Rupal Shah standing in front of a large abstract painting wearing a grey dress.

Photography By Denise Militzer / Artwork by Claude Breeze

Unsung hero: Rupal Shah helps newcomer artists find community

Meet the theatre kid–turned–arts funder who’s shaking up the stage for newcomer artists in Toronto

When she was just a teenager, Rupal Shah decided she was going to have a career in the theatre. “It just brought me so much joy and motivation—I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. “When I look back on it, it was about making something with a group of people. I felt this euphoria that came from making something together that none of us could have made on our own.”

After more than a decade working for indie theatres across the city, Shah wanted to take on a more multidisciplinary role and support the broader arts community. As a Strategic Programs Manager at Toronto Arts Council (TAC), she is part of the team that organizes funding programs and strategic partnerships—designing and spearheading innovative programs like the Newcomer and Refugee Artists Mentorship Grant. The grant gives artists on the periphery of Toronto’s arts community the opportunity to work with a more established mentor who can help them navigate the city’s art scene and develop their own network of fellow artists—something many newcomer artists struggle with when they move to Toronto.

“I sort of shudder to think how many artists we may have lost because they came to Toronto, saw that there wasn’t a space for them, and redirected or decided to focus solely on family instead,” Shah says. “That’s something that motivates me, making sure that the people who move here—at least the people I’m working with—have a chance to express themselves and have the artistic career they want in their new home.”

In the past two years, nearly 50 artists have received the grant, empowering them to practice their art and find a place for themselves in the city’s art scene. Most importantly, it’s supporting artists offering new and unique perspectives on the issues facing the GTA.

We sat down with the current CivicAction DiverseCity Fellow to learn more about why she thinks all artists deserve a seat at the table.

Image of a woman standing on a stage with her hands crossed

Why do you think it’s important that Toronto’s arts community is inclusive of newcomer artists?
There are so many aspects of our society that are reflected in the arts—gender inequality, institutional racism, the ongoing effects of colonialism. Newcomers come with different perspectives, and through their art they ask extremely intelligent and insightful questions about why things are the way they are here. These questions then force you—as someone who is born and raised in Canada—to come up with answers and think about those issues yourself. If we don’t have these voices, we will lose sight of people who are on the so-called margins of mainstream society. We need to bring in the people who can remind us who doesn’t have a seat at the table.

How does having a creative community impact someone’s ability to make art?
So much of art making is collaborative. You have to have people who understand what you do, who you can bounce your ideas off of and who you can work with. That’s why the mentorship piece of the program is important. It gives them that one person, that one life line who they can text or go to coffee with who gets what they’re going through. And a lot of people know each other within their discipline, and often that’s how opportunities and information is spread.

Image of a woman sitting at a table reading

What’s the most satisfying part of your job?
The satisfaction for me is in seeing all of the different opportunities that open up for artists and the connections that they make. When I run into them, I notice a difference in their confidence, their energy, their ability to network—often their outlook is more positive because good things are happening for them. I don’t want to make it seem as if I have more of hand in that than I do. I designed the program and I give people information and help them apply, but once they get it, they’re doing all of the work.

What can people outside the arts community do to support newcomer artists?
I think for anybody who loves art, just make a commitment to go and experience something that’s outside your comfort zone. Seek out the work that’s happening in the city by people of all different backgrounds and lived experiences.

Image of a woman standing outside with buildings in the background

What Toronto artists are you most excited about right now?
Someone who I follow closely, who was also funded through my program the year before last, is Ahmed Moneka. He’s an actor, an artist and a musician—he has a few bands that play around town. He has just a beautiful presence, a beautiful voice and is always bringing people together. He came here from Iraq not intending to stay, ended up staying for his own safety, and has now made this amazing life for himself. He plays music around the city and brings people a lot of joy while still upholding the elements of his musical culture that he wants to share with others.

You had a long career in theatre before joining TAC. What’s the most nervous you’ve been before a performance?
In university, I co-directed a huge production of West Side Story. I had never directed anything in my life. I’d mostly been a stage manager and an administrator. It was a huge project and all I remember from opening night was when the intermission happened I couldn’t get up from my seat. It was absolutely nerve racking. Everything went well and people really liked it—which was a relief.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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