‘Parnassos is the perfect place for the university and society to connect’

At Parnassos, students and employees can take courses, from fine arts to theatre. The cultural centre also houses several student musical groups and a theatre group. The 25th anniversary will be celebrated with the Forward Festival from December 11 to December 14. The festival will ‘take place’ in 2044. What will art and culture look like then, and how will the artists look back on the years before it?

Marieke van Merriënboer says people will still feel a need for creating music together, to sing, or dance, in 2044. She’s convinced of it. The party will be her third lustrum as director, and her work is nowhere near finished, she says. She’s got plenty of plans for the future.

We want to play a bigger part in public engagement

High on the Parnassos to-do list is increasing the collaboration with UU students and scientists. On the one hand, this is how Parnassos wants to contribute to increasing the sense of community at the university. “This is where students from different disciplines come together to work on, for example, a theatre show.” On the other hand, the cultural centre wants to offer scientists a platform as well. “We want to play a bigger part in public engagement.”

This ties in nicely with the goals the Centre for Science and Culture has, which is the umbrella organisation for Parnassos, Studium Generale and the University Museum. “We want science, culture and society to come together in our activities.” Studium Generale, for example, will organise movie nights at Parnassos starting in 2020. The film will be introduced by a scientist, and will be followed by a discussion. “That way, we connect our audience to science.”

Scientists could hold lectures here

Van Merriënboer invites the university to come closer more often, to use the expertise and rooms Parnassos has to offer. Already, the cultural centre works with Career Services, for instance, which prepares students on life as a professional on the labour market, as well as the Skills Lab, which supports students in improving their academic skills. In her view, however, a lot more is possible. “Scientists could hold lectures here; we could organise debates here.”

In her eyes, Parnassos is the perfect place to connect the university to the outside world. “Our shows and performances are visited by an audience that isn’t always familiar with the university. Furthermore, we have around 3,000 students in our courses each year, who aren’t all from the UU. The nearly seventy teachers from the cultural sector who work both here and elsewhere bring their worlds into their lessons, and let students get to know those worlds. That exchange connects worlds, and that’s something we should want to achieve as a university.”

I see tons of possibilities for if the Pnyx boards were to move in with us

Van Merriënboer had to adjust the plans for the future in 2018. That’s when it was announced that the planned collaboration with the faculty of Humanities would not come to fruition. “For years, we worked on plans to collaborate with the department of Media and Culture, which is housed in the Muntstraat. We serve amateurs, they educate future professionals, but we could share facilities and learn from each other’s experiences. That collaboration, we thought, could result in some great cross-pollination. The plan was signed and sealed, but was put on hold by the university until the new campus vision was announced. Eventually, in March 2018, they pulled the plug.”

The reason: there was no room to house the department at the Kruisstraat. “We’ve got sixty internationals living here in thirty rooms, for whom the university would need to find alternative housing to make room for Media and Culture. We rather hoped the building at the Muntstraat would be sold, and then that money could’ve been used to find alternative housing for those students.” Sadly, she says, that wouldn’t come to pass.

Recently, she heard the student boards would have to move to De Uithof from their current location in the city centre, because Pnyx will have to be vacated. “I see tons of possibilities if the Pnyx boards were to move in with us,” she says. “Lots of boards already come here for the activities they organise, they’re already familiar with us. If the boards were to move to our buildings, and start to see our building as their home bases, we’d create a tight-knit community, and we could collaborate on various things.” And where would the internationals go? “I don’t know what plans the university has for Pnyx, but perhaps you could turn that building into housing, or sell the building and use the money to buy or construct housing. Will there be a new high-rise student housing building in De Uithof? Well, perhaps the internationals could move there, then.”

25 years of Parnassos in a nutshell

Cantoraat and Opscène to collaborate
Parnassos Cultural Centre was established in 1994 after the merge of musical centre Het Cantoraat, theatre group Opscène and Foundation Dance Centre Utrecht, in the new Cultural Centre Utrecht University. With this move, music, dance and theatre are housed together. The cultural institutions moved to the Kruisstraat building, which previously housed secondary school the Rijks-HBS. The building also had room for Kosmu, the umbrella organisation for student music groups, and an international guesthouse. In 2005, Parnassos starts a collaboration with cultural centre De Uitwijk in De Uithof.

Parnassos receives subsidies from UU and HKU
For the most part, Parnassos is self-sufficient, earning around sixty percent of its necessary income by itself. The cultural centre earns its money by renting out rooms, with its hospitality services, and organising courses, performances and shows. Parnassos has around 3,000 students in courses each year, and also houses an additional 500 students who are active in cultural student music groups and theatre associations. The building also includes 30 student rooms, where a total of 60 international students live. They rent the rooms through SSH.

Aside form the UU, the University of the Arts (HKU) and the UMC Utrecht also participate in Parnassos. They also contribute to the finances, so their students and employees – like those from the UU – can take part in courses at a discount rate. These contributions make up 40 percent of the budget. Until September 2009, Parnassos also collaborated with the Utrecht University of Applied Sciences (HU). In 2009, the HU decided to cut its subsidy, which led to Parnassos having to enforce cutbacks, and closing its Uithof location in 2011.

Creating connections
Parnassos is an important factor in shaping a (university) community. Nothing is as cross-disciplinary as a music or theatre group, says Marieke van Merriënboer. Students of all kinds of disciplines find each other in their shared passions. “Parnassos is their home as well. It works like a student association’s home. This is where you go when you want to find each other. Here’s where your friends are.” Parnassos is the home base for a number of music groups, such as choir DeKoor, the Utrecht Student Big Band, USConcert, and the Utrecht Student Choir and Orchestra (USKO) and Theatre sports group Parnassos. These groups also have in common that not all of their members are students (anymore), and the students don’t all study at the UU, says Van Merriënboer. “That results in a cross-pollination which generates so much energy.” Parnassos also tries to strengthen its ties with the city and professional artists more. A good example is the UUnited Music Festival in TivoliVredenburg.

Trends in courses
Parnassos Cultural Centre has to keep its offer of courses attractive, because its income depends on it. For that reason, the centre regularly conducts market research and adjusts the offer accordingly. There were years, for instance, where the Zumba courses were endlessly popular, and theatre courses attracted nearly no one. “Now, however, theatre is booming.”

Fixing up
To get Parnassos ready for the future, it’s also made a physical start. The Kruisstraat building has been thoroughly renovated. The theatre auditorium has been equipped with comfortable chairs, the bar has been provided with new furniture, and the hallway has lost its cluttered look. A lick of paint makes the rooms wonderfully fresh and new again. With this, a large part of the overdue maintenance has now been completed.