The Expat: Linda Neilson

CV: Linda Neilson
Born: Stirling, UK
Age: 40
Profession: Owner of Galería Mar Dulce art gallery
Education: Fine art degree at Glasgow School of Art
Currently reading: A Russian Journal by John Steinbeck
Last film seen: The Jungle Book
Gadget: My new Canon DC10

Do you remember the first time you came to Argentina?
So I’d met this Argentine guy in Scotland and I had fallen in love. His plane had just left as he was coming here and I was already on the internet looking for a flight.
I came over in June 1999 and was here for 24 days and I think 22 of those we had invitations for meals out with friends of his. It was a social whirl as everyone wanted to meet this mysterious girl from the other side of the world that Ral had fallen in love with.
Of course I didn’t speak a word of Spanish so I spent the whole time eating and drinking and smiling, and I ended with a sore face. All I could say was “I have a black jacket” and not much more than that.

Where did you go?
Other than the social whirlwind, Ral took me round to some different neighbourhoods, and I think more so than now, that they had very distinctive characters. I think there is more “sameness” across the city now. I remember going to Palermo and there was nothing. There was Plaza Serrano, Calma Chicha (leather shop), a couple of bars and nothing else. It was all residential.

How did you meet?
I was working in a gallery and he’d been doing a Masters in Bristol and he came to Glasgow for six weeks. He ended staying for six years. Then we moved to Spain, with the intention of it being a half-way house, both culturally and geographically.
We spent two years in Valencia which was a brilliant place, but it wasn’t working so we moved here. Although Ral had been teaching at Glasgow School of Art, in Spain he couldn’t get work at a university as he didn’t have a doctorate. So he ended up working the front desk of a hotel while I taught English.

Was it an easy decision to move?
Ral is an only child and his mum was getting older so he wanted to be with her. That ended up being very important as she actually died shortly after we moved here in June 2006. So it was fortunate he got to spend that time with her. It’s also ironic that we are in Buenos Aires as he doesn’t have any more family here so we are quite alone in that sense.

And was it easy for you?
He’d been talking about coming back for a while and to be honest I wanted things to work in Spain, in fact I was kind of in denial that it wasn’t working out. I wasn’t so keen on coming here as it’s so far away, and realistically, when you’re living here earning pesos, going back to the UK becomes difficult and I was aware of that.
I’d always loved coming here as a tourist with pounds, and it was quite hard when we came here. We left Valencia, one of the cleanest cities in the world, in the middle of summer and came to Buenos Aires in the middle of winter, a great big dirty city, a bit like Glasgow! We did think: “What have we done?”

How were the first few months?
I had quite a hard time but things picked up as I started to meet people, get a bit of work, and I started to relax. I think I came here with a bit of a negative attitude but then I realized it was the Buenos Aires I’d always loved. I’d been here about eight times before moving here.
Another reason I was stressed was because Alitalia airline lost my suitcase that had all my most precious things in it, everything I hadn’t wanted to send over in the container. They found it again after a week…
It’s interesting, though, as a lot of Argentines think Europe is “better” and often ask what the hell I’m doing here!

Your mindset must have been different to someone who “fell” into living here.
We were definitely moving here. We’d cut all our ties in Glasgow to move to Spain, put everything into Spain as we really were thinking about setting home there then did exactly the same thing here. So we knew we were here to stay. And neither of us could imagine going back to Britain after being in Spain so we had to think where else could we try.

Where did you stay when visiting?
Ral had kept his artist’s studio that was a few blocks away from his mum’’s house in Caballito. It was a little PH with graffiti he’d done and an open-air passage way.
Now we live on the edge of Villa Crespo and Flores. Palermo is expanding so much that soon we’ll be calling it Palermo Flowers or Palermo Little Horse!

How was your Spanish?
I definitely had enough when I moved although it was a bit of a baptism of fire when I started working. I met someone who offered me a job running a photography gallery which was about to be set up. I came here, started teaching English, then this job was offered to me and I worked on that project until the directors shut it for personal reasons.
So I was out of work in November 2009 with a six-month-old baby thinking “no one is going to give me a job now!” Just as I was taking a couple of months off to take stock and decide what I was going to do, all of a sudden some friends of ours, who’d been friends for years, invited us round for dinner as they had a proposition. They said they had a shop which was empty, which actually used to be their house, and it turned out they’d always had this romantic idea of opening an art gallery. And they asked us to do that.

So you went for it.
That’s right but it’s not that easy to open an art gallery — it’s a lot of hard work and it’s really difficult to get by financially. You need to have another source of income and it takes a long time to get established. So we said to our friends we didn’t think it would be possible and left it at that.
But it’s such a brilliant location with a view onto the street and a patio, so we thought we’d have to try it because if we didn’t, we’d always wonder what might have happened. They gave us a year rent-free, but the condition was that they wanted it open within a month.

How did that work out?
It was January, they wanted it open for March but in the end we opened it in April 2010, the day after my parents arrived from Scotland. They’d booked their flights in the November before there was any talk about a gallery and were coming to meet their grand-daughter for the first time. It was very chaotic! But we did it.

How do you find raising a child here?
We’d decided not to have a family in the UK — bad weather, being inside watching videos all the time — so we wanted to have a family here. It’s so nice that children are so much a part of everything and there isn’t any separation — in my generation children were seen and not heard.

Do you see yourself as an expat?
Yes in the sense of someone who doesn’t live in their country of birth, but it conjures up an image of people who want to keep themselves apart and I certainly don’t do that. In Spain we had few friends who were Spaniards so when we came here I purposefully avoided expat groups or English-speaking contacts.
It’s only been in the past two years that I feel more relaxed about meeting English speakers as I have my Argentine friends and a social life. I now know I can log on to the BA expats forum and it’s okay and I won’t suddenly feel apart from society! I feel like a person who has come to live here as she has an Argentine husband, but now I have a daughter who is Scottish-Argentine.
That said, I don’t watch the news. When you’re on the bus in your home country, you tune in to what people are saying, but here I have to listen. In the beginning I was oblivious on purpose as I’d watch the news and worry about prices going up. It’s a bit irresponsible, though, given that I’m a citizen and have been for six years!

What’s your most Argentine characteristic?
Probably a healthy disrespect for authority! The fact that Argentina is quite anarchistic, or bohemian, is very appealing. Britain is getting much more controlled — you can’t fart without someone saying something.

Sweet dream of a gallery by the sea
With diverse experience both in the UK and Argentina working for the local arts council and at various galleries, Linda Neilson harbours a dream of moving to Uruguay and opening a gallery there.
Talking about opening Galería Mar Dulce, an unexpected proposition made by friends three years ago, she and her artist husband didn‘t have to think very long or hard about taking on the project.
“We’d had a little dream of opening a gallery in Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay, with contemporary and classical Argentine and Uruguayan artists. Ral is an artist, as was his dad, so we have loads of artwork that belonged to his dad done by his contemporaries as artists often exchanged works with each other so we have quite a big collection from the 1930s to the 1960s.”
Mar Dulce hasn’t participated in ArteBA, Latin America’s largest contemporary art fair, as Neilson explains. “We tend to show works by emerging artists among well-known and classic artists so if we only showed emerging artists at ArteBA it wouldn’t really represent what the gallery does.”
Given that there is a recent surge of interest in in Buenos Aires street art, what does she think of the art scene in its current scene?
Neilson says: “What has always surprised me about it is that there is so much energy. In the UK the arts are funded, but it makes me questions my beliefs because there is little state support for the arts but people do things anyway. In Britain, people approach the local authorities for funding and if they don’t get the money they don’t do the project, which is realistic.
“But here, is an artist has a project and they know that no one is going to help them so they just find a way to do it. A lot of done by canje: ‘I’ll print your posters if you help me paint the walls or can take photos of my show.’ There’s a really good support network here and so things gets done in that way.”
“There is also a wide variety of galleries, traditional, media, galleries that show drawings. There is basically something for everybody, and there’s also an incredible number of artists. I wish there were as many buyers as there are artists!”
And what does the gallery owner tout as the next big thing? “A new project near us is called Galería Slyzmud, which is run by a Brit and an Argentine. Their proposal for the inaugural exhibition is really interesting: they have three (well-known) artists showing together and they’ve hung the walls in such a way that individual works by each artist are grouped together to form three ‘new’ and ‘multiartist’ works. It may be a space to watch.”

Photo by Mariano Fuchila
Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on February 12, 2012

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