Peter and Mary Biggs: generous supporters of the arts in Aotearoa
Peter and Mary Biggs: generous supporters of the arts in Aotearoa
For the past 16 years, Peter Biggs CNZM and his wife Mary have generously supported students of the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) through the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry.
Peter, or Biggsy as he is known by most, is Chief Executive of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra (NZSO), following a successful career in advertising and governance. He is working in partnership with Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington and Wellington City Council to create a visionary national music centre based around the Wellington Town Hall.
Mary and Peter Biggs, both alumni of Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, are long-standing arts advocates and patrons—particularly of literature, theatre, and music.
They have been consistent supporters of the International Festival of the Arts, the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, the Auckland Writers Festival, Wellington’s Circa Theatre, the New Zealand Arts Foundation, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, the NZSO National Youth Orchestra, Featherston Booktown, and Read NZ Te Pou Muramura (formerly the NZ Book Council). They also contribute to the University’s Alex Scobie Research Prize in Classical Studies, Latin, and Greek.
In Featherston where they have made their home, they are founding members of the Trust behind the successful annual Featherston Booktown festival which attracts over 8,000 booklovers over the second weekend of May—Peter is Chair and Mary is the Operations Manager and driving force. They also support the Featherston Sculpture Trust and Wairarapa’s Kokomai Arts Festival.
Peter and Mary are passionate readers and advocates for the benefits of encouraging children to read. They believe in the healing and gap-bridging qualities of literature, drama and music. A great raconteur, Biggsy is a sought-after public speaker on leadership and creativity.
A welcome boost for new poets
The Biggs Family Prize in Poetry has been awarded annually since 2006 to recognise the potential of a graduating poet at the end of the IIML’s Master’s in Creative Writing course. The prize gives fledgling poets a crucial boost in support at a key time in their writing lives.
“New poets need encouragement. Receiving the Biggs Prize has been a decisive event for the winners. It tells them to carry on, and it provides a much-needed injection of cash!” says Professor Damien Wilkins, Director of the IIML.
The 2022 recipient was Nafanua Purcell Kersel for her book Black Sugarcane, an engaging and generous collection of poems about Sāmoan family and community.
Nafanua, a poet of the Sāmoan diaspora with a degree in social anthropology who lives in Hawke’s Bay, said, “I feel delighted and honoured to accept the Biggs Family Prize in Poetry and look forward to the time, attention, and creativity it will enable. My family and I gratefully acknowledge the Biggs family for their generosity and support, fa’afetai tele lava.”.
Previous Biggs Family Prize in Poetry recipients include authors Louise Wallace, Nina Mingya Powles, Sam Duckor-Jones, and Joanna Cho.
In 2023 Te Herenga Waka University Press (THWUP) will publish 2021 winner Leah Dodd’s poetry collection Past Lives and a second volume by 2009 winner Bill Nelson.
In 2022 the University presented Peter and Mary with a slender volume of poetry hand crafted by Wai-te-ata Press to celebrate their ongoing support. A Little Book of Biggs Poems: The first 15 years of the Biggs Family Prize for Poetry contains one poem from each winner. Several of the winners were able to attend the event to read their poems.
Peter and Mary are also sponsors of the poetry section of the Ockham NZ Book Awards. They began their sponsorship four years ago and have renewed it for a further four.
Image: Peter and Mary with prize recipients Left to right: Leah Dodd, Joanna Cho, Morgan Bach, Peter and Mary Biggs, Natalie Morrison, Tim Grgec and Bill Nelson.
From the seminary to the world of advertising
Peter Biggs was born in Tanganyika—now known as Tanzania—where his father Ron, a World War II veteran, worked in the Colonial Service until independence came in 1961.
The family left Tanzania in 1963 and, after a year in England, settled in the Hutt Valley where Peter attended St Patrick’s College Silverstream. He came away with a love for literature, the arts, and sport. As head prefect Peter was ‘shoulder tapped’ to train for the priesthood at the age of 17. He spent six years at The Mission in Hawkes Bay—now renowned for its wine and popular outdoor concerts.
The seminary sent Peter to Victoria University of Wellington to study English literature and Latin. He loved his time at the University, winning debating, oratory, and academic prizes and began playing rugby again, making many great friends through the University Club. After six months back at the seminary he made the decision to leave and returned to Victoria University to finish his studies in Latin and English literature. He later met his future wife, Mary McCrone, who was studying Art History and English literature.
Armed with a first-class Honours degree, Peter got a job as public affairs officer at Shell (now Z Energy). After time in the London office he went into advertising, joining agency Ogilvy and Mather. By the age of 32 he was running the entire New Zealand business and then joined two agencies to form Clemenger BBDO. From 2006 to 2014, he relocated to Clemenger’s Melbourne office where he put in long hours returning it to its former glory. Under his leadership the agency built a global reputation as one of the best agencies in the world.
A career in arts governance
Peter has been Chief Executive of NZSO since May 2020 having been involved in arts sector management for many years. He chaired the Arts Council of New Zealand (now Creative NZ) where he was part of the team that somewhat controversially selected artist et al to represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennale.
He chaired the Government’s Cultural Philanthropy Review in 2010 and the Orchestral Sector Review in 2013 and was the Prince of Wales’ Charities Representative in New Zealand from 2016 to 2018.
As the inaugural Chair of the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (WREDA), Peter helped to create a single agency championing the Wellington region.
In 2003 Peter was voted Wellingtonian of the Year and in 2013 was appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for arts governance and philanthropy.
Creating a Wairarapa country paradise
In 1998 Biggsy and Mary moved with their three daughters and son to a 35-acre ‘paradise’ in Featherston called Te Puhi. This incredible homestead was built between 1868 and 1882 and is now filled with books and enjoyed by relaxed cats. The grounds abound in trees including several hundred-year-old native trees. Peter and Mary are planting thousands more, returning some areas to native bush.
Mary, who is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef, founded Lavender’s Green, a country provisions company, run from the Te Puhi farm. In the 1990s they had intended to grow organic lavender but found keeping up with the weeding onerous. Mary began producing homemade lemon cordial, curd, preserves, and jellies from the abundant lemons on their and neighbours’ properties using old family recipes. The business quickly took off and in 2016 she launched her Country Cooking School where guests prepare meals with ingredients foraged on the property. She also runs a popular Airbnb—The Cook’s Loft—at Te Puhi. Peter and Mary plan to launch a writers’ residency at The Cook’s Loft this year
Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington is fortunate to have the support of these generous donors for our arts students, as well as the benefit of Peter’s many years of experience in business and arts organisations. His understanding of how to connect powerfully with the needs of audiences is greatly valued as we look forward to the exciting visionary music centre now taking shape in Te Ngākau Civic Square.