Femke Eerland (42) studied Art and Art Policy (Now: Culture, Arts and Media) at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen between 1999 and 2001. During her studies, she did an internship at performing arts festival Noorderzon, and she never left. After being business leader for several years, she now enters her 10th year as general director. We asked her about her study time and her work at Noorderzon.
Did you know what you wanted to be when you were in high school?
“No, not at all. I think many people experience a certain form of fear and terror when they ask you during your graduation ceremony: 'What are you going to do?’ In my class, 99% seemed to have a clear vision in mind, but I really had no idea. Really no idea. I love languages and have always loved writing and poetry. So I started studying Dutch Language and Literature. After my first year, I decided to go to Australia for a year. The Dutch learning system in itself, especially for your generation, doesn’t allow a lot of room for doubt. But I had a lot of doubts myself. That is why I left for a year. If I had lingered then, I know I would have become stuck. On the plane home, mind you, I decided to go for the Art and Art Policy programme. A good friend of mine thought it would be right up my alley. So then I thought: ‘Let’s do it.’
What did you like the most about the programme?
“I thought it was a great combination of theoretical as well as pragmatic. That really appealed to me, because that was something I missed. I stem from a time period, that ìf you had the opportunity to go to university, you went. You would not spend a lot of time contemplating a more practical study path in arts. So for me, this was great! I love articles and theoretical models related to art, also in the broad sense. That is why I really like that Art and Art Policy later breeched out to the current programme Arts, Culture and Media. Nothing I do in my profession has anything to do with just one kind of art. I never understood that view either. I always went to different art scenes. And I found that combination in the study programme as well. We had to do practical methodological research, surveys, visit museums, but we also read and analysed Bourdieu. I really liked that. I also appreciated the fact that I found kindred spirits in my year, which was very nice. And of course the art and culture sector. All the things you enjoy in life, all the frills, that's what we do!”
How do you look back on your study time?
"Wonderful! I really had an amazing time."
What kind of student were you?
“Perhaps not a very diligent student. But I was very diligent in everything else that concerned student life. So I had a large social network, organized quite a lot, from cultural gatherings to what not. If there was a strike then it was highly likely that you could find me there righ at the front. What I found very interesting was the conversion from high school to university. Suddenly you were addressed and treated as an adult. People addressed your intellect. You were also asked to immediately translate the theoretical foundation you were thought, which I think is very similar to what is more often seen as practical studies. Take Chemistry, you learn a theory and then you do experiments. I feel like that is a bit less literal in a lot of studies. But in this study it was. You learn about Bourdieu, Minsberg, economic models and then you are sent on the road to actually conduct research at art institutions in or to conduct interviews. That is how it became more alive for me and I really enjoyed that. Everything that my normal world consisted of, a lot of art, culture – which includes language for me - but also museums, galleries, and pop rooms. And that’s what you engaged with every day. Well, I thought that was just great.”
Was it easy to find a connection to the labor market?
“Yes, for me it was. But I think that also has something to do with yourself. Art institutions are always looking for fun, enthusiastic people. A very large part of the job description has nothing to do with the job. It has to do with your interest, your personality, whether you can work well in a team, if you have affinity with art and culture. I also think it’s important that in addition to practical skills, you also have a strong theoretical foundation. With which you can teach yourself, understand business models, read, develop strategies, and that is what you learn during your studies. I think that also in this way you will discover kindred spirits in the arts and culture sector, because it is totally populated with academically trained staff. Most have a university background. This is also really a sector where people are willing to make a place for you. I was working as a waitress at the Oosterpoort during my studies, so those were my first steps in the arts scene. There is obviously not a study programme for how to become a festival director. So basically we are all just idiots who started somewhere else.”
What exactly are the tasks of a general manager?
“You are one big decision-making-machine, 24 hours a day. And a coach. And that’s something you have to learn. To make a decision. Not a good or a bad decision, but just a decision. And that is very important in this field. That you decide something. Of course I am also incredibly aware of my responsibility, and sometimes you lose some sleep over things, but most of the time, you don’t. Then it also gives a lot of luxury. I feel very responsible as a coach. For all volunteers and all people who work for us. You learn them how to work, and to be resilient. These are professions where the whole of life comes at you. Everyone can post anything they want about you on social media. Everyone likes Noorderzon and has an opinion about it. And that’s very nice, because then it feels like the festival belongs to everyone and that is what I always wanted. Noorderzon is not ours. We have never been an institution where the people who make it are more present than the goal of the festival itself. I never wanted to be present because I think it is of total secondary importance. When I leave, Noorderzon must also continue and that means that I am just a passer-by. And that's the way it should be, I think. Anyway, I have always liked making decisions. Also because it is a leap of faith and a test for yourself, for your intuition, the way you live your life. And the first few times all you want to do is to just disappear. Then you think: ‘Oh no, I said: "Put that fence down,”’ and now everyone is mad. I said: “We are closing this show,”’ and now everyone is mad. There is thunderstorm or bad weather coming our way, and now everyone is mad. Or the weather actually is not so bad, and still everyone is mad. Everyone has an opinion and that also makes it so much fun. We are a huge repository of opinions. Actually, that is also something you learn during your studies. You are constantly encouraged to have an opinion about things, but it must be well founded. At the end of the day, I am responsible for everything, and I am very OK with that. But that does mean that I have to have an opinion about everything that goes a little bit deeper then: ‘Marketing, I think that's important too.’ No, I have my own views and own strategies about it and I really think it’s interesting.”
What do you like the most about your work?
“To collectively make the seemingly impossible, possible. I set up a team outing a few years ago, to a heath. I thought: ‘We can also do what the white collars are doing, we're going to the heath for a trip.’ And then when you look at us, I sometimes think to myself: ‘And these bunch organize an 11-day festival for 150,000 people, where everything you can think of happens. Where people get heart attacks, childeren get lost, 40,000 artists arrive from all corners of the world. And it looks like it doesn’t take us any effort. But if you do not have that attitude, you will not make it. Then the worrying will take you down.”
How big is the team?
“All in all, about 800-1000 people. That includes all volunteers, location managers and also the technology people. Throughout the year we man the ship with 5 to 6 people. You know, we are basically a full theater year programme crammed into 11 days. We have 600-800 activities. That means we have to talk a lot with people. Collaborations, tenants, you name it. And that takes a lot of work. We need people for that. People also join us on project basis in phases. Like Marijn, the production coordinator.” [read the interview with Marijn here!]
What are the biggest changes that Noorderzon has undergone during the past 10 years?
“I really like to think about structures and systems, so I think we have created a stronger foundation and have made the organization future-proof. And we have strategically evolved into a more critical and directive 21st century organization. So we don’t just say: ‘Here is a theater company from Mozambique, and the rest is up to you. It goes through your head; go ahead and test your theories.’ That is no longer of this time. Giving context or an introduction or a conversation isn’t either. So what I really wanted to do, was to make a connection with the place where we are: Groningen. Groningen is of crucial importance to us. I love the time I've studied and the academic life here. And we did not really do that much with academia. So I started to approach Arts and Society and Studium Generale and indicated that I wanted to do something with science. I found it annoying that you don’t really have access to education once you get older, so I thought: 'I want to offer that too'. We now have a deep relationship with the University of Groningen, the Hanze, Science Links, Studium Generale and of course Arts Society and Arts, Culture and Media. For example, we organize many lectures, debates, and context programming at some of our own productions. With these collaborations, I believe we have made ourselves future-proof.”
Is that what you are most proud of?
“Yes. And I think it’s also quite an achievement that we collectively managed to keep our head above the water. Everything that affects society, goes through a sieve and comes out in condensed form at festivals. For example, the economic crisis was immediately noticeable with us. Terrorism, complexity, liberalization of travel; people are able to go everywhere. That all goes through a sieve and shows up at our festival. I find it incredibly interesting and fantastic that we have been doing so well for years, and we have not had to throw in the towel. Everything has struck us once, from storm to lightning to crises. And I’d really like to keep going.”
What makes Noorderzon special for you?
“That it’s a small representation of society, it’s like a mini village. I like that very much. And that you can actually just bust something like that out, can give it direction, and that you can educate people. Interesting statistics: 70% of our visitors go to a cultural event twice a year, but are always present at Noorderzon. That makes me very happy. I can always just bawl during Noorderzon. I find it the most moving when I am in a performance and think to myself: "How did we get this done?" The Romeo Tent is full of 440 people four times, only because we have written down that there is a new choreographer from Brazil performing.”
What is your best / finest / funniest / most special thing you have experienced at Noorderzon?
“What I love every year is how much fun we have with each other as a team. We actually have a festival within a festival. Every year there are running gags, there is a group dynamic that determines whether or not you are a ‘Noorderzonner.’ I can name many things that I love. In the past everyone went to the Amsterdam area after their studies, and people thought you were crazy if you didn’t go. I never felt like that. I travel a lot, but I want a nice place to live and that is Groningen for me. It is so green, so quiet, so open and you can see as many houseboats as you can. That's what it's about. In my work, I get to put the world under a micro glass every year. I think that's great and a very big gift.
The reason we started with sustainability 10 years ago, is due to a Canadian artists who said: "We don’t understand what you are doing here. You still throw cans in the trash!" Canada had been recycling cans for years. We were already hopelessly behind then. As a society, the Netherlands sometimes still tends to focus only on the Netherlands. But people elsewhere in the world also have smart ideas. You get to bring the world to the festival, and I think that is a unique gift, insight and given that would be very difficult to achieve artificially.”
What are your tips for (prospective) students?
“I would encourage to remember that everyone you look up to, has been in your shoes and really wants to talk to you. So if you just ask, and call Noorderzon or another large company where you would like to work, then they probably really want to help and speak to you. Don’t just send a generic email, I usually throw those away as well. Another tip is: have faith. Maybe you don’t see what a study or education is worth yet, but you will. Try not to succumb to a practical applicability of 'what can I become?,' and choose a study programme that really interests you.”
Curious if the BA programme Arts, Culture and Media might be something for you? Get more information here!
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