Foster, Donald Isle (1925-2012)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 11/04/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9618

The great-grandson of Oregon Trail emigrants, Donald Isle Foster hailed from a solid line of Pacific Northwest pioneers. He first came to prominence in the business community as the Director of Exhibits for Seattle's 1962 World's Fair (the Century 21 Exposition). Later he earned a reputation as one of the town's consummate aesthetes and a pillar of the local arts establishment during his 30 years with the taste-making Foster / White Gallery in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood. Along the way, Foster fostered the careers of many of the Northwest's finest artists and he also benefited the community by serving on high-profile posts with the Seattle Symphony board, the Seattle Repertory Theater board, and the guiding committee of the Seattle Art Museum. (Note: This essay benefits greatly from extensive quotes taken from a recorded interview with Foster conducted in 2010 by Kathrine Beck and C. David Hughbanks.) Donald Foster died on March 24, 2012, in Palm Springs, California, survived by his longtime partner, Terry Arnett.

Foster / Isle

Foster's ancestors left indelible marks across the region. The very name of Seattle's Foster Island (in the Washington Park Arboretum along Lake Washington) reflects the fact that his grandfather donated that prime land to the city's residents. And the illustrious Reed College in Portland was named for a member of his grandmother's family. Donald Foster is duly proud of his deep Northwest roots.: 

"My great-grandfather came to Eastern Washington in 1870. They came from St. Joseph, Missouri, by covered wagon. My grandfather was a wagon trail leader, and they settled in Eastern Washington -- outside of Clarkston in Pomeroy. My grandmother [Laura Reed (1855-1930)] was, I think, only 14 and her parents were the ones that initiated the trip west. My grandfather [Joel Wellington Foster] homesteaded some land there -- and he had told my [maternal] great-grandfather that he would like to marry her -- she was then 15 -- and her father, Josiah Reed, said 'No.' She was too young. 'But if you would come back when she is 18, and prove your credentials, that you have a way of making a living,' that he could have her hand. Well, he left. And he was entrepreneurial, he did a lot of things around that area, and when my grandmother reached her 18th birthday he came back and said 'OK here's what I can do, and this is what I've done' and they were married. And they left the homestead property and moved to Clarkston and he built a wonderful big stone house that's still there."

Joel and Laura Foster had a few sons, but only one -- Harry Ralph Foster (1888-1966) -- lived a long, productive, and prosperous life. Harry married Vera Isle (1891-1991), herself from another pioneering family who'd come west from St Louis, Missouri, in 1900 after another relative had invited them to visit in Lewiston, Idaho. Once out west, the Isle family fell so in love with the twin city area or Clarkston-Lewiston that they wrote home asking to have all their belongings packed up and shipped out. Vera's father, Dr. Mauzey Whitfield Isle, established his practice in Lewiston and they built a new family home just across the Snake River in Clarkston.

The Lure of Seattle

The early 1900s saw members of both the Foster and Isle families visiting -- and investing in -- Seattle. Joel Foster came over and bought land -- including Foster Island which "is reputed to be an old burial ground and a sacred site" for local Indians of Duwamish and other tribes and has qualified for a listing as a Traditional Cultural Property the National Register of Historic Places -- and is actually bordered by a street called Foster Island Way (Berger). And the Isle's -- who'd traveled across the Cascade Mountains in 1909 to attend Seattle's first World's Fair, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P) -- bought a home (at NE 45th Street and University Way) in 1919, located just a half-block from the old fairgrounds, and it was later sold to a bank as that area transitioned from a residential area to a commercial zone.

In time Harry Foster earned dual degrees as a medical doctor and as a dentist and in 1918 he and his bride moved to Seattle where their two sons -- Paul Ralph Foster (1915-1928) and Donald Isle Foster (b. July 9, 1925) -- were raised. By 1928 they were settled in at 1822 Ravenna Boulevard where he also began a dental practice. In time Harry began practicing medicine at the original Children's Orthopedic Hospital. (2204 Queen Anne Avenue) on Queen Anne Hill and by 1935 the family had settled into a newly built home (467 McGraw Street) on the other side of the hill.

By 1941 Harry Foster was practicing in a new spot (6 1/2 Boston Street) and his family also enjoyed a summer home near the Puget Sound village of Indianola where one of their neighbors was Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) the onetime mayor of Seattle, and two-time governor of the state. Donald Foster attended John Hay school (4th Avenue and Boston Street) and later, Queen Anne High School (Galer Street and 3rd Avenue N) during the tumultuous years of World War II.

Jobs and Business Training

As the war progressed, many commercial businesses lost staffers who entered military service. Queen Anne High School pitched in by beginning classes that taught retail sales skills. Don Foster was one student who was assigned to work at J.C. Penney (1409-31 2nd Avenue), but he was fired on his first day after helping a customer in a department that he wasn't specifically assigned to. Later, at age 17, he took a job at Seattle's great department store, Frederick & Nelson (5th Avenue and Pine Street). After working for a period there, Foster figured that he wanted to study at Stanford University to become a dermatologist, but a summer job at Swedish Hospital -- in which he was assigned to conduct autopsies on patients -- disabused him of that goal of a medical career. Already accepted by the medical school, Foster contacted the dean who suggested that he enter the Business School instead -- but,

"Business School was the farthest thing from my mind ... . And I had the most awful time! ... I didn't know any of the terminology. I didn't know anything. I didn't know an 'asset' from a hole in the ground. And to try and assimilate myself with all these bright young kids who were seeking their MBAs, I just struggled. But: I didn't give up and I finally got my MBA degree with everybody else in the class. But I didn't get very good grades."

After earning a master's degree in market research and merchandising at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, Foster stayed in California for a year to work at the Stanford Research Institute in San Francisco. But he was dissatisfied.

"The problem was -- my fraternity brothers and all the people I had really palled around with. We spent a lot of time partying and I thought: 'This is not going to take me anywhere.'  So, Art Langlie -- I was very fond of him and he liked me -- and when I came back to Seattle, in 1950 or '51, I dropped him a note and told him I was back and keep an eye open for anything that he might be interested in."

That contact quickly led to a job with an Olympia organization formed to promote industrial development in the region. Soon after, Foster was hired to work at the University of Washington's Bureau of Business Research. A a bit later Foster was hired back at Frederick & Nelson -- this time by Bill Street, who as the company's CEO, needed somebody to work in the Comptroller's Office handling the governmental regulations that the company faced. Soon after returning to Frederick & Nelson, Foster was spotted by the store's General Merchandise Manager, Egil Krogh (b. 1939) -- later a participant in the Watergate scandal -- who transferred him to another position where his office was adjacent to Bill Street's.

Century 21 and Beyond

Meanwhile, planning had begun for Seattle's Century 21 Exposition -- a world's fair slated to open in 1962. Heading the Century 21 Corporation was Frederick & Nelson's Bill Street. In 1957 Street got the idea to loan Foster to the project to help out for a brief period. "He said to me, Foster, 'I've got a little project that's coming up at the fair, and we need a loaned executive for a maximum of a month, to do a special study.' I said 'OK.'  I thought 'That sounds interesting,' so I went to his office and he outlined what it was that he wanted me to do. I was to delineate about 10 people at high-level in Seattle, who had ties with their home-offices, and those organizations needed to be on the Fortune 500.

The initial task was to supervise those 10 new agents, provide them with irresistible sales pitch lines, and then oversee their travel itineraries back to their various headquarters. The initial goal was to solicit major, East-Coast-based firms and convince them to buy in and participate with exhibits at the fair. The main selling points were that the fair was to be a concentrated experience -- limited in acreage, but of the highest "jewel box" quality -- and all presented with a futuristic theme. The Century 21 planning team was always understaffed -- indeed, the only member with any background in exhibit development was Alan Beech who suddenly upped and quit. As Foster recalled: "That's how I wound up full-time as Director of Exhibits ... because he took off (laughter)!" But as the fair's opening approached, Foster was able to tout the successful efforts to attract overseas participants: 

"This promises to be a big feature of the fair, capturing the color of many lands with Oriental facades, thatched roofs, desert tents and a wide range of foreign merchandise. In several cases there are things that have been little seen in America" (Stanton).

In the end the six-month-long (April 21-October 21, 1962) fair attracted plenty of big-time corporate participants, and with nearly 10-million tickets sold it was a smashing success. But in the immediate wake of its closing, Foster's first option of returning to work at Frederick & Nelson seemed like a step down. Instead, he worked for Seattle Center as it transitioned from a fairgrounds to a permanent facility, and then -- upon Ewen Dingwall's (1913-1996) resignation from the position in December 1963 -- he served briefly as an interim Executive Director there.  

Then in December 1964, Seattle's prominent arts patron Bagley Wright (1924-2011) tendered an offer for a quite desirable position, that of "babysitting,"  to use his word, the Seattle Repertory Theater (201 Mercer Street) whose general manager had recently resigned. There Foster began working with longtime associate, Assistant General Manager Peter Donnelly (1939?-2009). In 1967 Foster was promoted to executive directo. By the time he resigned the position in 1970 he had gotten the Rep out of financial debt for the very first time.

Next Foster moved up to take the position of Director of the Division of Humanities and the Arts with the Ford Foundation -- a private New York-based organization founded to "administer funds for scientific, educational and charitable purposes." For Foster the gig would require frequent travel and The Seattle Daily Times -- which loved to lavish attention on his activities, career, stylish abode, and urbane lifestyle -- simply gushed over Foster's bi-coastal work arrangement: "Technology permits him to conduct business transactions in New York, yet live in Seattle. Via airplane and telephone he communicates between the elite East and the picturesque Pacific Northwest" (Phillips, November 14, 1971). As a project director Foster's first assignment was to commence a $600,000 economic study of nonprofit performing arts organizations all across America.

Meeting Richard White

That Ford Foundation gig did require much air travel, and it was on one such flight that Foster got acquainted with his seat-mate who proved to be Richard White, the owner/operator of one of a very few notable Seattle art galleries of that era -- the Richard White Gallery (311 Occidental Avenue S). White was impressed by Foster -- who already served on the Seattle Symphony board, the Seattle Repertory Theater board, and the Seattle Art Museum guiding committee -- and suggested that:

"'You should buy my business ... . It sounds to me that your interest are really in the fine arts part of the world.' And I said 'Yeah, they are.' And he said 'I'll tell you what:  I'll give you a really good deal, but I'd like you to try it for awhile. Next time you come out, why don't you come down to the gallery for two weeks and work with David Mendoza (who was the director) and then tell me what you think about it?' Well, after the second day I absolutely loved it!  I liked David and the whole thing was just exactly what I wanted to do."

Foster resigned from the Ford Foundation and never looked back.

Since its inception in 1968 the Richard White Gallery had made a significant impact on the local arts scene -- one that was really still in its infancy with little galleries popping up around the low-rent skid-row area of Pioneer Square. "I'm very excited about the gallery," Foster told The Seattle Daily Times in 1972 -- "I think the rejuvenation of the Pioneer Square area, a project in which Richard White has been most instrumental, makes that area the most exciting in the city" (Voorhees). 

The Renowned Foster/White Gallery

Later Foster would recall: "The art scene was smaller and more fractured in those days, but fixing up Pioneer Square and gentrifying the storefronts and housing was the first effort to galvanize the visual arts into one area" (Kangas). By mounting shows featuring the finest artists from this region, the venue -- which, on January 18, 1973, soon after its sale, was redubbed the Foster / White Gallery -- eventually attracted worldwide renown for its high standards (with stunning shows of contemporary painting, sculpture, and glass works) and an admirable mode of maintaining relationships with top artists and demanding clients. Before long, the venue would be acknowledged as "the most successful commercial galley in the city" (Tarzan).

Among the prominent artists to have shown at Foster / White are such notables as Morris Graves (1910-2001), who debuted his flower paintings there in 1975; Dale Chihuly (b. 1941) whose first Seattle show occurred there in 1977, and Richard Gilkey 1925-1997), Alden Mason, William Morris, Will Robinson, Richard Royal, Bobbie Burgers, John de Wit, Benjamin Moore, and Eva Isaksen. 

With grace and elegance Don Foster nurtured and recognized the power  of art. His gallery was both intimate and sophisticated. In the work of Lois Graham and Jacqueline Barnett he supported artists known for their energy, color, and painterly skill. The works of Karen Guzak, Jim Kraft, Mark Rediske presented a more formal sensitivity. As Barnett notes, "his gallery was a place of discovery and quality. He did not question his artists but supported their most creative work" (Jacqueline Barnett).

In addition, Foster helped found the Friends of the Crafts in the 1970s -- an advocacy group that encouraged artists to work with traditional materials including glass, fiber, clay, metals, and wood. Along the way -- and especially after Foster joined in by supporting a monthly walking-tour gallery event called First Thursdays (which has continued since 1984) -- this "tradition" which one critic noted, "of displaying crafts alongside fine arts ... put Seattle on the map as a city where craft art is given equal status" (Kangas).

Foster also served for a few years on the Seattle Arts Commission and he became a prime figure within the region's arts establishment. He was a charming and well-liked individual: The Seattle Times noted that as "a gentleman of the old school and a bachelor, he is a sought-after guest at dinner parties for his easy-going wit" (Tarzan, p. 5).

After 30 years, in December 2002, Foster finally decided to move on. He sold his gallery to the Huang family -- prominent owners of various art galleries in Canada. Still retaining its Foster / White Gallery name, in April 2006 the company found its permanent home -- a renovated 100-year-old building (220 3rd Avenue S) on the corner of 3rd Avenue S between Washington Street and S Main Street.

A Philosophical Pact

Foster was lucky in many ways -- one being that during his schooling at Stanford in the 1950s he was exposed to information that, inadvertently, steered him toward his life's chosen path.

"It was an interesting experience because part of the policy at business school was to indoctrinate students with people who would eventually be their peer group. And to that end they invited, every Friday, somebody (at presidential or vice-presidential level) from corporations in San Francisco to come and talk to us. And inevitably in these conversations it came down to the fact that they were looking forward to getting (or had just gotten) their 50-year pin or 50-year necktie (or some awful thing). And I thought 'I could never do that.' I could never imagine working for the same organization for a lifetime. I mean it just gave me a chill. So I made a pact with myself -- which I hung onto -- I would change careers every seven years."

And sure enough, as he recalled,

"Every seven years I changed jobs. I'd realized early on that there's a basic underlying fact: that jobs are very much the same. I mean you have to know how to handle, find answers to things, which we did in school. But you didn't have to know all the technical parts of it. You learned that. So I did. Up until the time I bought the gallery I had changed careers every seven years. And it was wonderful. Loved the excitement of it. Loved the mental stimulation of a new career. New vocabulary. New kind of way of looking at things. So I never really stayed anywhere long enough to say I'd really been there. I never got my pin (laughter)."

Yet Foster did actually bend his covenant once -- and in a major way. He worked his beloved art gallery for 30 years before finally selling -- a devotion that he admits meant that he essentially "threw my seven year thing out the window." For that, Seattle's art scene will long be grateful.

Don Foster retired to Palm Springs, California. He died on March 24, 2012. He was survived by his longtime partner, Terry Arnett.


Sources: Kathrine Beck and C. David Hughbanks interview with Donald Foster (and Barry Upson), Palm Springs, California, February 9, 2010, recording in possession of Paula Becker, Seattle Washington; Knute Berger, "What History Lurks Beneath Seattle Highways?," Crosscut website accessed on August 15, 2010 (http://crosscut.com/2010/05/11/mossback/19800/What-history-lurks-beneath-Seattle-highways/?/); Stanton H. Patty, "Boulevards of World Popular With Foreign Exhibitors at World's Fair," The Seattle Daily Times, February 2, 1962, p. 11; Stanton H. Patty, "Foster Takes Over as Acting Director at Seattle Center," The Seattle Times, December 21, 1963, p. 5; "Rep Names Executive Director," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 25, 1967, p. 9; Margery Phillips, "From the Traditional to the Contemporary," The Seattle Daily Times, Pictorial magazine, November 14, 1971, p. 49; Margery Phillips, "Traditional Furniture in a Contemporary Home," The Seattle Daily Times, Pictorial magazine, November 21, 1971, p. 42; "Donald Foster Will Head Foundation's Arts Survey," The Seattle Daily Times, April 26, 1971, p. 43; John Voorhees, "New Gallery Foster/White," The Seattle Daily Times, December 31, 1972, p. 47; Matthew Kangas, "The Big Six: Seattle's Longest-Lasting Art Dealers," Art Guide Northwest website accessed on August 1, 2010 (http://www.artguidenw.com/BigSix.htm); Terry Arnett email to author, October 8, 2010, copy in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington; Deloris Tarzan, "Seattle's 'Art Establishment,'" The Seattle Times, Sunday Magazine, June 18, 1976, pp. 4-5; "Owner of Art Gallery Sues P-I," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 13, 1983, p. E-2; Jacqueline Barnett email to HistoryLink.org, in possession of HistoryLink.org, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This essay was emended on April 4, 2012.

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