‘It’s been a lot of music’: Betty Anne Keller on 50 years supporting local arts & culture

By Taylor Pace

Since 1971, Betty Anne Keller has been working diligently to create a thriving arts and culture scene in Waterloo Region. And now, at 74-years-old, she’s being recognized for all her hard work. 

Keller was deemed K-W Oktoberfest’s Rogers Woman of the Year in the Arts and Culture category, “for enriching the culture of our community through creation or promotion of the arts on a volunteer or professional basis.”

The award recognizes women who have significantly contributed to arts and culture in the region, “helping to create a vibrant and diverse community.” 

“It’s quite overwhelming, because when you attend the event, all these women are there, who are so generous with their time, and so accomplished in the things they’ve done for the community. It’s really quite humbling to be one of the recipients. But I’m grateful for the recognition,” she said. 

At her age, Keller said it’s extremely satisfying to be told that the community appreciates the work she’s done. 

Her most recent accomplishment is producing the documentary, Rock This Town, which captures the history of the local music scene. It’s seen a successful run at Princess Cinemas, remaining in the theatre for nearly two months. 

But Keller’s contribution to the arts goes well beyond that.

As a child, Keller could usually be found sitting in the corner of the library, reading. 

“I was so taken with the power of a book, to transport somebody away, somebody like me, that I resolved to be an English teacher when I grew up.”

And she was, briefly. 

After getting her BA in 1971, she began teaching Grade 12 students at just 21-years-old. But she found her head turning more and more to the music scene.

Keller started helping her husband at the time run shows at night, but felt a growing disconnect between her two roles: a high school teacher by day, and a jeans-wearing rock and roll promoter by night. 

“I couldn’t do both,” she said. 

So, she said goodbye to the classroom, and devoted herself full-time to promoting music. 

“There are times when I regret not having the teacher's pension,” she laughed. “But I've never regretted making the choice of leaving the teaching profession and devoting myself to the music business in the 70s.”

The first concert she was fully responsible for was Joni Mitchell performing at Wilfrid Laurier University. 

“That was the big watershed for me. After that, I was more and more on my own with the shows. And then in 1976, and ‘79, my two kids were born. So I just continued working from home as a concert promoter,” she said. 

During that time, she would run about five to 10 shows a year. 

Over the years, she also worked with various touring musicians, like Rita MacNeil and Loreena McKennitt — who she worked with for about five years. 

By ‘98, she had signed on as the Manager of Culture for the City of Waterloo, where she remained until retiring in 2013.

“It’s been a lot of music,” she said. “The arts have pretty much been my motivator all my life. It’s magic to me.” 

What she is most proud of, though, is her role in founding the summer “School for the Performing Arts” at Centre in the Square in 1984. 

“It's kind of a hybrid between my original vocation as a teacher and my ultimate vocation as an arts presenter and advocate,” she said. 

The venue had only been open for a few years, and was looking for ways to build up an audience, so Keller proposed a summer school for youth interested in the arts. 

There were 150 kids registered in the three-week program, who took dance, singing and acting classes, presenting a show at the end. 

“I'm so proud of that program, because kids still come up to me and say, ‘thank you for that, because I'm now a professional dancer with the National Ballet or I'm now the head of the stage crew at this famous theatre.”

She ran the program for five years, before leaving to work with McKennitt. 

Today, Keller may have retired from the nine to five life, but she hasn’t really stopped working, spending her time volunteering and mentoring others, for instance, as the Chair of the  Region of Waterloo Advisory Committee on Public Art. 

“This is who I am, this is what I believe in,” she said, explaining that it’s important for her that the region continues to have a thriving arts scene. 

“How can we leverage the dollars that we have to work with artists and volunteers to make our community a more exciting and interesting place for people to live?” she asked, adding that “without a live music scene, we're missing a huge chunk in our cultural ecosystem. Which is why I was motivated to make [Rock This Town] in the first place.”

“That's where I'm putting my energy now, trying to get people to talk about live music and why it matters.” 

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