Former Art Gallery executive director reflects on time in Yorkton

For 14 years, until his retirement last year, Don Stein was able to showcase all different art and artists at the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery in Yorkton.

Stein, who was born in Edmonton, grew up loving the arts, and that love saw him take many different jobs all across Canada throughout his career. 

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In the 1980s, Stein was freelancing as a musician and composer for theatre and dance. During that time, he would work in Regina as a composer for the New Dance Horizons, where he helped them with their production management skills. 

When the 1990s came around, he took a job at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, where he was the Associate Director of Program Planning, a position that led him all over Canada and the world. It was then during the early 2000s that he decided he wanted to be closer to the art.

“In the beginning of the early 2000s, I decided I would recommit to working in small arts organizations. Big biocracies are good for jobs, but you are quite far away from the actual hands-on art-making, and that’s the part I loved,” he said. “When I was faced with a career change opportunity, and there was this little cool company in Regina, I decided that I would make the plunge.”

Stein would take a job as a manager of a dance company in Regina in 2002.  

One suggestion later, and it would bring him to Yorkton.

“The artboard suggested to the people in Yorkton that they could use my services to help them with incorporating the gallery as a separate entity,” he explained. “Up until that point, the gallery had been operated by the Yorkton Arts Council. I had quite a bit of history working with small arts organizations, and the arts council hired me a consultant to walk them through the stages of incorporating the gallery.”

“I remember at the time thinking, ‘Wow, this is a really sweet little gallery,’ and the person who was the director at the time I thought she had a really nice little job. In 2006 when the job came up, I thought Yorkton is a very cool place, so I applied for the job, and I got it.”

From there, the rest is history. Stein would spend the next decade, and a half was showcasing all different art and artists, whether they were local or from far away, new or established.

“I’ve been here for 14 years; I wasn’t surprised that I like Yorkton; I was surprised by how much I liked it. It’s very comfortable here. There is enough of everything, you can get all the services and things you need, but at the same time, it’s nice and small, very rural community friendliness. It ended up being super comfortable,” he said. “Plus, the gallery is a very interesting little gallery. It’s a nice size; you can do a lot of experimentation, try out ideas, strong and supportive audience, a lot of appreciation from people for the work we do. I stayed longer than I thought I was going to stay.”

During his time here, he said his engagement with the local artists and the local community is what he is the proudest of professionally.

“I started at the beginning of 2007, and when I arrived, there wasn’t at the time, a lot of engagement with the local artist community. One of the first things I did was start a local annual artist show. It’s called ‘Landscape and Memory.’ It’s every year in June, and I started that the very first year I arrived,” he noted. “Every year it’s a big celebration. We’ve had 50 or 60 people taken part some years, and I’m always proud to say people ranging in age from the 7 to 10-year-olds, right up to seniors artists in their 90’s, who all come together, share their work, they celebrate one another’s creativity. I think that’s just a wonderful way to experience and enjoy the kind of creative energy that there is around here.”

He continued that one of his big goals was to engage with the community and encourage people to focus on the arts.

“I am very pleased about when I look back. A lot of people got solo exhibitions, and sometimes it was new and emerging artists; even more gratifying in some ways was just having the opportunity to do a big retrospective of important community figures. I think a lot of it sort of fed into people realizing there is a willingness and an appetite for the gallery, and it encouraged them to make more and more.”

Personally, Stein said that the connections he made with people are what matters most to him.

“That was so significant, and when I think back on my time, of course, you think about the shows that you did or an exhibit, but the part that is really memorable is the family and the community connections,” he said. “Over those 14 years, I got to know multiple generations of their families.

They took our after-school programs; they took our evening classes, a lot of kids would go from taking the after-school classes, would take the evening classes. Some of those young people worked at the gallery when they became young adults, several of them I still stay in touch with. That’s why I had so much fun and enjoyment from living here for so long. You feel connected to a community, and that is priceless, and you don’t get that as easily in a bigger centre.”

Overall, he said, looking back, it was a dream job for him.

“It was very much an ideal creative playground for me. Curating and creating galleries is very creative. You have to come up with ideas. I start with this idea where you want to create an exhibition, and you’ve got a bunch of stuff, and you have to turn it into a beautiful room with well-presented ideas. It was very much a wonderful creative outlet,” Stein said. “Anything I was interested in, whether it was tea, violins, painting, sculptures, I could really pursue my own interests, but at the time, I know it was making a contribution to the community.”

Since retiring, Stein has decided to have one long staycation in his house, though once the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions are lifted, he plans on doing some travelling.

“What I would like to say is just my gratitude and thanks to everybody in the community. There were so much support and so many people that said really kind things on Facebook,” he said. “Not being able to see people and say thanks to everybody and goodbye, and how much I appreciated. The people here are wonderful, and the gallery was well supported. It was really a terrific experience, the highlight of my career.”

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