Having been a resident of Yankton forever, I’ve heard of the Yankton Area Arts Association (YAA) but have never really known what their mission entails. I set out to their art gallery located at 508 Douglas, a beautifully renovated historic building known as GAR Hall (Grand Army of the Republic) that has been standing since 1887, long before my time.


Julie Amsberry, YAA Executive Director, welcomes me into the peaceful gallery lined with beautiful prints from a local artist. She explains the role of YAA as “a 43-year-old organization with a mission to educate, advocate and integrate the arts into the community.” She explains how the organization holds many free programs, trying to assure that art is accessible and available to everyone, regardless of status.

Their programs are free for the entire community, not just the YAA members.

She smiles, “Art is for everyone. We want to make sure that art is for everyone and it’s accessible to everyone. We’re here for the community.”

Julie Amsberry started with YAA in 2014 and her role as the Executive Director entails a little bit of everything. She schedules artists for the gallery displays, communicates with the artists and schedules the events for the year. Craig Sherman is the part-time assistant director and plays a major role in the Summer Arts Festival. They also have a small board of directors and many volunteers that help with events. She credits the volunteers for their help with the organization, stating, “We have a ton of volunteers and we couldn’t do what we do without them. They keep us going.”

YAA provides many benefits for the community. When the art program was cut at the Yankton Middle School a few years ago, YAA instilled the Artists in Schools and Communities program, made possible through the SD Arts Council. Cheryl Peterson Halsey, an artist from Springfield, led weeklong workshops with the middle school students during the few years where there was not an art teacher. During this time, YAA also advocated for reinstating an art teacher into the school by taking part in a letter writing campaign to the school board. Amsberry explains that her vision of the project mimicked the mail bag scene from the movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” where bags and bags of letters are brought in. The middle school now has an art teacher in their program.

Their recent initiative is “Art Adventure,” in place of art classes in the elementary schools. Because the elementary schools don’t have a specific art-class teacher, the YAA has a cohort of retired teachers that teach art to the students. She sees that this program dually inspires the teachers as well as the students. The school district covers the cost of supplies and YAA pays a stipend to the teachers taking part.

YAA annually holds a Youth Exhibit in March, celebrating Youth Art Month. The student art display showcases work from a selected school for 5-6 weeks of public viewing. Last year art work from the Yankton Public and Sacred Heart middle schools were displayed and this year they hosted the Yankton High School, displaying categories of sculpture, woodworking/cabinetry, drawing and painting. The display for 2019 will be Yankton Middle School and Sacred Heart Middle School.

This is one of Amsberry’s favorite exhibits as she loves seeing the students bring their families to the event, excited to show and explain their work. “Art is fun,” she states. “(The students) don’t have to think about all the other benefits they are getting, like better test scores and better attendance at schools.”

Amsberry explains the difference that she has seen in the art work over time. “The difference between two years ago when we had the high school and this year was unbelievable. The quality of work has increased so much and the connections that kids are making between their world and expressing it through the artwork and being able to explain the artwork and what they were thinking throughout the process, the critical thinking…it’s exciting.”

The YAA is happy to give artists a place to work, hold their workshops and learn from each other.

They have regular art groups that meet at the gallery, including Connecting Artists, River City Area Woodcarvers and the Yankton Area Photography Club.

Amsberry explains to me that they are finishing up details on their annual Kids Art Fest, where the YAA partners with local organizations to offer free make and take art projects for elementary age children. The event, held annually in May, is attended by more than 200 children and their families.

During one of her first years with the Kids Art Fest, she recalls a parent approaching her and reflecting upon fond memories of their own experience at the same event as a child.

The biggest YAA event each year is the Summer Arts Festival, held in conjunction with Riverboat Days. The event this year will be held on August 17, 18 and 19. Approximately 120 artists are attending this year. This is a free event for the community and allows the artists to display and sell their goods.

The YAA also organizes the summer band concerts held every Tuesday night during the summer months, another free event for the community.

The YAA welcomes visitors to their beautiful gallery, open Monday-Friday 1:00 PM - 5:00 PM and Saturday from 1:00 PM – 3:00 PM. At no charge, the public can view the local artists’ work on display, rotating various artists every 5-6 weeks. “I think this is a beautiful little gem that we have,” Amsberry smiles.

One of her favorite aspects about her job is talking to people and informing them of the YAA events. She explains to me their “First Friday” events, where they hold an event or a reception or host an artist who explains their artwork. She compares opening the prints to display in the gallery as the same feeling of opening a Christmas gift, never knowing the treasure that lies inside.

The First Friday is always held on the first Friday of each month from 5:00 PM – 7:00 PM and averages 40-60 attendees. The agenda is explained in her monthly Press and Dakotan article and is also listed on their Facebook page under “Yankton Area Arts,” on Twitter or via their website at She welcomes people to join their mailing list to stay informed of their events. Aside from the gallery viewings, Kids Art Fest, Summer Concert Series and the Summer Arts Festival, they have various events slated for the last half of the year: October 26-27 Art Market at Harvest Halloween, December 2 Annual Tour of Homes, December 2-22 Crimson Door Holiday Boutique and the Yankton Area Summer Band Christmas Concert, the date for the concert not yet scheduled.

Though she is surprised that YAA gets confused with other organizations, she is not surprised that the community of Yankton houses many great artists, an insight she discovered previously as a teacher in the community. “Yankton, for such a small town, art in this community is rich. There is so much going on all the time, as far as arts go,” she states. She has seen students from Yankton move to Brookings, New York and Los Angeles to create art and advocate for others.

She feels that the perception of YAA may be that they haven’t changed much since they have been in existence for many years. The reality is that the organization has changed dramatically over the years, offering a variety of events of interest to the community. She reiterates that the events, including the First Friday and the gallery viewing are free to the public and welcomes anyone interested to stop in.

Her role in the organization has allowed her to meet some very talented people. “Artists are so interesting; how do you pick just one?” She laughs. She enjoys visiting with the artists and finds their world views interesting. She recalls some well-attended exhibits, one of them being Reanna Schultz. Schultz, a graduate of Yankton High School and the University of South Dakota, displayed unique dress sculptures that she created. The dresses were made from various construction materials such as asphalt, shingles, nails, plaster and paint. Amsberry liked how the exhibit implied how women are so much more than they are precepted to be. She also recalls the Travis Halsey and Rachel Coyle exhibit of world class ballet and theatre costumes.

Amsberry would love to speak with anyone about their organization. She explains gratefully, “We do a lot of great things in the community, but we couldn’t do it without financial support. We welcome any donations.”

She invites the public to stop in or attend an event. “Come to the gallery and see this space, see what a gem it is,” she states with a warm, welcoming smile. “We have lots of ways to keep in touch and to keep you informed about what we’re doing. I would love to talk to people about what we are doing.”