Aarhus cultural institutions go international

With three newly-appointed foreigners in key positions, Denmark’s second city is hoping to move front and centre on the global stage

Three years ago, the majority of Aarhus City Council voted in favour of changing the spelling of the city’s name from ‘Århus’ to ‘Aarhus’ as a way of internationalising the city. After all, the letter ‘å’ only exists in a few languages, making it hard for non-Danish speakers to find information on the city online.

Lately Aarhus has taken three additional steps in its global march, as three of the city’s largest cultural institutions – the Den Jyske Opera, Aarhus Theatre and Aarhus, European Cultural Capital 2017 – have appointed foreigners to head their organisations.

Speaking with new opera director Annilese Miskimmon and new theatre director Mick Gordon, one can clearly hear a similarity in their accents. And sure enough, both have roots in Northern Ireland’s capital of Belfast. Miskimmon and Gordon will soon be joined by Rebecca Matthews of England, who will be leaving her job as director of the British Council in New York to start her new job as director of Aarhus 2017 on June 1.

Coming to Denmark

Last year, Miskimmon applied for the job as the head of the Den Jyske Opera, and visited Denmark for the first time when she flew in to interview for the position.

Rebecca MiskimmonÂ’s first ever trip to Denmark was to interview for the position at Den Jyske Opera – a position she landed (Photo: Mette-Sofie Holst-Sommer)“I instantly felt at home when I came here. I felt the chemistry was right between the company, the country and me,” Miskimmon said. She got the job and moved to Aarhus in September of last year.

Since arriving, she has been acclimating herself to the Danish way of life and its notoriously difficult language.

“I love Danish and it feels fantastic when I understand things,” she said. “I’ve just started language classes, and over my time here I want to make sure I don’t get trapped in my own little artistic world.”

Unlike Miskimmon, Gordon was relatively familiar with Aarhus before taking his position, having regularly visited Denmark’s second-largest city for work purposes over the years. When he heard of the opening for the head of the Aarhus Threatre, he jumped at the opportunity.

“The theatre combines all my interests as a director, playwrite and acting teacher, as it has four stages, a writing school and an acting school,” Gordon said.

Gordon added that learning Danish for him is an “extremely slow process”.

“My wife is much better than I am, but I approach it with a great deal of enthusiasm,” he said.

Of all three, Matthews might be the one who is most familiar with Denmark. Her partner lives in Aarhus with their son, so although she has been working in America, she has been coming to Denmark regularly over the past four years to spend time with her family.

She says she has developed her Danish skills quite well, but that it still remains a challenge to answer questions in Danish rather than English.

Common values

Miskimmon and Gordon agree that the Danes and the Irish are much alike, which might be one of the reasons they both felt at home in Aarhus shortly after moving there.

Rebecca MatthewsÂ’s partner was already living in Aarhus with their son, so she was fairly familiar with the city before moving there from New York (Photo: Aarhus 2017)“We share certain values, like our dark sense of humour and the concept of hygge,” said Gordon, who believes the two nationalities also share their infatuation with the sea and a love for story telling.

But he also points out that the Danish society is different and more egalitarian than what he experienced in Belfast and London, where he lived and worked for 20 years, and that there seems to be a greater common investment in society in Denmark.

“Bicycles are left unlocked and babies are left in the prams outside the cafés, and both are there when you come back. This would never happen in London,” he said.

International profile

Aarhus was selected last year as the European Capital of Europe 2017 and according to Jacob Bundsgaard, the city’s mayor, it is an important event in which Aarhus will get a chance to profile itself internationally.

“This is a great opportunity for Aarhus to push itself forward on a transnational scene,” said Bundsgaard, who was part of the board that hired Matthews to head up the Aarhus 2017 campaign.

“Above all, we wanted someone competent and professional with a large international network,” he said, emphasising that it was not a deliberate strategy to hire foreigners.

Matthews sees Aarhus as a young exciting city that is big enough to have a great cultural variety, but also small enough to be able to work together across cultural institutions.

“I have worked in throbbing places like New York and Sydney, but in Aarhus you also experience great creativity. It is a small city, but a region with big ideas. Denmark is punching above its weight and Aarhus is really growing culturally,” she said.