2017 festival saw 44 acts, across 13 different venues, including the 3000 piece spigeltent termed the Staples Rodway (now Bakertilly Staples Rodway) Crystal Palace. The opulent and decadent Palace was one of the venues to play host to talent coming from as far away as Ireland, Mexico, Germany and Sweden.
2019 will now see a new era as the traditional biennial festival has undergone a contemporary makeover, evolving into a series of four unique festivals in order to keep Taranaki at the forefront of the arts scene.