By LINDA HERRICK arts editor

Ten of the country's leading artists were honoured last night in Wellington in a new award system set up to redress a perceived historic culture of indifference towards the arts in New Zealand.

The Governor-General, Dame Silvia Cartwright, presented the inaugural Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Awards to potter Len Castle, writers Janet Frame and Maurice Gee, artists Milan Mrkusich and Ralph Hotere, architect Sir Miles Warren, poet Hone Tuwhare, weaver Diggeress Te Kanawa, opera singer Sir Donald McIntyre and choreographer Russell Kerr.

Around 500 guests attended the ceremony at the St James Theatre, which was followed by a gala dinner at Te Papa Tongarewa.

Guest speakers included poet Bill Manhire, broadcaster Kim Hill, playwright Roger Hall and writer Michael King, who accepted Frame's award on her behalf. Actor Sam Neill, who earlier read an excerpt from a poem by Allen Curnow, accepted the award for Hotere.

The speakers paid tribute to icons of the past such as sculptor Len Lye, composer Douglas Lilburn, film-maker John O'Shea, poets James K. Baxter and Curnow, and artists Colin McCahon, Gordon Walters and Frances Hodgkins.

Arts Foundation trustees chairman Richard Cathie said: "These were New Zealanders who really made their impact on the arts, our senior artists whose works have become part of our cultural heritage ... Sadly, some of our greatest artists received little or no recognition during their lifetimes. They died, still wondering whether their work would ever be appreciated."

Mr Cathie said that although that would continue to occur as new forms of art evolved, the foundation had decided to help major artists receive the recognition their work deserved.

"The Arts Foundation came up with these Icon Awards, which over the next few years, will honour up to 20 or so of our greatest living artists - a kind of 'emeritus circle' of senior artists."

Broadcaster Wayne Mowat told the audience that the awards marked a new maturity for New Zealand.

"We've grown up so much that self-conscious cringe is no more. We have a cultural environment across the genres in which artists can thrive ... we have lessened the need to rely on others to establish our values and our idols. We have 10 of our own to celebrate."

The inaugural group of 10 were chosen from a list compiled by arts organisations and by public nomination, which were then selected by the foundation's governors.

Each has received a medallion to be kept until his or her death, when it will be passed back to the foundation and on to a new icon.

The recipients also get a lapel pin, to keep permanently.

A further six artists will be honoured in 2005, building to a perpetual "living circle" of 20 Icon Artists.