Karen McGrath sits on a bench outside the main office and gallery of the Rehoboth Art League, basking in the sun.
Eighteen months ago McGrath became executive director of the art league—only the third person to hold the title in the organization’s 70-year history—which has renewed in her a passion not only for art, but also for the importance of preservation.
“I used to work in Philadelphia, in Center City at Fourth and Chestnut,” she says. “On my way to work, I would cut through Washington Square Park. It always amazed me to see people from all over the world who were there to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall and the entire history of the city. And that’s what this place is to me. It’s a special place, and it needs to be preserved.”
McGrath breathes deeply in the quiet space of Henlopen Acres, the small municipal enclave (population: 139) next to Rehoboth Beach, where the storied art league established its home long ago. Compared to the Rehoboth of summer, Henlopen Acres and the art league, on what is properly called The Homestead, feel like a different, more peaceful part of the world.
The grounds are a sleepy three-and-a-half acres on the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal that is dotted with several late 18th-century cottages, English-style gardens, Colonial horse stables and a towering magnolia tree that some believe is the largest in the state. It’s rather empty on this particular afternoon, but it’s not too difficult to imagine scores of painters and craftspeople coming here to set up easel and canvas. It’s a veritable Eden of inspiration.
But lest one confuse the tranquility of this place with stodgy antiquity, or a shelter for dilettantes and amateur dalliances, McGrath is quick to point out that the Rehoboth Art League is very much alive, vibrant—even a little cutting edge. In addition to offering rotating gallery shows of local and national artists, art classes in disciplines ranging from illustration to creative writing, and weekend-long festivals, the art league hosts nationally recognized painters and sculptors for instructional seminars, as well as the occasional lecture series and film screening.
“I think a lot of people have this perception of the art league as just—and I don’t mean this in a negative way—but that it’s just a gathering of old ladies painting lighthouses. But that’s not it,” she says. “We have some really cutting-edge, interesting work going on down here in a variety of media.” McGrath cracks a smile. “We’re not the stodgy old art league some people think we are.”
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Then she looks around at the sun dappled trees and the canal winding its way behind the main gallery building in the distance. “Really,” she says, “I think a lot of people don’t even know this exists.”
The Rehoboth Art League may have maintained a relatively low profile over the decades, but this is changing, so McGrath’s tenure comes at an interesting time. The league finds itself embroiled in a bit of a kerfuffle over plans to replace one of its oldest structures with a modern building suitable for housing art.
It sounds simple enough. It’s not.
In 2003, the Rehoboth Art League decided it wanted to demolish the 6,000-square-foot Chambers Studio and erect a new building in its place. With the exception of a few after-market additions, the Chambers Studio is more or less the same as it was when it was built in the late 1940s. There is no insulation, no climate control, no modern amenity to speak of. It is a poor space for storing art.
The footprint of a proposed new structure is the same as the current one, says McGrath, but it includes a basement, which is intended as a conference room and climate-controlled storage for archived work. The basement brings the total square footage of the new building to about 11,000. Still, McGrath is always quick to point out, “This is not an expansion. People call it an expansion, but we’re not expanding at all.”
Regardless, the plans required a variance from the Henlopen Acres Board of Adjustment, which held public hearings in August and November of 2007 before eventually denying the art league’s request. In turn, the league quickly appealed the matter in Superior Court. The court ruled in favor of the board in August.
The art league has appealed to the Delaware Supreme Court. The court could rule on the case as soon as this month.
“I’m pretty new to this whole situation,” McGrath says. “I had seen it in the papers over the last few years, but in terms of why people are stonewalling the project, I don’t know. Maybe some people think that if we have a bigger building or a newer building, there will be more people coming here. But we’re not going to have any more offices or more full-time staff or anything like that. The building is just old. It’s a tear-down.”
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In its decision, the Superior Court wrote, “[The Rehoboth Art League] has not shown that it cannot derive a reasonable return without a variance. Indeed, the fact that RAL has not only survived, but has flourished, since its inception in the late 1930s, militates against such a proposition. The structures are no more functionally or structurally obsolete now than they were when RAL was first formed. RAL has grown steadily and increased its activities and membership over time, which is evidence that it has been successful in its use of the property. The court recognizes the significant benefit RAL brings to the community, but the court must also recognize that RAL is located in a residential community.”
Because it is in litigation, neither members of the Henlopen Acres Board of Adjustment nor the town commission are able to comment on the case. Local papers have reported that opposition to the variance is based on fear that the change will bring more traffic and noise to the neighborhood (“though I’ve never heard anyone say outright that they don’t want the art league here,” says one town official), but the board and court made their decisions on simple fact: The league’s request did not meet the legal standard.
Which arises from a not-so-simple fact: Though the property existed as the art league long before a zoning code was adopted in 1974 (the town incorporated in 1971), The Homestead was grandfathered as residential. That makes the Chambers Studios a legally existing non-conforming use. The only way to change that is through a zoning change or use variance. “If I wanted to do something to my house,” says one town commissioner, “I’d have to get a variance, so I’d also have to meet the legal standard.”
McGrath says it’s unfortunate the conflict has dragged out so long. “The art league keeps offering an olive branch to the folks from the town commission and the board that we would love to just sit down and make this work for everybody,” she says. “The whole court process is unpleasant and time consuming.”
Freddie Noland agrees. As the second-generation owner of her home in Henlopen Acres, Noland has lived about a block from the art league since she was a child. As an artist, she has no shortage of praise for the institution, but adds that the people of Henlopen Acres are cautious, “sometimes unfairly cautious,” about any changes the art league makes to its landscape.
“There is a middle ground, but nobody seems to know where it is. And it’s a little goofy,” says Noland. “We don’t understand why. It’s kind of crazy that the two sides won’t talk to each other.”
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And it overshadows a good-natured, lively history the league has shared with the town, one that began more than half a century ago with little more than one woman’s passion for art.
Near the start of her short memoir, “Sand in Your Brush,” Rehoboth Art League founder Louise Chambers Corkran writes: “What a busy world Rehoboth is, with its various groups working to study the region’s history and to preserve its relics, to meet its present needs and guide its future development, to maintain and beautify it—although its basic beauty is always there, waiting to be enjoyed.
It was that beauty, perhaps more than anything, that sparked inspiration for what would become the Rehoboth Art League.
The acres on which the nonprofit organization now sits were once the grounds of Corkran’s home. She and her husband, the celebrated Colonel Wilbur Sherman Corkran, lived in a building that remains standing. According to Corkran’s memoir, the summer of 1936 saw a group of faculty wives from St. Andrew’s School in Middletown visiting the property every other week to sketch under the direction of Craik Morris. The following summer, Corkran tried to establish art classes on her property with a nationally known painter and engraver named Orville Peets, but the individual classes proved “laborious and ineffective.” A new approach was needed.
When autumn came eight members secured $43 for the purpose of starting a formal organization. “Then,” Corkran wrote, “on a snowy March day in 1938, 22 women from Delaware towns, who had been invited by Mrs. Corkran for lunch at her residence—‘The Homestead’—held a conference in order to sense the public response. It was enthusiastic.”
At that moment, Henlopen Acres solidified as an artist’s community. Some moved there to be close to the budding collective of painters, engravers, sculptors, and all-around intellectual progressives. The league had a long way to go before it would become the institution it is today. Nonetheless, those early years were full of excitement—and more than a modicum of revelry.
“Folks from all over would come down here in the summer and gather to paint and have parties and talk,” says McGrath. “It was very casual and free. If you bought a cottage down here, you were buying into that art scene. Colonel Corkran was the developer of the area, so he would sell properties with the art league as a centerpiece.”
At 50 years old, Nancy Derrickson is very pleased with the place art has in her life these days. “My whole life is revolving around art at this moment,” says Derrickson, an oil painter who recently began showing at the league. “That’s a very happy way to live.”
Though she has been aware of the league most of her life (she used to read poetry there in her early 20s), Derrickson’s recent involvement as an exhibitor has allowed her to see that the place is invaluable.
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“It’s all about the feeling you get when you’re there,” Derrickson says. “It makes you feel comfortable and warm, and it reminds you of the old days when it was simpler and not so complicated. I think it’s especially important because most of the world thinks with the side of their brains that is academic and corporate and all business. And the people who don’t think that way are not always considered. For me it’s all about the art, and to have the opportunity to express that here. It’s an asset to me because it’s what my life is all about.”
Lee Mills, the league’s former interim executive director and gallery manager from 2000 to 2003, says the organization’s greatest asset is the way it caters to artists of every level. The beginner is as welcomed as the established professional, which creates a collegial atmosphere that is sometimes hard to find in the art world.
“What I love about it is that it’s such a wonderfully catholic place, and by that I mean catholic with a small C,” says Mills, who now owns The Coastal Frameshop and Gallery in Rehoboth. “It has always embraced the professionals in the region while also nurturing fledgling artists, amateurs and hobbyists. It’s done a charming job of trying to satisfy the needs of both, which are often in conflict.”
Mills says that vibe can be attributed as much to the physical surroundings of the art league as to the people who run it.
“For some reason that beautiful campus, that whole Adirondack camp quality, has softened the hard lines between what professional artists want and need and require, and that aesthetic confidence that beginners and amateurs need,” says Mills. “There are master classes for the master and beginner classes for the beginners. And there is a lot of crossover with the people who take those classes, simply because there’s something about the chemistry of that small, intimate setting that allows for that.
The art league’s original mission statement speaks to this very attribute:
“Its classes are open to people of all ages. However, it is not primarily a school, but a league of creative people concerned with permanent values and the enrichment of their lives and homeland.”
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After reading something like that, it’s easy to see why folks like McGrath and Mills speak so fondly about the place.
“Being there becomes something of a philosophy lesson, as well,” says Mills. “I think that open-minded exchange happens there more often and regularly than you would see otherwise when you take a workshop in an urban area, which tends to have a sort of three-day, concentrated, intense scenario. Those types of workshops are wonderful and you learn a lot, but there’s a lot to be said about those things that are transferred in those languid little moments sitting beneath the trees while basking in the sun and having lunch.”
Which is where we once again find McGrath. The sun is pouring down and she’s pausing for a moment in this clear space, searching for an answer to a question that has remained one of humanity’s most intriguing: What, after all, is the importance of art anyway?
“When you look back on most of history, whether it’s the Renaissance period or the rise of the Egyptian empire, you find that people always knew there was a connection, a synthesis, between art and every other discipline,” says McGrath. “Art has always been an important part of culture. It should be an important part of education, as well.”
Not quite satisfied, McGrath quickly adds a final thought, which could possibly serve as the Rehoboth Art League’s unofficial call to action.
“When you have chaos in the world—and there is certainly no shortage of that—art kind of helps you make sense of it all. Throughout history it’s been the rock people can depend on, even when everything else is crazy.”