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Originally published Saturday, April 7, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Obituary: Longtime Seattle gallery owner Don Foster nurtured fine art in region

Don Foster, owner of Foster/White Gallery for 30 years in Seattle, died March 23 in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

Special to The Seattle Times

Before developing his art gallery into a 30-year enterprise that helped shape Seattle's art community, Don Foster had sworn he would never stay at a job for more than seven years.

But during a plane ride in 1972, he was seated next to fellow Seattleite Richard White, who was impressed by Mr. Foster's business acumen and passion for art and offered to sell him the Richard White Gallery. Mr. Foster bought it and renamed it Foster/White.

Mr. Foster died March 23 of natural causes in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 86.

Before buying the gallery, Mr. Foster had made a name for himself as an executive when he was appointed director of exhibits for the 1962 World's Fair.

That led to other positions with community organizations, first with Seattle Center as it transitioned from fairground to a community fixture, then to Seattle Repertory Theatre, ultimately serving as executive director there from 1967-70 and guiding the Rep to financial solvency for the first time in its history.

He then joined the New York-based Ford Foundation and divided his time between coasts. It was on one of his frequent flights between New York and Seattle that White offered to sell him the gallery.

While expanding Foster/White's space and roster of artists, he helped shepherd Seattle's small, regional art community into the vibrant, far-reaching scene that it is today.

The gallery supported the careers of many notable artists including Lois Graham, Morris Graves and Alden Mason. Glass artist Dale Chihuly's first Seattle show was held there in 1977.

The gallery also played a role in Mr. Foster's personal life; it was there that he first asked Terry Paul Arnett out to dinner, launching a relationship that lasted 30 years. According to Arnett, Mr. Foster was enamored of the lifestyle of a gallery owner because "he could combine his sense of aesthetics with his business sense. He had a lot of respect for artists and treated them like partners.

"He always supported their creative choices. He was that way about people in general — he didn't believe in telling people how to behave."

Northwest sculptor Tony Angell, who has shown with Foster/White Gallery for more than three decades, says that Mr. Foster's respect for art and for people was key to his success. He "came forward with a passion and enthusiasm for all the varieties of expression of the different artists he represented. He found value in all of them. He wanted to learn more, to understand everything."

Sam Davidson, owner of Davidson Galleries and a colleague since the early 1970s, describes Mr. Foster as "a quiet but strong figure, a definite presence in the community. He had his hand on the pulse of what was happening."

Mr. Foster had an ability to support individual artists and patrons, while keeping an eye on the larger picture. Angell says Mr. Foster "was a pivotal figure at a remarkable time in Seattle's cultural history. He was a key force in fashioning an important part of the artistic legacy of our region."

Mr. Foster's Northwest roots ran deep: He was the great-grandson of Oregon Trail emigrants. Foster Island, in the Washington Park Arboretum, was named for his grandfather, and Reed College in Portland was named for a member of his grandmother's family.

Mr. Foster attended John Hay School and Queen Anne High School. After considering a career in medicine, he studied business at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, earning an MBA in merchandising and market research. A short time later, in the early 1950s, he returned to Seattle and began his series of business and culture-related jobs.

He was active in many cultural organizations, co-founding the Seattle Art Dealers Association and Friends of the Crafts, an advocacy group. He was on the guiding committee of the Seattle Art Museum and served on the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Rep boards.

In 2002, Mr. Foster sold the gallery to the Huang family, owners of several art galleries in Canada, who retained the Foster/White name.

He is survived by his partner, Terry Paul Arnett.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. April 13 at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, 4805 N.E. 45th St., Seattle.

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