“People are hungry for culture”

Neimënster director Ainhoa Achutegui leads the 45-strong team at the cultural institution, which is open seven days a week Mike Zenari

Neimënster director Ainhoa Achutegui leads the 45-strong team at the cultural institution, which is open seven days a week Mike Zenari

Neimënster director Ainhoa Achutegui leads the 45-strong team at the cultural institution, which is open seven days a week. She talks with Delano about how her role has developed since her 2013 nomination and the team’s commitment to their cultural raison d’être, even in the face of the health pandemic. 

Natalie A. Gerhardstein: The lockdown hit right as Neimënster was in the midst of quite a full programme. How did you respond to the pandemic?

Ainhoa Achutegui: We reacted as everyone and closed the doors to the public… For our culture department, it was possible to postpone everything. It was much more difficult for the events department. Between March and July we had to cancel about 39 [engagements], and this is a very important source of money. This was the biggest economic impact.

At the same time, it was very clear for me from the beginning that we had to have a programme in the summer. I also asked my team to come back. I didn’t want them to lose connection to the house, to culture.

Our mission is to have a programme for the public. It’s our raison d’être. At the beginning it was a lot of work to find new dates and rearrange, people were changing all the time because they were in other countries where there were other restrictions.

What we learned from that as a team during this pandemic: we saw people are hungry for culture. It’s evident.

Do you think this hunger for culture was always the case? Or was it intensified by the pandemic?

Intensified. If you don’t have anything, you’re so happy when you have professionals who work for you, make music for you. The feeling of being together was incredible. We decided [not to charge for] ticketing, we would run the bar and pay the whole thing--the stage, everything--with the bar because we wanted people to come back to our institution. We programmed only Luxembourgish groups, and of course it’s easier if you programme big names, but [on 21 August] we had two young Luxembourgish artists [Francis of Delirium and ÆM, plus a DJ set]… It was one of the best and longest evenings we’ve had.

Francis of Delirium on stage during Neimënster’s Bock Op festival this summer Photo: Mike Zenari 

I would never say this pandemic was great, it’s the worst thing we’ve ever had, but at the same time we try to make the best from what we have.

The fall will be a big challenge. We will adapt to the new restrictions. But we won’t stop programming culture because it’s our main mission. I consider it a duty. I have seen--and can prove--that people are hungry for culture. This pandemic is one thing, but it’s not the most horrible thing that culture has seen in its life. Culture was forbidden in many times; it wasn’t possible in many situations, many countries.

Has your own view on how we consume culture changed?

As a consumer, because I’m really into arts, it’s not digital. It’s not my thing. We have done it too, but it will never replace the feeling you have in a [live] concert. This is why concerts survive because if not, people will only be listening to MP3s, and that would be enough.

We have a jazz concert each Sunday, and we’ve had such beautiful words from the artists at the beginning of the concerts. They say they’re so happy to perform in front of real people. This is why I think it’s our obligation [not just] to the public, but also to the artist.

How do you balance the mix in terms of your variety of spaces and audiences? And has this changed since you took on the role?

We are multidisciplinary. On one hand, we have a lot of different audiences. On the other hand, it’s very difficult for communication... It would be a lie to say it was easy. It was very difficult for my commercial/events team. Their mission is to bring high-level events with business people that bring us money, reputation, image, and it’s a very important part, but this part died in this pandemic. It will resurrect, but it was one of the most difficult things. It’s one thing to postpone a cultural event but to postpone a commercial event is difficult because they have to pay.

In moments like this, you have to reinvent yourself and have a very dynamic team... I hope we will return to a normal situation because it’s always stress[ful] not to know what is coming the next day. We’re like everyone: we would like to return to normal.

Can you tell us a bit about what you originally set out to achieve and whether you’ve reached what you set out to accomplish?

I’m really happy with a lot of things we’ve achieved. When I began, many things were really settled, so we changed a lot. For example, we have more women artists, a very important issue for me. We have to show diversity in the arts.

We are building up and almost achieving it, to be the top in artist residencies. When I began, we didn’t do residencies. Artists were sleeping here but not working here, and this is something we’ve developed since 2018… but we’re not finished.

What I could say I achieved was to go away from these very big names to smaller names, to women, to have, for example, women in jazz, other views on sex and gender, diversity, migration. We’ve had a lot of projects with migrants. In 2019 we had a big focus on the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] because Luxembourg had the presidency, and we were the main partner on that. What was important for me was to make from this house a house with political 
art--not just to have a nice jazz concert, which we also have, but to have critical exhibitions, also showing difficult stuff.

Part of the mission we decided [was also to have] political art, art that will change something in you--not just in an aesthetic way, but also with a message or something that [shows we are a] house of tolerance, anti-homophobic, anti-sexist. We have defined that and we have also the problem to follow these things. We have another artist in residency now, Leyla Rabih, who accompanied refugees [over a span of years]. She’s French-Syrian, lives and grew up in France and speaks Syrian Arabic very well, and she’s exploring the way of emancipation of these people who leave the country. In 2021 we will show the end result [of this] exploration.

Can you give us a sneak peek into what else you have planned for 2021?

To have this artist-in-residency programme finished. When I say ‘finished’, I mean we need more spaces for people to work, extra budget for renovations because people need, for example, water to paint. Now we are [working] with what we have, but we cannot have as many artists to meet the demand we have, and because we don’t have the spaces for it. You need special lights, you cannot work everywhere.

How many do you take now, and where do you hope to be? 

Now we have 15-17 per year, and we want to have double that in two years. Now we have more on one year than at the beginning, which is why I’m positive… Sometimes the residency isn’t just with the main artist but with people they need, for example, a translator, an assistant, actors… It depends on the discipline.

How do the various artists in residency compare, for example, in terms of needs and duration?

For dance you cannot have old floors, so you have to adapt a big space. Some floors are dangerous for them, it’s too hard for them if they fall. It’s not like a writer. We have a residency in poetry, for example, and it’s the easiest thing to organise. The most challenging is dance and theatre. Musicians always want short residencies, like five days, night and day, they work and don’t sleep. Writers need more time, painters need a lot of time. Next year we have a big residency, a long time with a visual artist who paints on oil. And if you paint on oil, you need three days to put one colour, wait until it dries, and at the same time begin on something else… you cannot say three weeks… But [residencies] are tailor-made, we adapt to the needs. For example, in theatre what they like--and we are also learning--is a lot of residencies, but shorter ones. But musicians want the intensive thing, really intense. It’s very interesting how they work. 

This article was originally published in the October/November 2020 issue of Delano magazine.