Artistic Director Spotlight: Isabel Cisterna, Neruda Arts

Neruda Arts is a non-profit world music presenter dedicated to building bridges in our community through music, dance, drama, and literary and visual arts from around the world. We had a lovely chat with Artistic Director and founder Isabel Cisterna to learn more about the company’s diverse programming.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the birth of Neruda Arts.

A: When I came to Canada in 1991, I was an actress with limited English (if none at all) and had no connections or networks. It took me 10 years to be able to work in my field and I realized that there were lots of other people who immigrated from other countries who were in the same boat as I was: they were professional artists and did not have an opportunity to present their work because of their limited language skills or the limited connections and networks they had.

Neruda Arts was born out of sheer necessity – partly out of my own selfish reasons, but mainly in response to what was happening 15 years ago in the community. It was about giving people an opportunity to showcase and recognize their talent in a simple, non-flashy way and allowing them to perform at the same level as other professional artists in the area.

Q: What’s the story behind the name?

A: I came up with the name knowing that people would have a hard time pronouncing it and that would make them curious to know what it is – they think it’s my last name. But it’s actually named after Pablo Neruda, who was the most loved Chilean Nobel Prize winning poet in the 20th century. When I started the company, it was a bit of an insider joke because people often ask me when I moved here if I knew who Shakespeare was. Of course, I had done a great deal of studying Shakespeare back home, but very few people knew who Neruda was. I argued that sometimes people need to go farther out and that Neruda is as important in his legacy and work as Shakespeare. It’s a conversation starter and it always lead to the same thing – the discovery of some of the greatest love poems written and people always thank me for it.

Q: How has the journey for Neruda Art been?

A: The community support was surprisingly amazing. People have come and supported World Art at the time when it didn’t have a very strong definition. We were one of the pioneers at the time to be talking about cultural diversity and inclusion and the community at large was very responsive to it. We relied on our patrons and our everyday supporters that came time and time again when we didn’t have financial support and they have helped us grow to what we are today.

Q: What’s in the works this coming year?

A: We have become one of the (if not the most) important world music producers in Waterloo region over the years. In 2015, we’ll be doing a World Music Festival with a twist. The theme is Pan Am because of the Pan Am games coming to Toronto. We will have a great deal of music from Pan Am countries, as well music from other countries and it’s going to be an important year.

We have a concert series throughout the year called Show The World. This year alone we have featured more than 15 different countries in the series.

Q: How do you go about curating the shows you present?

A: I like to listen to people and their suggestions. For instance, we’ve been trying to get a Chinese ensemble for a long time, but it hasn’t worked until now. It’s been most requested and what they sometimes don’t realize is that we have to have all the stars to align to bring them – they have to be on tour, we have to find a venue, we have to have the funds, etc. So sometimes things happen because everything falls in to place and we get what we’re hoping to get. Other times, we can only respond to what is happening around us. This year featured artists from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Morocco and part of our job is to see who’s here and who we can feature. We have a lot of people coming from those affected areas and we want to produce something that makes them feel at home, even for a little bit.

Q: How do you strike a balance in presenting events that can represent all the diverse cultures, even if they may not be popular?

A: That is a hard question. If I were to just produce Cuban or Salsa events, I probably would be very profitable because everybody loves dancing and a good party. But that’s not what we’re about. We’re about creating experiences that are unforgettable and something we may even learn from. The greatest balancing act is to do a little bit of both the popular and the different and being able to connect with the different communities and getting them to participate. We also need to understand that some shows won’t fill up or sell as well as our popular shows – but they’re still just as worthy to present as others.

For those who do attend the different shows, it means the world to them. The few people who come also spread the word and that can be powerful in bringing more people to these events. There are people who are reluctant to change and see new things, but if they hear about it from a trusted source, they’re more open to the idea of putting themselves in a place of vulnerability. In this case, I have slowly built a reputation for being the trusted source where people say if Isabel puts on a show, it’s not going to be bad.

Q: What’s your vision for Neruda Arts?

A: I would like to see Neruda Arts become an essential part of the arts community because world music and cultural diversity encompasses everything and we are part of an intercultural community.