The Fletcher Ceramic Awards, as they were known, grew in significance from a national occasion to an event that was followed world-wide. Celebrated annually it became New Zealand’s longest running art competition (1977-1998).
At its zenith, 1000 entries would arrive from over 40 countries. Accounts of the events and the prize-winners were carried in every ceramic journal and magazine world-wide, it significantly raised New Zealand’s clay profile internationally.
By Moyra Elliott
Beginning life as the Fletcher Brownbuilt Pottery Award, this competition was initiated to support a new teaching and meeting centre for the Auckland Studio Potters (ASP) being installed in Onehunga. Behind it all was an energetic committee of potters and Trevor Hunt - Director of Fletcher Brownbuilt, a roofing subsidiary of Fletcher Construction. Hunt was interested in ceramics and believed business held a moral responsibility to foster the arts. Importantly, as a businessman he understood that the new centre, as envisaged, could not survive financially. The Award would underpin the new facilities.
Basic parameters were set in place; Auckland Museum was the host venue, Brownbuilt carried all costs, managed organisation and provided labour, the ASP supported Brownbuilt's work force where necessary and advised on sector issues. All income from the commission on sale of works, door entries and catalogue sales, went to the ASP. Entry to the awards was by actual work submitted. The Awards were judged by a single person, of high repute in ceramics and always from outside New Zealand. While international participation and recognition was an ultimate aim, initial exhibitions were national only. These criteria remained in place for the Award’s lifetime and set benchmarks for several emulative events.
Modest Beginnings and Consistent Evolution; the Initial Decade
The first exhibition received 64 entries and all were displayed. Subsequent numbers increased annually until, by decade’s end, there were more than 200 of which about 100 could be displayed. Entry officially became international in 1980, however most derived from Australia with a scattering from elsewhere, mainly the UK. The pottery community, after some initial hesitation, accepted the idea of a competition as did the public. Sales of work were brisk and the income assisted the new ASP Centre. The Award gradually found its feet and local attention steadily grew helped by extensions to prize-money from $2000 to $5000. However the Award’s international presence remained modest.
The Second Decade: Transformation and New Zealand arrives ‘on the Map’!
The first major change arrived the following year when Trevor Hunt retired and Brownbuilt was absorbed into the Fletcher Challenge Corporation. Initially the Award was orphaned, then parent company, Fletcher Challenge accepted the funding role, but with differences. Fletcher staff could no longer be involved, and organisation of the event became the potters' responsibility, contracted by a grant. Fletcher Challenge provided media support and requested an opening where they might entertain business guests. This first year of Challenge sponsorship saw another increase in prize-money from $5000 to $10,000 which further cemented its place nation-wide and increased awareness internationally resulting in a rise in entries – although still by actual work.
1990 saw a new management team led by Moyra Elliott. Fresh stratagems included five Merit Awards being granted $1000 prize-money each. Much effort was invested finding arts organisations in diverse countries to reach more artists and potential media coverage. A fortuitous link with Japan initiated 30+ entries from there, introducing an aesthetic distinction impossible to achieve otherwise. An international component of 180 works arrived. The following year international entries eclipsed numbers from Aotearoa for the first time.
Television became interested and the Award became a regular annual feature on national news while radio, newspapers and magazines increased cover. A decision to make entry by colour transparencies was made. Already standard practice for other awards it eliminated necessity to ship a work that might not be accepted for exhibition. Entry numbers magnified and a further decision to enlarge the exhibition to fill two adjoining exhibition halls ensued. Prizes were raised to $15,000 and $2000 each and Fletcher Challenge renewed their contract.
The Fruitful Years 1991-96
By its zenith in the mid-1990s, entries arrived from about 1000 artists in over 40 countries. Review texts and awards’ results were published around the world. ‘The Fletcher’ had an international reputation for efficient and ethical management of the processes, largely helped by former judges. Entrants knew, if they received a prize, their work would feature in magazines world-wide, which encouraged entries from interesting emergent artists ready to test their work beyond their own borders. The catalogue, enlarged and freshly designed, became a collector’s item and tickets for the 600 guest opening were at premium. International award recipients arrived to participate and help celebrate. It had become Auckland’s art event of the year!
The 20th Award saw prize-money rise to $20,000 and, at the Potters Centre, a new building was erected – the direct result of the Ceramics Award’s income and its members' efforts.
1998 The Finale
Following the 20th, Award management retired and a new team commenced. Fletcher Challenge changed direction and decided to relinquish all sponsorship following the 22nd event. The Award was discontinued. It is still regularly mentioned overseas - its demise viewed with regret. The Fletcher Ceramic Awards made a mark and is remembered.
Header Image: Hand-built Stoneware Vessel, 370x350x220mm. Premier Award, 1992. Lara Scobie, Scotland. Judge: Akio Takamori, Japan/USA. Photograph: Haru Sameshima. The Fletcher Trust Collection, Auckland.