Smith and SAAG give boost to community arts

Growing up in Whitehorse, Marilyn Smith, executive director for the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG), was surrounded by some of the most beautiful artwork that nature could provide – but it was the artwork created by humanity that truly captured her heart.

"The arts have always interested me. The Yukon is an adventurous, creative place and I'm attracted to that same spirit in the arts; a place where people aren't afraid to push boundaries," says Smith, winner of the 2011 Rozsa Award for Excellence in Arts Management.

Drawn by its size and reputation for Native American and education programs, Smith became a student at the University of Lethbridge in the mid-1970s.

"I originally thought about going into art education. I started taking art classes and art history. I realized that was the area I was most interested in, and that I didn't want to teach in a formal school system. Simultaneously, I got a job working at SAAG as part of the gallery's first extension program led by Victoria Baster (now an instructor in the University's Faculty of Fine Arts). It was this experience that shifted my concentration to the administrative side of the arts," says Smith.

Marilyn Smith
SAAG executive director Marilyn Smith, middle, is flanked by fellow U of L alumni and SAAG employees Tyler Stewart (far left), David Farstad, Jenn Prosser, Christina Cuthbertson and Ryan Doherty.

After her third year at the University, Smith went home for the summer where she stayed until 1995 as co-owner and producer of a musical theatre company: Frantic Follies Vaudeville Revue. Ready for a change, she returned to Lethbridge to complete the final year of her multi-disciplinary bachelor's degree in Fine Arts.

"In my first go-round, the University was so small; it was almost like a large high school. Art classes were in the dark, dank basement of the physical education building. When I returned in 1995, the University was much bigger, more sophisticated. There was a wider range of opportunities and a state of the art Fine Arts building. It was quite a big change," says Smith, who is quick to point out that the constant over the years was the quality of the professors and the educational experience.

"The professors are top-notch. My drama professor, David Spinks, was inspirational to me in my first experience at the University. He created opportunities to go into local and First Nations communities to perform that really expanded my understanding of this area and the different people who live here. Jeffrey Spalding, the director of the University's Art Gallery, was amazing. He made the collection accessible on so many levels; he had such an inspiring, boundless vision," remembers Smith. "The University introduced me to contemporary art through their exhibitions, speaker series, visiting lectures and art history classes. I have brought that knowledge with me in my career."

In 1996, Smith graduated with distinction and began her career at the SAAG as an education co-ordinator and curator until 1999 when she was promoted to her current position. During her tenure, gallery proceeds have increased 200 per cent.

Recently, Smith oversaw renovations at the SAAG that included an addition of 6,000 square feet of space with a library and new instructional area. Since re-opening in 2010, the gallery has tripled its membership, while programming and sponsorship has increased.

"The focus of SAAG, from the founding board until now, has always been that the gallery would bring the kind of quality programming to Lethbridge that is available in larger centres. It is my privilege to work with amazing colleagues, board and community members. It has been a group effort that brought us to the point where we have an excellent reputation locally, nationally and internationally," says Smith. "I am honoured to have been a part of that."

Smith also believes that the gallery's success is greatly supported by the close connection it has with the University.

"The University and the SAAG have had a symbiotic relationship over the years. We exhibit artists who teach at the University; many of our artists speak at the University's lecture series and we are actively involved in student internships from the University," says Smith. "Currently all our staff are University graduates; there is a shared understanding and experience because of that. The University has made a huge difference in our quality of life and the fact that we have such a tremendously well-educated group of people to draw upon to fill the expertise needed to run the gallery has significantly influenced the growth of our institution."

This story first appeared in the November issue of the Legend. For a look at the Legend in a flipbook format, follow this link.