Behind the scenes: I am a multimedia project
She is not bothered by burning ambition, but if something makes her curious, she will sink her teeth into it one hundred percent. She is a chameleon in a positive sense: flexible, caring and empathetic as well as articulate, practical and creative. She found that versatility in and gives it to CBK Rotterdam. As head of communication, Xandra Nibbeling ensures the visibility of art and artists in the city. Or rather: cared. Because this interview marks a goodbye. And at the same time a new beginning.
In conversation with Xandra Nibbeling
Text: Annemiek van Grondel
Naming all her functions and individual projects becomes a sleep-inducing summary that in no way does justice to the person Xandra Nibbeling (1963). If you want to know the bottom line, rush to her LinkedIn page. What counts with this enterprising lady is the big picture: an open mind and roll up your sleeves. In art, culture, communication and language, the keywords of her professional existence.
It started with music. Perhaps heroes John Lennon and Bob Dylan had something to do with choosing to join record distributor Bertus, a major player in the alternative music scene at the time, just before graduating in 1991. 'I had worked for more than five years at Jazzcafé Dizzy, where someone tipped me off about this job', she says. “Before Bertus, I called customers, faxed in orders, and collected records and CDs, from Prince, Deee-Lite and De La Soul to Jimi Hendrix and Stax label collectors' boxes to send anywhere and everywhere. It really was a man's world. We ended each day relaxed with a beer and then invariably set up a tree about politics.'
The job was less challenging in terms of content; when after a few months the opportunity arose to work in an editor position at the Information Center International Relations of Erasmus University Rotterdam, she seized it with both hands. 'I always wanted to do something with writing', says Xandra, who previously reviewed concerts for the local music magazine Damp. 'At the university I made information brochures for exchange students, in which I wrote about cultural life in Rotterdam, among other things. I suggested creating a website, which was unusual at the time. This made the city more accessible for foreign students both offline and online.'
Xandra was born in Amsterdam, the middle of three children. Her Amsterdam father and German mother moved to Rotterdam in 1964 – first IJsselmonde, then Ommoord – where she did not have an easy time at primary school. 'There was a double hostility: against 'twenty' and against Germany. I was bullied, even by a teacher. Miss Hekstra from the third grade belittled me because I had a German mother. My parents filed a complaint with the director as a result of this.' And that, while her family kept away from the Nazis. Grandpa on his mother's side refused to give vegetables from his vegetable garden to the German army, and his brother was deported to a camp as early as the XNUMXs because of his communist ideas. 'When we moved to Krimpen aan den IJssel when I was ten, I ended up in a warm bath. That friendly village felt very safe. On the first day of school I was asked if I wanted to participate in tag, unheard of in Ommoord. My confidence grew day by day.'
It started with music
She set her imagination to work early on. As a twelve-year-old she translated all the lyrics of the lp Imagine. Xandra: 'I got to know Lennon's records through my older brother Peter, an avid collector of music and literature. In the family I was typically the middle one: always looking at everything from two points of view. When I was little I spent a lot of time with Peter, later more with my younger sister Simone. Peter gradually got worse: from his thirties he developed psychoses and suicidal tendencies. Our relationship changed from equal to a "caring for". He eventually took his own life. It was his choice, and I can respect that. I used to be heavy-handed, but suddenly I realized: if life is so against you and you therefore have to make such a drastic decision, I have nothing to complain about. Since then I have been more positive in life. It saddened me a lot, but also made me stronger. Nevertheless, it always stays with you. I still think about him a lot.'
Xandra may have been born in the capital, but her whole life has been dominated by Rotterdam. She never felt the urge to live and work elsewhere. 'After the Atheneum, I briefly considered studying Russian in Amsterdam, because I thought it was such a beautiful language,' she says. 'But I had a boyfriend in Rotterdam and decided, very pragmatically, to study here.' Besides, professionally speaking with Russian you couldn't do much more than become a spy.' Schalks: 'Wouldn't have seemed unkind to me.'
The choice fell on sociology, not a very happy one. "I was a dreamer and I missed a lot," she says. 'The propaedeutic year was easy for me because it was very broad: psychology, anthropology, economics and philosophy. But when I chose business sociology after that, the fun quickly wore off. What was the subject? No idea, corporate cultures and all that. I soon gave up.'
The nightlife was all the more appealing to the young dog, who loved going out and, in addition to her job with Dizzy, worked as a volunteer in the Arena concert hall, predecessor of Nighttown. Nevertheless, she had time for a new study, the evening course for history teacher. “I liked that,” she says. 'Read a lot of books on interesting subject matter and the occasional oral. But teaching is too intensive for me, as it turned out during internships at two schools. I remember enthusiastically preparing a really fun lesson about the Olympics, spiced up with Greek mythology. But I got dizzy from talking, paying attention all the time, and keeping people around. A history teacher must have an incredible amount of factual knowledge and constantly tell accurate stories. My head doesn't work like that, I have a selective memory. I finished my studies and made the decision not to teach.'
Nevertheless, she does not regret her studies: 'I have learned to look at the world in a broad, critical way and to put things into perspective.'
No ambition, but communication
If you call Xandra Nibbeling a multimedia project, she doesn't contradict that. She loves art and culture in the broadest sense and has experience in various disciplines. 'But as a copywriter I am at my best, because I can think best while writing. Then thoughts get structure, something takes shape.'
She seems like a chameleon, who can switch quickly due to her great empathy and can bind many people. "Chameleon?" she muses. 'A little though. People see that as a lack of identity. But that's not it. I just have a broad interest and rarely focus on one thing.' She is not bothered by ambition. She likes to work hard behind the scenes, does whatever gets in her way and doesn't feel too good for anything. "That's something I learned from the working-class family in which both my parents grew up," she says.
I have a wide range of interests and rarely focus on one thing
Rotterdam is in her heart. 'I think most cities are frumpy, all those canals and little things. The rawness of the port city appeals to me. I like clear and direct, I can't stand gossip and snideness, in which Amsterdam excels. Nice to be there, you know, but I wouldn't want to live there. Even though neither my parents nor I are from here, this is my city. Although Rotterdam is now seriously cleaning up and rebuilding. I have nothing to do with that fuss with “zero ten” or the recent hysteria surrounding the Song Contest. I like to choose the different. After a long time in West and then the Kleiwegkwartier, I now live in Oud-Charlois. That raw feeling can still be found there.'
The man who would become the father of her children met Xandra in cafe Le Vagabond. “I was 32 when our daughter Michelle was born. Son Yannick followed a few years later', she says. 'We first lived in Heemraadsstraat and later bought a house in the Kleiwegkwartier. At that time I was working as an editor for Rotterdam 2001, European Capital of Culture. During that time, the relationship broke down. We didn't fit together, was the conclusion. But we raised the children together and in good harmony.'
From 2004 she worked for five years as a communications and press manager for Poetry International. 'Suddenly I rolled into cultural communication. In the cultural sector, the makers are emotionally close to the content. A communication manager translates their work for the public into not too complicated teasers. If you compare it to a book, I'll make the blurb. That's a field of tension: to kill someone's darlings. Makers always want to be complete, but to make their product attractive to the public you have to get to the core.'
After working as head of communication and marketing at the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam in 2009 and 2010, she started her own business as Bureau Nibbeling. Soon the orders started pouring in. One of her first clients was art and performance festival De Wereld van Witte de With, but Sculpture International Rotterdam (SIR), a program of CBK Rotterdam, also approached her. For example, Xandra ended up as a freelancer at CBK Rotterdam in 2013. What was initially valid for three months, grew into a part-time permanent contract. As head of communication, she finds it important that the city becomes acquainted with visual art and that artists can develop in Rotterdam. 'In the eight years that I have been working here, I have tried to make the many activities that we develop here visible,' she says. 'Artists can apply for financial compensation from us, for example to deepen and develop their practice. We support and organize exhibitions and events. Realize, maintain and inventory art in public space and inform our public about it. Collaborate with other institutes, such as museums. For example, together with the City Archives and the Kunsthal, we developed the Urban Artists project. We also have links with neighborhood associations and small foundations in the neighbourhoods. So much is happening!'
You try to achieve maximum results with few resources
Xandra is proud of the innovations within CBK Rotterdam, such as the house style. She also took care of the Art Office website together with Petra Laaper, on which artists, among other things, can maintain their own page and submit a funding application. 'You try to achieve maximum results with few resources,' she says. 'Besides via the website, we also communicate with brochures, posters, social media and soon a content platform. We ask organizations and artists we support to place our logo, so that everyone knows where to find CBK Rotterdam.' And if that's missing? 'I understand that artists sometimes forget that, but if it concerns a large collaboration project with a fellow institution, I do want to play for logo police for a while,' she jokes sternly.
On July 1, the digital urban radio station will broadcast OperatorRadio for the second time a program about the activities of CBK Rotterdam, including Art Office, BKOR, SIR and the exhibitions in TENT, and with stories by artists.
And now a new phase has begun. Time to let go of CBK Rotterdam and welcome more experiment into her life. “Last year I turned 57 and wondered, 'Have I done everything I wanted? One of my old visions of the future was writing. As a teenager I wrote a lot, language and text have always appealed to me. Language contains a lot, gives access to your and other people's thoughts. I think it's a wealth that I grew up with two languages, not only because you speak an extra language well, but it also offers a second perspective from another language and history. It makes your world and your thinking bigger.' She thinks it is a good thing that more and more people are growing up bilingual. 'They are language sensitive and have a wider range of perspectives available.'
New love, old love
Now that the children have flown out, Xandra spends a lot of time with her now 87-year-old mother Ilse, who has lived alone since 2020 after the death of her husband Piet, a former English teacher who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The past few years have been dominated by visits to her father and mother for Xandra. Now she and Simone take turns fulfilling the role of caregiver for Ilse. This ranges from spiritual support to shopping and gardening.
She recently lived with Kamiel Verschuren and his son Anders. The two met at Poetry International, for which she worked and he organized the annual art festival Poetry&Art. They have now been together for over fourteen years. 'We really are a team and quite evenly matched', says Xandra. 'Kamiel is a 'rethinker', someone who always chooses a different angle and who drags out all the possibilities everywhere. His art is conceptual and committed. He has a social nature and enormous perseverance. He has meant a lot to our Oud-Charlois district. The New Atelier Charlois (NAC) was partly his initiative. Empty houses are loaned to artists for little money. Over the years, a lively artist community has developed in Charlois. He also realized the ferry between Charlois and Katendrecht, provided with information about art.'
Kamiel is part of the Bad Foundation, an artists' initiative that squatted an old school in Charlois in 1991. The building turned out to have no owner, after which it was refurbished by the foundation and managed for years. Some artists who have a studio there also live there. Xandra: 'Now Vestia is the owner. We rent the former gym that borders the outdoor garden, a wonderful place.'
When I'm gone, my colleagues will have to read BK information
She also has a professional relationship with her boyfriend, including through Doual'art, a contemporary art organization in Cameroon, which engages in a dialogue with the public through art. "Kamiel started working with them in 2007," she says. 'During the Prince Claus Awards in 2009, Doual'art was awarded. On the occasion, Kamiel was allowed to make an exhibition in Douala. I went with them then, had never been to Africa. Fantastic, Douala is an amazing city, sweltering hot, humid, chaotic… This is how a friendship was born. We go there once every three years. In 2010, we organized a visiting program, supported by the Mondriaan Fund, and brought people there from the Netherlands. We also realized a traveling exhibition in various European and African cities.'
She never gave up on her old love of writing. Since 2013, she has been editor-in-chief of BK-information, a professional magazine for visual artists with about eight thousand subscribers. 'Kamiel had a subscription, and whenever I saw it, I thought: I would like to work for that,' says Xandra, who was later asked to take over the magazine thanks to the good wishes fairy. Scrubbing is also involved. 'A subscription costs little and a website has been set up to keep it accessible to as many artists as possible,' she says. 'We really do it together, with the board, some editors and a distribution company. The knowledge I gain there also comes in handy in my work for CBK Rotterdam.' She chuckles. 'When I'm gone, my colleagues will have to read BK information.'
Sketch of the city
On the occasion of her farewell, Xandra wanted to put colleagues in the spotlight with the interview series 'Behind the scenes'. 'We work hard here, with a lot of fun and dedication,' she says. 'They have interesting stories to tell about what they are doing, not just their work. Due to the lockdown we saw each other less. Now we also get to know each other in a different way.'
This week she says goodbye to her familiar working environment. She will miss her colleagues, but considers it a new beginning. Kamiel and I are looking for a place in France. Maybe we'll start an artist residency there. But it can still go either way. I have no idea what the future holds.'
I know: if you want to change your life, something will come your way. And then you have to say yes
In any case, she will remain editor-in-chief of BK information. In addition to writing, there is more room for creative projects in collaboration with others. 'Last autumn, during a dinner at home, Anne Vegter was also present,' says Xandra. 'I shared my old wish to write more and she told me that she would become a city poet and was looking for someone to spar with. She suggested that they start working together in January. 'I was immediately in for it, although January was very close. But I know: if you want to change your life, something will come your way. And then you have to say yes.'
She and Vegter have been working together since the end of January. They have set up a project to visit all libraries in Rotterdam for a year from the end of June and to talk to people inside and outside about fundamental life issues. 'We want to know how the Rotterdammer lives,' says Xandra. 'For some this means peace on earth and for others: how do I make ends meet?' A course in vlogging and filming with the mobile phone is now being put into practice. The duo traverses Rotterdam on a scooter, from the center and Kralingen to Nesselande and Lombardijen, and sketches the city on the basis of written and spoken interviews, accompanied by photos, diary texts and poetry. The vlogs can be seen on local TV channel Open Rotterdam. In 2022, the texts and photos will be bundled in a publication. Xandra: 'My texts are also included in it. I once entered communication through the written word and now I leave through the written word. It had to be that way.'
Publication date: 29 / 06 / 2021