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Wee state, Outstanding art, Wonderful museums


Article & Photos by

Anne Jenkins


Delaware often gets overshadowed by her flashy big neighbors   the mega-metropolis' of Washington D.C., Philadelphia and New York but don't be fooled, it's no sleepy hollow. Delaware is a feisty, independent little state with a vibrant art scene.  And the arts are anchored by three top-class institutions, the excellent Delaware Art Museum (DAM), the edgy and innovative Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (dcca) in the big northern city of Wilmington and the charming Biggs Museum of American Arts in the heritage park of the capitol, Dover.


The Chihuly Bridge in the Delaware Art Museum
The Chihuly Bridge in the Delaware Art Museum


DAM has just celebrated it's 100th birthday and contrary to it's name, the museum is not owned by the state. It is a private, non-profit organization which shares it's treasures within, hosts workshops in it's studios and extends outreach programs throughout the state for all Delawareans. While it has an impressive collection, it's mostly known for it's collection of British Pre-Raphaelite art, works by renown Delaware artist Howard Pyle and other American illustrators. In fact, DAM was built on the foundation of a collection of 100 Howard Pyle paintings back in 1912. But it's not just a collection of art on show type museum. It is holds arts-related events like Art After Dark on Friday nights, has a delightful sculpture garden and offers highly regarded workshops in separate studios. Their calendar is full and locals are spoiled for choice.

The Crying Giant in the sculpture garden, DE art museum


It reaches out to the more rural areas with innovative programs like the 2012 "Art is Everywhere" pop up campaign throughout the state. They made life size copies of some of the museum's most popular paintings and put them in outdoor locations for the summer. The reproductions were so good lots of people got worried the weather would damage the artwork regardless how much the museum said they were copies. It proved a very popular program, fans traveled the state in search of them, took photos of themselves next to the copies and posted them on the museum's facebook page.

potterry studio
Pottery studio for workshops at the DE art museum


Their slogan could easily be 'there's always something interesting happening at the DAM.' There is no stuffy, "have-to-whisper" feel to this friendly art museum with approachable staff and a relaxed atmosphere. The ambiance is enhanced by the location of the museum in a quiet, historic and elegant neighborhood.

The Mermaid - by Howard Pyle being put in place in Milford for the ART is Everywhere program by DE Art Museum


The dcca (they like to use lower case) on the other hand is located in the inner city, part of the newly revitalized river front area. They first appeared on the Wilmington art scene 35 years ago. They moved locations a bit to start with before settling in to their present location, an old tram carriage factory. It has loads of character, think industrial chic, and makes for a fabulous art center.

The Delaware Center for Contemporary Art housed in an old factory in Wilmington


Unlike a traditional museum, the center has no permanent collection and entrance is free. And you'll want to go as often as possible - they change exhibits in all the galleries regularly offering as many as 30 exhibits a year. They have 7 galleries, 26 artists studio's upstairs, an auditorium, class room and a small museum shop. One of the 7 galleries is reserved for the studio artists showing the work of two artists each month.


Entrances to 2 galleries in dcca from the foyer... note the industrial chic


They are part of the Wilmington First Friday Art Loop when new exhibits are launched and the artists studio's are open to the public. Special events are held throughout the month. The art is contemporary, edgy and exciting but it is not intimidating. The whole atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming. It's always a hive of activity offering new wonders.

An artist in residence set up work space in a gallery dcca


Dover, the capitol, is located in the middle of the state and boasts a delightful heritage park housing the state's government buildings, without a doubt one of the prettier capitols in the nation. The Biggs Museum of American Art sits right in the middle of this historic park. It was founded 20 years ago by Sewell C. Biggs but recently was in need of expansion and spiffing up. In 2012 a series of happy events allowed dreams to come true and led to 'The New Biggs Capital Campaign.' Their brochure heralds, "Polishing a Gem" - they couldn't have chosen a better word. It is a little gem. The Biggs launched a $1.7 million campaign to expand and renovate. Ryan Grover, the curator for the past 10 years,described the process as "we raised a little and did some construction, raised some more, constructed some more" with the promise never to close the museum during renovation. They are justifiably proud they will complete the project a year early. They aimed for energy efficiency and used sustainable flooring, plus they can boast to be one of the first institutions in the country to install L.E.D. lighting throughout the building.

Biggs Museum
Use of color on walls highlights various exhibits, in this case the original staircase Biggs Museum of American Art


The three floors are a treasure trove of Delaware history ranging from period furniture to modern art by the likes of renown local painter, Jack Lewis, all arranged with strategically placed bright colored walls and good lightening. The first floor is reserved for their revolving exhibits with the second and third floors housing their permanent collection. Upstairs the display meanders through small rooms in to larger ones and then off around the corner in to another hallway. It's a bit like wandering through a large grand estate house in England. They like to mix it up and keep things lively by interweaving exhibits, such as the Award Winners show, amongst the permanent collection. This mix could have a modern folk art piece of sculpture happily nestled next to a period portrait painting. The blend is exciting and intriguing.

Biggs Museum
Period furniture and carefully researched wall paper  Biggs Museum of American Art


Events and workshops are part of their yearly calendar and recently the artists and artisans of Delaware by Hand joined forces with the Biggs. Don't drive by Dover heading to the beaches this summer, be sure to stop and visit the little gem. Then explore more of the excellent arts in towns like Milford and Rehoboth Beach. You will not be disappointed.


Biggs Museum

Color on walls carefully placed to highlight the collection Biggs Museum of American Art


The arts are a fast growing industry in Delaware, and not just in the metropolitan area of Wilmington. The growth can be evidenced by large number of self-employed artists from musicians, dancers, painters and theater groups settling in the burgeoning art towns like Milford or Rehoboth Beach downstate.


These three institutions: the Delaware Art Museum, the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts and the Biggs Museum of American Art, strongly supported and encouraged by the state through the cheerleading Delaware Division of the Arts, lead the charge to make Delaware not just the First State, but the First State of the Arts.

Biggs Museum
Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover


For more about Delaware see Renee's Route


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