Delaware Art Museum: Seat of INspiration

Orientation Hall response wall

Art museums have a reputation for being unwelcoming. Often their grandiose architecture looms with self-importance over their surrounding neighborhoods. Think about it. Just setting foot in the Philadelphia Art Museum requires that you climb a set of stairs so imposing that it has been immortalized as a professional athlete’s workout. (Are you singing the Rocky theme song yet?) And the mental workout? Sometimes you can feel like a poser if you don’t have an advanced degree in art history. I know. I have a minor in art history, and there are times when I feel daunted by a mere exhibition leaflet.

Are art museums supposed to make you feel so overwhelmed? I did some research. The word “museum” originated with the ancient Greeks. (Well, of course it did.) Back then it meant “seat of the muses”—muses, as in those deities who granted artists and seekers the inspiration for all their creation. Museums as seats of inspiration open to all seekers? That sounded inviting, but what would it take to create such a seat of inspiration in a modern city as culturally divergent as Wilmington? That is what the folks at the Delaware Art Museum wanted to find out.

I went to visit the Delaware Art Museum and talk to staff members to learn about new initiatives that not only throw open the doors to a diverse demographic but also invite the community to be co-creators in its programming. One of the first things I noticed after I entered the grand lobby was an adjoining yellow hallway that was aflutter with sticky notes. The wall, beckoning like Dorothy’s yellow brick road, had the words “My museum…” painted on it. As part of its public engagement, the museum had asked individuals to respond to the prompt on sticky notes. Opposite this wall was a mural with the words “This is your museum” and a video screen that showed a broad cast of Wilmington residents giving testimonials about “their” museum. My expectations were starting to shift. As in “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

I sought out Jonathan Whitney, Manager of Performance Programs & Community Engagement, to find out more. He has been with the museum for just under two years. Even in that short time period, he has seen the way that the museum has been unfolding and recreating itself as a cultural hub for the greater Wilmington community. One of the biggest examples of that is the Connected Series. In its fifth year, this series is programming created by the community for the community with all events being free and open to the public. In simplest terms, the Delaware Art Museum puts out a call for proposals from individuals and organizations for events that are inspired by arts and culture and that also encourage community engagement. From there, “it is a symbiosis between us and our partners. We are able to leverage all of our strengths to create art-inspired events for the whole community.”

Past programs have included “Respect the Queens” brought to the museum by the group 302 Guns Down. The event, with its core message of nonviolence, featured hip hop lessons, graffiti lessons, and culminated in a concert featuring female MCs. Another such event was called Healing through the Arts and centered around art therapy. The partnering groups held workshops for breast cancer patients, survivors and their caretakers to help them create art out of their experiences. A reception followed in which families could see the art that was done and celebrate the participants. A third example was the Beauty Shop Project led by Colette Gaiter, graphic design professor at the University of Delaware. Forty members of the public came in to sit for portraits done by university students and local artists. Later, as these portraits were being hung in the lobby of the museum, the participants, artists, and people, whose paths would never have crossed in the wilds of Wilmington, came together and had conversations about the experience.

Whitney, who was a music major in college, was excited to also share information about the museum’s performance series which features artists across multiple art forms. With the twin emphases on social justice and cutting-edge performance, this series seeks to bring artists to Delaware who are pushing the envelope especially in their inventive responses to current issues. Included in these performers is the Pyxis Piano Quartet who will be concluding their 10th anniversary season with a concert on May 10th featuring a newly commissioned piece by Wilmington composer David Schelat. Their work explores the relationship between chamber music and the stunning visual art in the museum’s vast collection. Other upcoming artists in the performance series include the July 11th performance by Los Pleneros de la 21, with the sounds of Puerto Rican bomba and an after-party DJ Dance party. And on July 25th, the museum is offering a world platform to Fanm d’Ayiti by Nathalie Joachim with the Spektral Quartet. That concert will celebrate the women of Haitian song.

The Delaware Art Museum is working toward cultural breadth, but it is also trying to span the generational gap with programs that speak to all ages.

For the youngest set, starting at age 2, Glory of Stories is a program held on Fridays which brings children’s stories to life with a reading followed by a tour to relevant works of art. Currently, families have another reason to rush the doors of the museum.The second person I talked to in my afternoon at the museum was Dr. Mary F. Holahan, Curator of Illustration / Curator of Outlooks Exhibitions. She is responsible for one of the museum’s latest exhibits, Fairy Tales to Nursery Rhymes: The Droller Collection of Picture Book Art which runs through May 12th. This impressive collection of over 100 children’s book illustrations, though not a travelling exhibit, comes to Delaware by way of the Eric Carle Museum in Massachusetts where it was originally displayed. Dr. Holahan recognized that the Delaware Art Museum, with its own exceptional collection of illustrations, would be a good fit to showcase these works from both the golden age of illustration and the modern era. As I listen to Dr. Holahan tell me about how Dr. and Mrs. Loper amassed their art and developed relationships with the artists, I feel drawn even further into a realm where fairies and pied pipers make regular appearances. I know the museum is trying to lure local families with children, but I can’t wait to bring my 75-year old mother, a retired elementary school teacher and collector of Caldecott-winning children’s books, here from Pennsylvania. I can picture her studying the markings of Pinkney, Caldicott, Brett, Sendak and Greenaway and nodding in disbelief, too mesmerized for words.

I am not alone in wanting to bring relatives. The Delaware Art Museum is the place to bring families, especially on 2nd Sundays, which feature an entire day’s worth of programming for your clan. In warmer months, families can experience yoga in the sculpture garden before they join children for age-specific song time (babies) or story time (preschool age). At midday, the cafeteria features kid-friendly menus and Lunch Bunch, a time for museum families to mingle. The afternoon belongs to Sunday Studio, when local artists share techniques, and older kids with their parents, can create art. These are just the regular offerings available on Family 2nd Sundays. Additional performances and programming spring up throughout the year. It’s best to check the museum website for details to plan your day to the fullest.

But never fear. Even if you are a traditionalist, the museum has something for you, too. Last Sunday, I stumbled into the talk, A Life in Painting with Edward Loper, Jr. I was there to see the newest exhibit, The Loper Tradition: Paintings by Edward Loper, Sr. and Edward Loper, Jr. which runs through August 4th. Being a relative newcomer to the Wilmington area, I was unfamiliar with this father/son legacy. This is how “my” museum is helping me to connect with the artistic roots of my new home. It is not only giving me insights into two of the area’s most celebrated artists, but it also helped me to understand their influence on multiple generations of Wilmington painters. Loper, Jr.’s talk was standing room only in the museum’s lower level auditorium which was filled with a more senior crowd. I listened with keen interest as the artist expounded on his way of seeing color. I have a canvas at home that I am working on, and I felt my blood rise while I did a mental inventory of the paint tubes I was using and how I could tweak them. I felt—dare I say it?—inspired. I left the Delaware Art Museum that day with a bounce in my step knowing that yes! my muse lives IN the ‘hood.

What is “your” museum?

The Delaware Art Museum; 2301 Kentmere Parkway; Wilmington, Delaware 19806.

Hours are Wednesday: 10AM – 4PM, Thursday: 10AM – 8PM, Friday – Sunday: 10AM- 4PM.

See website for admission prices, current exhibits and programming schedules.

Free Admission on Sundays and after 4 PM on Thursdays (presented by DuPont).