Stages have been swept, final rehearsals completed and throats cleared - the three-week cultural extravaganza that is the Auckland Arts Festival starts today.

With more than 100 events - including theatre, dance, music, art and lectures - artistic director David Malacari says all tastes are catered for.

The festival begins with attention still focused on Christchurch, and proceeds from Friday night's Ihimaera concert in Manukau will go to the Red Cross earthquake appeal.

Mr Malacari said Aucklanders had "absolutely" kept up their tradition of buying tickets late, but he still expected sales to be affected by the earthquake.

"With Christchurch just being so enormous in people's minds, naturally a whole lot of other things become peripheral and drop away."

However, he pointed out that the famous Edinburgh festival was started in 1947 to raise spirits after World War II.

"The festival was introduced as offering something that represented the future. One of the things about the arts ... is it's aboutassessing what's important."

That view was echoed by Auckland Mayor Len Brown, who said it was "critical" for New Zealand that life carried on.

More than 250 international artists were welcomed to the country at a powhiri yesterday.

Irish theatre group Silver Stars were one of several acts who responded with songs of their own. The group's co-director, Gary Keegan, said: "It was just really incredible, I wasn't expecting it, to be honest ... walking into a space like that, and all the festival staff already seated, and for all of them to start singing."

Later he joined others in a square for the two minutes of silence.

"It kind of feels like we're sharing a lot of what's going on. It's an unusual time to be here, but we're hoping to bring a bit of light, if we can, through our show."