Sir Henry Kelliher was a longstanding patron of the arts and in 1956 he set up the Kelliher Art Award “to capture the grandeur of the New Zealand scene in all its changes through the seasons”, as he described it. The objective of the competition was to encourage realistic portrayals of New Zealand’s landscapes and the ways of life of its people for the entire world to see.

Although the traditional style and subject matter challenged artists and critics who were inclined towards contemporary interpretations, the Kelliher, as it soon was called, quickly became New Zealand’s premiere art event. The prize for the winning painting by a New Zealand artist was sums not far off the country’s average annual wage at the time. Prominent international artists such as the Australian, Sir William Dargie, came to judge the award. Peter McIntyre was one of the early winners of the competition and other established and emerging artists were to follow.

The Kelliher Art Award was held until 1977 by which time it had widened its scope to include figure studies and portraits.

The Kelliher Art Trust holds a unique collection of New Zealand landscapes, initially acquired from Kelliher competition prize-winning paintings augmented with others, acquired or commissioned by the Trust. Recently Trustees have acquired further, contemporary works to compliment the collection, including works by the celebrated New Zealand artists Stanley Palmer, Michael Hight, Justin Boroughs, Toss Woollaston, Rita Angus, Michael Smithers and Dick Frizzell.

The significance of the collection was revitalised in 2003 when selected paintings were lent to Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery to help its fundraising campaign to extend the building. The Kelliher Art Trust’s curator at the time, Peter Shaw, brought together an outstanding selection of the traditional works of the Kelliher collection and contemporary works from the more modernist Fletcher Trust Collection to create Representation and Reaction. Modernism and the New Zealand Landscape Tradition 1956-1977.A regional tour followed for which an exhibition catalogue was published.
Other exhibitions held nationally were the 2007 “Prized Works”, and in 2011 the “Past and Present” exhibitions which visited Wanaka, Tauranga and the Uxbridge Creative Centre in Howick, Auckland.

More recently, the Trust has commissioned landscapes by emerging artists; by Trenton Garrett and Imogen Taylor in 2015, and Aroha Gossage in 2016.

Trust Collection Curator, Christopher Johnstone regularly selects works from the Trust’s collection for display at the Trust’s gallery.

Leonard Mitchell (1925-1980) Summer in the Mokauiti Valley 1956 oil on canvas 915mm x 1150 mm
Summer in the Mokauiti Valley, 1956 by Leonard Mitchell
Winner of the first Kelliher Art Prize 1956