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Wednesday, 02 April 2014 13:05

Margriet Leemhuis

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Power is often vested in those that are in the elite group within a profession. It is recognised that in most professions, whether at a senior executive level or at board level, it is harder for women to reach the top. There are a host of factors for this which have been well covered by others and the Cultural and Creative industries are no exception. Of course influence can be exerted by reaching a high level, but the beauty of influence is that it does not depend on Power, even though it can be powerful, and it can emerge from any part of the creative and cultural ecology. We wanted to provide a platform for some of those women who have for a variety of reasons established themselves as thought leaders, opinion formers, exceptionally creative or entrepreneurial and through their activity have become influential. Sometimes they have been gutsy or provocative and sometimes they have just gone about their business in a confident, steady and assertive manner. They have all managed to attract a degree of attention, so here are some of those who have caught ours.

This time we profile Margriet Leemhuis, Deputy Head of Mission at the Royal Netherlands Embassy in London.

Please tell us a little bit about your background?

I am from Groningen in the North of Holland. I studied there and then I decided that if I wanted to broaden my ideas of the world I should go to Amsterdam and study there so I went there to study French (Language and Literature) and Communications. Then after my studies I applied for the service and I got it. I have always had a real interest in culture, which was one of the reasons I decided to study French and to do that in Amsterdam as I also wanted to see as many theatres and museums as I could fit into my student schedule.

My first job with the Ministry was in Chile in San Tiago, I was a jack of all trades there as the Embassy is very small, so my responsibility was in political and human rights, culture and as the Deputy Ambassador. The Ambassador there was an Ambassador and a painter and he encouraged me to do a lot of cultural work in Chile and this was very good and needed as it was just after the Pinochet regime and the country was opening up and really hungry to make contacts with the rest of the world. So there was a lot of cultural exchange that we could encourage and foster, we had no money, but there was a lot we could do via sponsorship from Dutch companies and we put cultural people into houses and had networking events and the Ambassador was very open. We did a lot of interesting things with young Chilean writers and painters and encouraged them to go to Europe and get to know the world.

When did you decide you wanted to work in the Foreign Service?

Well I never really decided, it sort of crossed my path. A friend of mine was thinking of applying and she said isn't this something that you could try too. I had never thought about it but when I did I thought Why not? And that is how it came about.

So you went from doing something rather academic to doing something rather practical?

Yes I was really disappointed with University, being in Amsterdam I felt this was when real life was starting and I thought I would really be able to get into research and learn a lot. But then after that I still felt it wasn't enough. I still wanted more. This diplomatic training gave me one year more and I wanted more in the way of languages, history, law, economics, development and these were all opportunities that were given to us. I thought it was great. After that I was sent to Chile and though it was far away, I thought if I try it and it doesn't fit me then I can always come back....but I'm still here.

Had any of your family worked in the Foreign Service before or was it a new departure?

No, it was totally new. My father was the director of a nursery, he worked with the Embassies as he was exporting plants to the middle east and to America and to England and he always needed the help of Embassies to find agents and negotiate the regulations. From my mothers I am the black sheep of the family and ended up in this line of business.

In your line of business do you have a choice as to where to go or are you placed somewhere?

You do have a choice but you can also be placed. After Chile I worked in the ...development corporation as Secretary to our Minister for half a year and then they sent me to Paris and I worked as our representation to the City. Then the Ministry came with a strange idea to send me to the Dutch Ministry of Culture. I didn't understand why they wanted to second me to another Ministry, it came out of the blue, I had thought I would do something entirely different. Then I started to talk to our personnel department and find out why they wanted me to go there, to other people who worked in the cultural field and had culture as a specialisation and I thought it sounded interesting and let's try it. So I worked for a couple of years in our Culture Ministry and I got to learn about national policy making. When you work in an Embassy you get to work a lot with Foreign Policy but you are never in contact with National policy making and with the National constituency. I think its very important for a diplomat to understand how that works. Culture of course is one of the most difficult things as you have an artist community and they are the one of the most vocal group you can imagine, so they can voice their opinions in a very clear way. So this was a challenge as I helped to write the Dutch international cultural policy. It was a time when the Dutch Parliament decided that the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to work together on that. In order to do so the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to second staff to the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Culture had to second staff to Embassies so that we began to understand each other and know where each other are coming from. We would then be in a better position to work together and design these policies and we still do. So now here in London we have staff from different Ministries working together and it works well.

Why are the Dutch interested in Cultural Diplomacy? Is there a Dutch view or do you think you can have a template that fits all?

I think you can learn from each other across countries but I think that each country has to have its own approach. Culture is very much about identity and you have to find they way you work best. The Dutch has a strong cultural tradition, for example people know the great painters Rembrandt and Mondrian so this for us is good as we can build on this. You know our old masters so now come and appreciate our new painters and we use this to seduce people into getting to know us more. I think culture says a lot about who you are as a people and reveals a lot about Dutch society and our identity, so you want to use our cultural works to go deeper than just the first image of the country that people may have. So the Brits will get to know Holland by reading our books and getting to know our paintings and our artists by going to Dutch theatre. Its even better when newspapers like the Guardian write about it and recognise the 'Dutchness' in a piece. They could even write about it and it helps us to perform a theatre piece in London helps develop the play when they get comments.

What do you say to people who say that very few people go to the arts and that you don't get to know a country through the arts but you get to know a country by going there and mixing with the people? Of course there is an elite group that can get to know things intellectually but in the main it is by visiting? How would you respond to that?

There are lots of things that contribute to ones picture of a country. Sports for instance – the Dutch orange legion that travels around with the team, or Skating, or our tolerance policies. So many things play a part, it is not only arts and culture, but they are an important facet. I wouldn't say that the arts and culture are elitist per say, there are lots of different kinds of art and culture that are more popular, for example, film, circus, comic books. Everybody can enjoy it.

It is sufficiently important to be a specialist area of work?


In Liverpool in 2014 I believe you are part of an event that is looking at Art and Society, tell me about the thinking behind that at this stage?

Well we have a so called Apeldoorn Series – we call it that because the first conference was held there. It is a bilateral conference that brings together the civil society from Britain and the Civil Society from Holland on different themes. Last years' theme was innovation and we brought together all kinds of experts and this years' theme is Culture and the Economy because we thought that both countries could learn from each other.

Will you have partners at that event? And who will they be?

Yes, with the Apeldoorn series it is the British and the Dutch. We organise it together and at the moment we don't know who the other partners will be as we are in the process of designing the event, but in the Board for instance is the Director of the Van Gogh Museum and we are thinking of bringing a range of experts on funding, on sponsorship and also experts on the importance of culture for developing a city and for bringing investment to a city. For instance innovative companies want to have their bases in cities where there is a lot of creative thinking going on. So to invest in creative capital is very worthwhile for a city.

That is interesting as at the moment we are developing a feature on Creative Cities and we are not looking at the usual suspects, for example in South Africa we are not looking at Cape Town we are looking at Durban and so forth.

That is interesting because my next posting was in South Africa as Head of Cultural Services in Pretoria, but my first trip was to Durban and I loved it, it is so interesting with the big Indian community but there is also something very interesting in the area of creativity. For example people seem to work together more in Durban and they help each other from different sectors.

Is there a posting in your career that really stands out for you?

South Africa. Well your first posting always stands out for you, I have been very lucky as I have been happy in all my postings, every posting brings something special, but South Africa really gets under your skin. It is so impressive the change that they have gone through, it is amazing to be part of such a society.

Did you really feel that you were part of the society and the changes?

Yes, the people are so welcoming and inclusive. Even if I wasn't really part of it, I felt I was part of it and I still have a lot of South African friends that I stay in touch with. I've never been to a country where I have stayed in touch with so many people and met them again and again. We had a very good cultural policy in South Africa so I was able to support South African cultural organisations, that really helped in feeling you could make a difference. We could also support the cultural infrastructure, by that I don't mean the buildings but the networks and capacity building. For example we supported the Performing Arts Network South Africa, these sorts of things where people would help each other.

Because culture is visible and tangible you do feel like you are making a difference don't you?


From the outside one might feel that the diplomatic service skates over the top of things, but you clearly feel that you want to make a difference.

Yes, culture is absolutely a route to do this. In my last job as Cultural Ambassador I think its really important for the Foreign Ministry to have this kind of post. So for example I would go to China and talk to my counterpart there and culture is a very interesting vehicle through which one can talk about things. It is non-confrontational but you can touch on difficult things, for example freedom of artist, freedom of expression. You can have a good discussion about it without finger pointing. You can have a discussion in a nice way and have a dialogue. Our human rights Ambassador was our Culture Ambassador as well. Film festivals are also a great way of starting a debate and discussion.

I like your use of the word dialogue, because a lot of people involved in cultural diplomacy think it is about pushing something...

No it isn't, it is about learning from the other...

...and I fear that some countries have a very simplistic idea about pushing their countries to the world...this is why I like the use of the word dialogue...

Yes...I always ask artists who want to go to a lovely place like South Africa...what do you want to learn from there, is there something that interests you, or that you can exchange. What you don't want is well meaning people who want to go there and teach the poor people how to dance. I say it is interesting to do a workshop, but it would only work if you are open to their experiences too and learn from them. A one way street does not work. I also think it should be a longer term thing, not just one way, so are you willing to invite South Africans back to the Netherlands and engage in a dialogue and take it further so for example make a co-production or whatever.

I'd like to move to a different subject. The Dutch are having a new Embassy in the Embassy Quarter in London, are you involved in this, are Dutch artists involved in this? Tell me a bit about that project?

Yes we will involve artists. For example we participated in Open Monuments Day and we had about 600 visitors come to the building. You might think who would visit an Embassy, but people were really amazed at the difference between the outside and the inside, they thought the inside with the commissioned mural by Jan van der Ploeg gave the inside a Dutch feeling. So the new building yes. We hope to commission a Dutch architect and work with Dutch art and design to give the whole building a Dutch feel.

Will that be by competition?


So do you see it as a landmark building?

Yes. I'm not the one working on that it is all being done in Den Hague.

You seem like a person who likes new experiences?

Yes you have to if you work in the Foreign Service.

So what do you do for your own self-development?

Good question. One always tends to forget one's self-development. I like to read books and go to the theatre. I enjoy this but it's also where I learn most and get new ideas. For instance there is a great Dutch novel of office life and it's six volumes and whenever I can't sleep because of something that happened during the day in the office, I turn to this book and relook at it. If I have experienced something difficult that day in the office I feel enormous consolation. It makes me feel better.

What sort of theatre to you enjoy?

In my past job I thoroughly enjoyed a lot of Dutch Theatre which I really enjoyed but here in London I want to see British Theatre and British Music. I really enjoyed going to Aldeburgh and seeing Peter Grimes on the Beach that was the highlight this year. I can live on this for a decade! It was mind-blowing I also went to see Judy Dench in Peter and Alice, that was great. And I have tickets for Shakespeare's Henry V with Jude Law. So I want to see the great British Actors but I also want to go to Edinburgh and see the Fringe, the experimental theatre. I went to the Old Vic and should also go to the Young Vic.

So you are enjoying the theatre scene here?

Yes and I also think for a diplomat you need to understand British society so in order for me to do so, I need to read a lot, so I read Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.

That is wonderful, because a lot of the diplomatic cohort in London feel they are bit cut off from the community, or there are so many different communities in London they find it a bit overwhelming. They don't have English friends or the chance to visit an English house. Do you have those opportunities?

That is sometimes difficult, because as a diplomat you have to restart friendships all the time and London in that sense is also a difficult city because for me I do a lot of the internal management of the Embassy, so I am less outward facing. That makes it harder. But what I do is that I have two dogs and new puppy and I know everybody in Hyde Park. And I have two children and they go to school here, so this is a very good place to meet people and gain an introduction to the country. I also bump up against the international community because it is London and then I also have some old British friends and it's great to see them again. I would rather have a small number of good friends. Also being in London all my Dutch friends come to visit me here and also my family.

This article is about Women of Influence, are there any women that have had a major influence on you? Or have inspired you? Or have been good role models for you?

Yes, there have been a few female Ambassadors that have been a good role model, who have shown that you can have children and a good career. There are lots of women working in this Embassy and the Ambassador is female and our Secretary General in our Ministry is a woman and she has been a role model. I tend to think about writers again, Nadine Gordimer, I met her in South Africa, I thought she was a very strong woman and an independent thinker. That is what I admire in women, independent thinking for example A S Byatt, I love her work and also the women in her books are strong.

So literature is resonant for you and when you were studying languages your focus was on literature, so literature speaks to you?


Can you tell me about a project that you have been involved in that went wrong and what you learned from it?

Yes, I can. When I was in South Africa there was a cultural project. We have a policy that as Embassy people we don't invent our own cultural projects, so not for example programming the dance I like. I would ask the festival or the theatre as professionals to programme what they think is right, but this is just an example. I might say these are the groups that might interest you in the Netherlands, but you choose. So there was a festival in South Africa festival that came up with a group that they liked and we supported their choice and helped to fund it. Then the group came to South Africa and they performed a beautiful semi-classical new duet. It was beautiful but it totally fell flat in South Africa and afterwards people stormed towards me and said, "How could you have programmed this piece?" Well of course I didn't programme it. I couldn't understand why they hated it? Then again I started a conversation and they hated it because it wasn't relevant. They thought it was extremely luxurious to do something that was only beautiful but without social power or further message. Wasn't talking about problems of society and so on. So the performance was a total failure but afterwards it provoked an interesting conversation about whether something can just be beautiful? Must it always have a purpose or deeper impact or meaning? Something beyond the beautiful.

But we don't talk about beauty enough, and we certainly rarely talk about it in our cultural policy.

No you are right.

This is a shame?

Yes. Culture always seems to have to be good for something, but it doesn't really, it can just be good in itself. It doesn't have to be good because it teaches you mathematics for example. There may be a link between Mozart and Maths but it doesn't and shouldn't have to be there. If it works for some people then we can encourage it, but it is not essential.

You are here in London now for a few years? What is your next goal?

It's fine to ask me that. One can have ambitions and fail, or one can choose to do something else this is also fine. But my next goal is to be an Ambassador for the Netherlands. I'd love to be in a country that is in transition. I work best where something is happening where it is challenging.

Is there a question that you would have liked me to ask you which I haven't asked you?

Yes. I would like to talk to you about our Culture and Development programme. The magazine you are doing is really interesting and we had in the past an on line magazine called The Power of Culture. It's a shame that it doesn't exist anymore and I think you should continue your Creativity Journal as it sounds a bit like the Power of Culture. This was a great project to bring together all sorts of experiences from the developing world and the so called developed world. It allowed practitioners and makers from the cultural side a forum to share ideas in a web-based format. I think our Culture and Development programme is really close to my heart and I do think that when you are doing development co-operation it is important that you have a space to understand culture. When doing development you should first and foremost discover the culture from the country where you are intending to do development. A Culture and Development Programme is an excellent tool to better understand cultural values and societal problems. It really helped us in South Africa to understand the problems in society, for example we had to go to theatre plays (in 2002) that talked about a growing racism in South Africa. I think four years ago in 2008 we really saw the problem against immigrants in the country but the theatre was already talking about this well before that. It is a forecaster. Culture really has a value for development and that is why I am happy that we invest with programmes through for example the Prince Claus fund and Hivos. It is important to keep those programmes and recognise that it also helps our own development.

Please keep reinforcing the value of these programmes. It's great to know the policy but it's also important for us to get to know the people behind them. So thank you very much Margriet.

Good, thank you.




Venu Dhupa

Venu Dhupa has just completed nearly three years work with Creative Scotland as Director of Creative Development as part of the senior start-up team. Her responsibilities included the Arts, a number of Investment Programmes and International Strategy and Engagement. Prior to working at Creative Scotland she was working as a consultant and had her own publishing company.

Former employment has been: World-wide Director of Arts for the British Council where she led and completed the first international consultation/review in 25 years on the Council's global arts strategy; Director of Creative Innovation at the Southbank Centre, London (Europe's largest cultural centre). The Creative Innovation unit was imagined as a tool for introducing new partners to the organisation as well as an organisational development tool; Fellowship Director at The UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) where she managed a portfolio valued at £13million; Chief Executive at the Nottingham Playhouse; and Producer (Mobile Touring) at the Royal National Theatre.
She was the inaugural Chair of the East Midlands Cultural Consortium appointed by the Secretary of State at the Department of Culture Media and Sport. Her career history has always balanced creative exploration and strategy with implementation and delivery. This has been an important balance in developing a judgement for accountability with risk. Her motivation remains good customer service, good value and positive social change and these continue to drive her as an activist.

She is or has been a Trustee of the Theatres Trust, a Member of University College London's Heritage Committee, the external examiner for UEA MA in Creative Entrepreneurship; a Governor of Guildford Conservatoire, a Council Member of Loughborough University, a Member of the Institute of Ideas and a Member of the European Cultural Parliament. She is a patron of the Asha Foundation. She has been awarded the prestigious National Asian Woman of Achievement Award for her contribution to the Arts and Culture.


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