Stebbins helped shape art culture

When Joan Stebbins (BFA '79), former curator for the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG), graduated from high school in the small town of Palmer, Alaska, she embarked on a post-secondary journey that, with a little help from Cupid, would alter dramatically the course of her life.

"I started at the University of Alaska with plans to major in English. After one semester I left school to get married and a year later we had our first son," recalls Stebbins. "While my husband completed his education, I stayed home with our two boys, but there was no doubt that I would one day go back to school; it was just a question of when it worked for everybody."

In 1967, Stebbins moved with her family to Lethbridge where her husband, Dr. Lucius Stebbins, would become one of the founding faculty members of the University of Lethbridge.

"The University was so small then that the faculty was like a family. Everybody knew everybody. We did not have family nearby and we were in an adopted country, so it was very nice," recalls Stebbins.

By 1975, Stebbins felt the time was right for her to return to school. She enrolled in the only available night class at the University that interested her, Japanese art history.

"I got hooked on art. It was wonderful. I would have done a degree in art history but there were not enough courses available at that time; I did a degree in studio art in printmaking," says Stebbins.
"Going back to school was very fulfilling for me but having a career come out of it – that was not planned. My professors brought such a rich range of experience and strength to their teaching; it happened I was well equipped for my career as a curator. I am very grateful for that."

After graduating in 1979 with a bachelor of fine arts with great distinction, Stebbins applied for a part-time position at the SAAG.

"The Southern Alberta Art Gallery has always had a symbiotic relationship with the University. Art students are familiar with the Gallery through their professors. I had always gone to the Gallery and been interested in their programs, so I applied for the job when the position as front desk person came up," says Stebbins.

Gradually, Stebbins' responsibilities at the gallery increased. She helped with exhibitions, worked with artists, and curated several local historical exhibitions on her own. In 1982, she became the assistant curator. She was promoted to director/curator in 1985. For the next 15 years, Stebbins worked in liaison with the board of directors to manage gallery resources and programs. She initiated an education program and an artist in residency program. Under her direction both budget and staff size increased and the gallery gained a reputation as one of Canada's leading contemporary institutions.

"I think our successful national reputation comes from the exhibition program. As
director/curator, I chose a national program and did a lot of grant writing to the Canada Council for the Arts and other sources to bring in artists that stood out across our country," says Stebbins. "By 1999, my job title was split because the Gallery had grown and there was just too much to do. Until my retirement in 2008, I acted as curator because that is what I love to do – working with the artists."

Although her career was unplanned, it has turned out to be an extraordinarily rich and rewarding journey for Stebbins. She has traveled extensively, attended major art events throughout Europe, Canada and the United States, worked with very talented artists and continues today to be an important part of the flourishing art community in Lethbridge.


• Stebbins is Curator Emerita at the SAAG and continues to work on selected special projects.

• She was a guest lecturer in Introductory Art at the U of L from 1985 to 1991.

• Stebbins is a member of numerous professional associations, juries, and committees including the U of L Art Acquisitions Committee and the Hnatyshyn Foundation.

• In 2007 Stebbins was named a member of the Order of Canada, while in 2009 she received an honorary doctor of fine arts from the U of L; earned the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Distinguished Artist award; and was given the a Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, RCA Medal for her work on countless artist exhibition publications.