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Meet our 2020 Icons

The Arts Foundation Te Tumu Toi welcome three exceptional creatives into a living circle of twenty of New Zealand’s most significant artists.

Established in 2003, Whakamana Hiranga – the Icon Awards – are our highest honour and recognise the remarkable impact each artist has had on their practice, community, and the cultural landscape of Aotearoa. This year – 2020 – marks a total of forty artists honoured as Icons since the beginning of the awards. Twenty are living, and twenty have passed on.

“The brave and brilliant Icon Whakamana Hiranga recipients have paved the way for those who dare to dedicate their lives to the arts. We acknowledge and celebrate their immense legacies and pioneering spirit. Though each of their paths has been unique, together they have shaped and enriched who we are as a nation. They are our storytellers.” - The Arts Foundation Chair, Garth Gallaway

Meet our three 2020 Arts Foundation Icon Award Whakamana Hiranga recipients.


Visual artist and Māori art educator

Sandy Adsett - Credit: TWOA photographer Trina Edwards

Sandy Adsett - Credit: TWOA photographer Trina Edwards

"Being invited to accept an Arts Foundation Whakamana Hirangi Icon Award, was such a surprising, unexpected acknowledgement... I’ve been really fortunate in being able to participate, enjoy and share in a life-long arts passion that engages in the challenges and welfare of our Māori arts identity. I thank the Arts Foundation for their very generous ongoing support to the mana of the artmakers of Aotearoa." - Dr Sandy Adsett

Get to know Dr Sandy Adsett


Novelist and writer

Joy Cowley

Joy Cowley

"It gives me a rich feeling of belonging. Writing is a form of communication done in solitude. This would be so for most of the arts. That sense of being owned by the Arts Foundation and our country, is significant beyond words." - Joy Cowley



Actor, writer, producer and director

Sam Neill - Credit to Ross Coffey

Sam Neill - Credit to Ross Coffey

"In New Zealand we often like to think of ourselves as a country where sport, and particularly rugby, defines us. I never felt like that. I thought I was lucky to live in a country deeply, profoundly enriched by its artists. Its poets, its painters and sculptors, its musicians, its dancers and novelists and playwrights. And of course its filmmakers and actors, its carvers and tattooists and weavers. Its comedians. Its historians. They sang for us.

All these many people, and more, helped me to understand where I lived, where I came from, why I loved my country. All that beauty and harmony, the darkness and the light, the ridiculous and the splendid. They still do. They nourish me. More than that, in my lifetime I have seen how critically important the arts have been in defining the way the world understands us.

In 2003 I was very honoured to receive the Icon award on behalf of my friend, the great artist Ralph Hotere, who was unwell. And now - one for me. I cannot but feel this is some extraordinary fluke. But to be in the company of all these distinguished New Zealanders, these artists like Ralph, makes me extraordinarily heartened, and very touched indeed." - Sam Neill

A little more on Sam Neill

The 2020 Icon Whakamana Hiranga recipients were selected by an independent selection panel, including Arts Foundation Laureate Anne Noble, Arts Foundation Laureate Elizabeth Knox, Arts Foundation Laureate Derek Lardelli, Arts Foundation Patron Dame Jenny Gibbs and Arts Foundation board members Warwick Freeman and Desna Whaanga-Schollum. Icons are awarded based on the below criteria:

  • Reached or are working at the peak of their careers
  • Been demonstrably dynamic and influential in their field
  • Made a major contribution to the artistic and cultural life of Aotearoa and our understanding of ourselves as New Zealanders
  • Made a major contribution to their own art form – and possibly also to others
  • Produced a significant and distinguished body of work, of outstanding quality and excellence
  • An international standing or reputation (or in the case of an art form unique to Aotearoa, have demonstrated a mastery in their discipline equivalent to world standards)
  • Taken work of Aotearoa to the world and brought the world’s attention back to Aotearoa by demonstrating what is remarkable and special about us – and are therefore representative of this country and its people and our hopes and achievements as a nation

Each Icon receives a bronze medallion set with pounamu and a pin designed by sculptor John Edgar. The recipient is given the pin, while the medallion passes on to a future Icon at the time of their death.

Previous Icons have included the likes of Billy Apple, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Diggeress Rangituatahi Te Kanawa, Ralph Hotere and Margaret Mahy.

Sir Eion and Lady Jan Edgar are the Founding Patrons of the Icon Awards, following Sir Eion’s retirement as a Trustee of the Foundation in 2010 and their extraordinary $500,000 gift to the Arts Foundation. Sir Eion has long been a champion of Whakamana Hiranga and says "The Icon Awards offer New Zealanders the opportunity to congratulate our most accomplished artists on their achievements and to celebrate their work. This is an important function for any developed society and one with which Jan and I are proud to be associated."

Our Icon Award Alumni