«Canada has changed me forever, living in a city where all religions and ethnicities can coexist peacefully changes the way you see the world»
Marta Keller – Arts Administrator and Manager of Cultural Projects
Marta Keller is an arts administrator specialized in the dissemination of cultural heritage. She incorporated her first tour guiding company when she was only 23 years old, an experience that provided her with the maturity to tackle a major professional change in the future: immigrating to Canada. In Toronto, she is Administrator at Sur Gallery and the Director of Programming at Paralia, a non-profit that supports and promotes newcomer artists in order to establish an artistic presence in Canada.
Marta is an intelligent and confident person who makes the conversation interesting and full of nuances. She conveys her ideas with clarity and shows the capacity to absorb and interpret the rich multicultural context that surrounds her in this Canadian city. In this interview, she speaks about her professional and personal journey.
– Your educational background includes degrees in Culture and Tourism from the University of Alicante, Spain. What made you choose these programs?
I must admit I was only 16 when I decided to study Tourism. At that time, I believed it was the best way to find a job that would allow me to discover new places and meet other people and cultures. At such young age, I did not know much about the job market so I decided to move to Alicante and study at one of the main tourist destinations of the country. After receiving my degree in Tourism and a graduate certificate in Heritage Interpretation and Tour Guiding, I delivered guided tours of the city and its surroundings for a while. That experience made me realize I did not know enough about culture in general: I had a good foundation in local culture and history but lacked the context in which to place it. That’s how I decided to go back to university and take a Masters in Humanities, acquiring knowledge regarding history, geography, art and anthropology.
– You co-founded and managed your own tour guiding company in Spain. What did you learn from this experience?
I learned that being an entrepreneur is one of the most complicated professional career choices, yet the most rewarding. Starting your own company requires a wide range of skills and knowledge you do not get while in University, it’s something you learn through experience. An entrepreneur needs to wear several hats daily: you oversee marketing, sales, customer service, product design, adapting the product to clients’ needs. When my co-founder and I embarked on this adventure I was only 23 years old. The experience gave me the maturity to confront the tasks of future job positions and projects.
«An entrepreneur needs to wear several hats daily (…) The experience gave me the maturity to confront the tasks of future job positions and projects.»
– Four years ago, you moved to Toronto. Why did you immigrate?
In my case, there were two reasons: on one hand, the desire to live in a different country and on the other hand, the necessity of professional opportunities. I had a job in Spain but that was not the case for my partner, so we had a conversation and decided it was “now or never”. Although I had lived in Toronto for a month several years before, thanks to a grant to improve my English language skills, Canada was not among the potential destinations at first. Thanks to friends who already lived in Montreal and Toronto and guided us through the process to apply for proper visas, we decided to immigrate to this country.
– How has this change affected you personally and professionally?
Like in many countries in the world, working in the arts and culture sector in Canada is difficult, although not impossible. Compared to other sectors, there are fewer opportunities and some positions are offered on an hourly basis or project-by-project basis. Professionally, it meant starting again: my background was in tourism and I wanted to switch to the cultural sector. Thanks to the Graduate Certificate programI took at Centennial College in Toronto, I have been working as an arts administrator for the last few of years, something I never managed to do while living in Spain.
Personally, immigrating has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It is undeniable that the destination affects tremendously. At the end of the day, Toronto is an oasis, not just in Canada, but also in the province of Ontario; since 50% of its population was born in different countries and it is considered one of the most multicultural cities in the world. In Toronto, your accent is not a problem, but that is not the case in the rest of the country. This experience has changed me forever, living in a city where all religions and ethnicities can coexist peacefully changes the way you see the world. There are issues, like everywhere else, but people talk about it, which facilitates dialogue between different communities and makes you realize the privileges associated with being European and White.
– In your opinion, what is the cultural life like? Are people more interested in the arts in Canada compared to Spain?
I don’t think I can compare. I am only familiar with the Toronto arts scene, which is the economic capital of the country, and I can say the cultural life is very active. However, if you compare this city with some of the big cities in the United States, Toronto is still one step behind in terms of cultural offerings. In my opinion, this is due to the idiosyncrasy of the country: Canada is huge in extension but there are only a few large and heavily populated cities like Toronto, which are located closer to the borderline because of the extreme climates to the North. In Spain, neither did I work in culture management nor did I live in a rich cultural city. The bottom line is that Alicante was a sun-and-sand destination and arts and culture were not a priority.
However, there is an interest for financing the arts in a more individual way. Generally speaking, nobody questions whether an entrance fee needs to be paid to enter a museum or to attend a lecture. In comparison to Spain, donating to a non-profit in Canada is common, and it doesn’t need to be a large amount, you can contribute with whatever amount you want. Donating is part of Canadians daily life.
«there is an interest for financing the arts in a more individual way. Generally speaking, nobody questions whether an entrance fee needs to be paid to enter a museum or to attend a lecture. In comparison to Spain, donating to a non-profit in Canada is common»
– You were an international student of the Culture and Heritage Site Management program at Centennial College. Why did you choose that program and what did you learn?
As many other immigrants, my first job in Toronto was a non-skilled position. It took me a while to realize that I would have to go back to school so that my Spanish educational background could be valued. I had taken a graduate certificate in Culture Policies and Management at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya but I had no experience, neither in Canada nor in Spain, which is what you are expected to bring to the table when applying for skilled jobs. The Graduate Certificate at Centennial College opened the doors to a new profession in a new country. It was an 8-month program where I learned things such as: grant writing, securing sponsorships, approaching private donors, establishing partnerships… it’s a program that helps you transform the knowledge you acquire in University into applied skills.
«The Graduate Certificate at Centennial College opened the doors to a new profession in a new country (…) it’s a program that helps you transform the knowledge you acquire in University into applied skills.»
– Since you moved to Toronto, you have been in touch with people from other nationalities, working for Heritage Toronto. What did you do there?
I interned at Heritage Toronto, as part of the Centennial program, an organization that offers guided tours in the city to promote its heritage, both tangible and intangible. During the internship, I designed a guided tour. Since then, I have collaborated with this organization as a tour leader, delivering tours in Spanish and English for English as a Second Language students.
– You are a co-founder of Paralia Newcomer Arts Network, a non-profit that helps newcomer artists adapt to a new arts scene in Canada. What kind of problems do these artists encounter when immigrating?
Soon after finishing Centennial’s program, two classmates and myself decided to incorporate this organization to support artists that have immigrated to Canada, trying to facilitate their transition into a new arts scene. The immigration process generally entails a major change in your life, in very few cases this shows an explosion of creativity; usually, artists lock themselves out at home and abandon their artistic practice, focusing on securing a job that can pay the bills. Normally, these are artists are adults who do not consider attending college again, something the younger generations oftentimes choose.
Language is a barrier as well. If you can barely survive in a different language, it is going to be difficult to tell somebody else what inspires you and why you do what you do. In Canada, marketing your work represents about 30-40% of your duties as an artist. Also, you need to submit an elaborated application when applying for grants if you want to be successful. That’s where Paralia can help.
«The immigration process generally entails a major change in your life, in very few cases this shows an explosion of creativity; usually, artists lock themselves out at home and abandon their artistic practice, focusing on securing a job that can pay the bills.»
– You are currently working at Sur Gallery. What’s the mandate of the gallery and what’s your role in it?
Sur Gallery is a project of LACAP (Latin American Canadian Art Projects), it is Toronto’s first gallery space dedicated to the implementation of art projects which showcase and promote contemporary Latin American artistic practices. As the Administrator, my role is to coordinate day-to-day logistics of the space and its programming, as well as dealing with artists, marketing, organizing special events, opening receptions, updating the website and social media channels… I do a bit of everything, which I specially enjoy. I report to the Curator and Director of the gallery, Tamara Toledo, who is responsible for long-term strategic planning.
– Personally, and professionally, what do you miss the most from Spain and what would you NOT change from your life in Canada?
I miss my family, my friends, and the long conversations on a Sunday afternoon after a barbecue. Immigrating changes the way you see life and your perspective, mainly in terms of those things you didn’t value properly before. I miss a more relaxed life, more in line with the Spanish culture, I feel my calendar is always full with commitments in Toronto.
On the other hand, I enjoy not having long breaks in the middle of the day for lunch, being able to get a one-year-long maternity leave if I happen to need it, professional opportunities looking into the future, meeting people from different countries every day, the discussions and conversations around art’s role when building a more multicultural society, not being judgmental, the possibility of establishing professional connections with Latin America, the feeling of belonging to a community… this is just a short list of what makes me happy.
– What kind of projects would you like to work on in the future?
I would like to engage newcomers or immigrants with the arts and museum collections. I strongly believe the arts and culture can help with the transition, adaptation and integration process of the more than 300,000 immigrants Canada welcomes each year.
– What is a dream that you would like to come true?
I guess my dream is that of every single person that works in this sector: not only to make additional funding available for the arts and culture sector, but also to acknowledge its relevance and prominent role in our condition of humans and society.