Featured People: Ruth Mackenzie

Celebrating the new partnership between ECF and the Holland Festival, we are proud to feature the festival’s Artistic Director Ruth Mackenzie.

I love the phrase ‘a Europe powered by culture’ and I am very excited by the vision of ECF. I think we share important values about how to put art and culture at the heart of our society in Europe, open to diverse communities and shaping all our lives.
© Holland Festival

©Holland Festival

Ruth Mackenzie has been Director of the London 2012 Festival (the official cultural programme for the London 2012 Games), General Director of Scottish Opera and the Manchester International Festival, Artistic Director of Chichester Festival Theatre, Consultant Dramaturg of the Wiener Festwochen, Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport and a consultant for institutions including the Barbican Centre, the London Symphony Orchestra, the BBC and the Tate. In 2012 she was awarded the Peter Brook Empty Space Special Achievement Award and was made a CBE by HM Queen Elizabeth II for her achievements at the London 2012 Festival.

The Holland Festival is the biggest international performing arts festival in the Netherlands. A highlight of the 2015 festival programme is ein tag und eine stunde in urbo kune, the first event of our partnership.

We spoke to Ruth Mackenzie about leading the Holland Festival for the first time this year, the partnership with ECF and how culture can offer answers to European issues. 

©Alex Püringer, Nettzeit.

©Alex Püringer, Nettzeit.

ECF: We start our new partnership with this 25-hour long opera exploring questions around communities and building our cities. As you know, these are also key issues in ECF’s work. The Viennese ensemble Klangforum Wien has invited a group of artists and thinkers to start building this utopian capital of the United States of Europe. What will happen during these 25 hours?

RM: The full title of the performance is ein tag und eine stunde in urbo kune (one day and one hour in urbo kune), which is exactly what the audience is offered: during 25 hours the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ hosts an event during which Urbo Kune is established by means of a mix of concert, conference, film, installation and research laboratory. Audience members can come and go, eat, drink, even stay the night, and are challenged to contribute their ideas about the city and the Europe of the future. Urbo Kune’s soundtrack includes live performances of works by Xenakis, Furrer, Feldman and Donatoni. Composer Rozalie Hirs will write a new work for the occasion. The international speakers include a number of Dutch keynotes: Amsterdam’s Mayor Eberhard van der Laan, Arnon Grunberg (presenting a new short story) and architect Francine Houben. And there’s food from all the corners of Europe.

“Europe is in crisis” is a statement we have been hearing for some time. Do you agree with this sentiment? And what roles can culture play in such circumstances?

Artists are brilliant at helping us to understand the world around us, and the problems that face us. Ever since culture was invented, we have turned to artists to help us and inspire us to create a better future. Look at the history of the Holland Festival – created in 1947 when we invited international artists to help us build a new future after the Second World War. From 1947 onwards, the Holland Festival had a tradition of innovation, inviting artists to share new visions, new approaches, new art.

ECF was also born out of the same concerns 60 years ago. Our founders believed passionately in culture as a vital ingredient for Europe’s post-war rebuilding and healing. Our missions are pretty close.


On the one hand, we want to encourage artists to respond to ongoing issues and contribute to resolving them, or at least raise awareness across diverse audiences. On the other hand, we also don’t want to limit their creativity in building their own visions of the world, their utopias, even if these don’t necessarily respond to these so-called crises. How do you balance both objectives within the festival programme?

At the Holland Festival, we believe in being artist-led: that means, we believe the artists will decide what topics they want to investigate and what shape their art will take, not us. Urbo Kune is the great idea of Klangforum, not our idea – we are the people who believe in their ambition to try something different, something exciting, of huge scale and depth. But of course, when we develop a festival programme with our partners like ECF and others in Amsterdam, we hope to invite artists who will give our audiences experiences they have not had before. We know we have audiences in Amsterdam and internationally who are adventurous, curious, questioning and eager to think and experience in new ways.

To reflect on the possibilities enabled by a partnership with ECF, we are very confident that the mission of the Holland Festival will fit very well with our vision of a Europe powered by culture. Are there any specific ideas or possibilities you would like to highlight that you are looking forward to regarding the partnership? 

I love the phrase ‘a Europe powered by culture’ and I am very excited by the vision of ECF. I think we share important values about how to put art and culture at the heart of our society in Europe, open to diverse communities and shaping all our lives. 2016 will see the Netherlands taking on the Presidency of the EU and that is a great chance for us to work together to make sure that the voices of innovative and exciting artists are heard.