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VIEWPOINT - Personality - Karen Dolan

Art Appreciation

Karen Dolan’s serendipitous path to executive director of the Kingston Arts Council

By Lindy Mechefske | Photo By Tim Forbes

Karen Dolan is late. She storms into the coffee shop, her bright red coat swinging jauntily. She locates me instantly despite the fact that we’ve never previously met. “I’m so sorry,” she says, smiling, hand extended. “I’ve been on the phone all morning dealing with a break-in at the office. I’ve got a few things on my plate.”

Kingston Arts Council’s new executive director, Karen Dolan, is familiar with having a few things on her plate: She taught high school art and photography for 31 years and is a single mother to three children.

When Dolan retired from teaching in June 2010, she intended to further develop her own career as an artist. She had plans to travel the world and take photography tours. That was how she found herself perched on a large rock atop a mesa, near Sedona, Arizona, taking photographs. When she stepped backward off the edge of the rock, plummeting to the ground below, she recalls her only thought being, “Save the camera.” She managed to do that, but her leg didn’t fare so well; it was badly broken. It certainly didn’t seem serendipitous at the time, but looking back, it was. If she hadn’t been laid up recuperating for five months, she would never have seen the job posting for the new executive director of the Kingston Arts Council (KAC), and the course of events might have been quite different.

“During that enforced downtime I discovered that I missed being an advocate for the arts. When I saw the job posting with the KAC, the light went on,” says Dolan. She put an application together, and in July of last year she started work.

Dolan, a native of Burlington, Ont., first came to Kingston as a 15-year-old to visit her sister, who was a student at Queen’s. She loved those visits to see her sister and fell for Kingston, with its waterways, historic buildings, lively restaurants and arts scene. As soon as she graduated from high school Dolan moved here. “I was running away to become an artist,” she says. Eventually after a short stint at St. Lawrence College, she went to Queen’s and graduated with degrees in fine art and education. She spent the next three decades raising her children and building her career.

An early negative experience — a teacher who made a judgemental comment about Dolan’s work — made her determined to be a better teacher and affirmed her belief in the power of being positive. “I wanted students to feel good about art,” she says. “All art is important and all art should be celebrated. My maxim comes from a line by writer Henry van Dyke: ‘Use what talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.’” Now she is bringing that same incredibly infectious and optimistic attitude to her position with KAC.

The Kingston Arts Council began in 1962 with a mandate to save the Grand Theatre. A year later, it became a not-for-profit organization. Today the Council is comprised of an executive director, five part-time staff members, and a volunteer board of directors consisting of members of the artistic community and patrons of the arts. KAC’s mandate includes advocating for artists and arts organizations, and co-ordinating arts initiatives. This year marks the fiftieth birthday of the Council, and a celebration will be held at the Grand Theatre on October 26.

Part of KAC’s role is to administer the $500,000 annual City of Kingston Arts Fund through operating grants to arts organizations and project grants to organizations or collectives of at least three artists. Dividing the funds between so many worthwhile endeavours is a significant challenge. In 2011, operating grants were awarded to 10 arts organizations including Can­tabile Choirs of Kingston, Le Centre Culturel Frontenac, the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, the Kingston Symphony Association and the Union Gallery.

Project grant funding in 2011 provided re­cipients with funding for specific projects including a local multicultural festival, Kingston International Women’s Week, a hip hop festival and the unveiling of public art installations throughout Kingston.

“The staff and board of the Kingston Arts Council want to see a city with a diverse and thriving arts scene,” Dolan says. “The arts are a vital, invaluable component of life. We, in Kingston, are exceptionally fortunate to have such a fabulous and vibrant arts community.” There’s a pause. “We really are lucky to live in one of the most active arts communities around.”