In 1951, the provincial Minister of Education, Samuel J. Hefferton, convened a meeting of prominent citizens to explore the possibilities of promoting wider interest in provincial cultural activities. After several additional meetings, Government decided to establish an annual grant to be used in promoting what has become known as the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Competition.
From 1952, the annual competition was administered by the Department of Education, then in 1973 by the Culture, Recreation and Youth Department. Today, the awards is administered by a committee appointed by the Department of Business, Tourism, Culture and Rural Development.
On the eve of its introduction, a Daily News editorial described the initiative as an "intriguing brainwave", and "a fine idea that the development of the arts should be encouraged."
Early adjudicators included Dr. A.C. Hunter, Harold Goodridge, Reginald Shepherd, Moses Morgan, Andrew Fraser and Don Jamieson.
Open to the residents of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, the aim of the awards is to stimulate creative activity, both amateur and professional, by the provision of cash prizes, adjudication, and the publication or exhibition of meritorious entries.
The Senior, or Open Division has been in existence since 1952; the Junior Division, introduced in 1982, recognized the 100th anniversary of the birth of distinguished Newfoundland poet, E.J. Pratt.
Initially, the committee established seven topics, as follows:
Topic revisions were made during the intervening years, and today there are awards in:
Literary Arts Section
Musical Composition Section - four awards of $1000
including all genres of musical composition
Visual Arts Section fifteen awards of $1000
including but not exclusive to: painting, drawing, print making, collage, mixed media, stained glass, fibre arts, photography and photo-based work, digitally produced images, unique bookworks, sculpture in all media (including wood, metal, papier-mâché , glass, clay, stone, found objects, etc.), and combinations or assemblages of any of the above.
Percy Janes First Novel Award one prize of $1500
for unpublished first novelists
including Short Story or Essay or Dramatic Script
In both the Junior and Senior visual art categories, prize-winning entries and a selection of other entries are exhibited at The Rooms.
The responsibilities of the Arts and Letters Committee, appointed by the Minister of Business, Tourism, Culture and Rural Development, are to establish and review regulations governing the competition, recruit and appoint adjudicators, answer concerns and suggestions offered by the public.
Following the adjudications, the Minister or a representative from his or her Department presents awards to winners during a ceremony at The Rooms.
During the 59 years since the first competition was held, many of Newfoundland's winners have included artists who have since become a major part of the artistic culture of the province. Some of the readily recognized artists who have been past winners include David Blackwood, Manfred Buchheit, Scott Goudie, Justin Hall, Ben Hansen, Ilse Hughes, Sheila O'Leary, Paul Parsons, Rae Perlin, Christopher Pratt, and Janice Udell in the visual arts; Cassie Brown, Frank Holden, Harold Horwood, Percy Janes, Ed Kavanagh, Kevin Major, Carmelita McGrath, Paul O'Neill, Helen Porter, and Michael Winter in the literary arts; and John Herriott, Michael Parker and Brian Sexton in the musical category.