After a lifetime of contributing to the arts in New Zealand, five of our most highly-regarded artists have been recognised with one of the country's most unique honours.

Artist Billy Apple, carver and sculptor Fred Graham, poet and writers Bill Manhire and Albert Wendt and composer Dame Gillian Whitehead last night received the Arts Foundation of NZ Icon Award — Whakamana Hiranga.

These are limited to 20 living visual and performing artists who have made signification contributions to the arts and, in doing so, the lives of New Zealanders. In all, 38 Icons have been honoured with awards including Patricia Grace, Margaret Mahy, Janet Frame, Don Selwyn and Sir Peter Jackson.

"It is tremendous when you have spent most of your life writing and not knowing whether it really is being appreciated by people in your society and community to be recognised in such a way," says Wendt, who began writing and publishing in the 1960s.

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"It's a big spiritual and emotional uplift to have your peers acknowledge that you have done worthy work."

Whitehead also described it as an amazing affirmation, but says her music — operas, orchestral works, choral pieces and chamber compositions — would not have been successful without the many of musicians and backstage teams who have worked on and performed it.

"This is an award that is shared with hundreds and hundreds of others."

Graham last year received the Creative NZ Te Waka Toi supreme award, recognising his contribution as one of the founders of the contemporary Maori arts movement. Graham, soon to turn 90, says fellow artists Ralph Hotere, Arnold Manaaki Wilson and Dr Cliff Whiting were also Icon Award recipients.

"But if you'd told us, back at the first exhibition we had in 1966 when the only people who turned up were our friends and, like us, they had no money so couldn't buy anything, that one day we'd be Icons, we would have looked at you like you were a sandwich short of a full picnic."

Apple, whose work is held in galleries around NZ and the world, says he was a little hesitant to accept the award believing that becoming an icon was something that happened "when you're no longer alive".

In a moving part of the ceremony, the medallions of the late Sir Ian Athfield (architect), Jack Body (composer), Marti Friedlander (photographer), Peter Godfrey (musician) and Dr Cliff Whiting (artist) were presented to the 2018 recipients by a family member representing the previous holder of the medallion.

The awards were presented by Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy at Government House in Wellington with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who is also Minister of the Arts, Culture and Heritage, among the well-wishers.

Started in 2000, the Arts Foundation is a private charitable trust founded by arts patrons to raise money and then recognise artists with monetary awards. It has awarded 222 artists with awards totaling $6 million. The Icon Award is its highest honour, but it also presents annual Laureate and New Generation Awards.

• In sports-mad New Zealand, what does it mean to be an Arts Icon? Bill Manhire, poet, writer and teacher, shares his thoughts. See Dialogue, page A26.