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Towns for Arts Lovers

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THE ARDENS: BOHEMIAN HEAVEN

Tucked between two busy roads and a pair of creeks feeding the Delaware River lies a tiny town with an intriguing past and a most interesting present. You won’t find a main street full of galleries, but if you are an active artist, you will find dozens and dozens of kindred spirits.

The Village of Arden was founded in 1900 by sculptor Frank Stephens and architect Will Price, based on ideas such as Henry George’s single-tax, William Morris’ Arts and Crafts principles, and Peter Kropotkin’s theories of community. Philanthropist Joseph Fels, heir to the Fels Naptha soap fortune, funded the project.

Named for Shakespeare’s storied forest, Arden welcomed free thinkers and reformers of every ilk, including Upton Sinclair and the Vagabond Poet Henry Kemp. Political residents have included former Vice President Joe Biden and former Gov. Russell W. Peterson.

Arden has a town meeting form of government. With 197 leaseholds (residents may own their houses, but they lease the land they are built on) and about 500 residents, it is the oldest and largest of the three villages, which include Ardentown and Ardencroft. Each has a separate municipal government.

Half of Arden’s 0.3 square miles is covered by forests and greens that are not taxed. A Tree City USA, its canopy of woods covers 73 percent of land. The entire village was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.

 The communal land in each village—the forests and greens—is owned by the municipality. Land leased out for dwellings is owned by a trust. Homeowners pay rent on their leases in the form of taxes. Those taxes cover village, county and local school expenses.

The spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement is evident in Arden’s major buildings, Will Price-designed houses and community structures such as the Gild Hall, Library and Craft Shop Museum. These picturesque white-stuccoed buildings were modeled on the architecture of 16th-century England, the spiritual home of Arden’s founders.

Arden still lays claim to a vibrant arts community. The Arden Club is the cultural umbrella group for the many gilds in the three Ardens. There are gilds that appeal to scholars and poets, as well as diners, dancers and gardeners. The Ardensingers have been staging Gilbert & Sullivan for more than half a century. The Arden Shakespeare Gild has been producing one of the Bard’s plays each summer for more than 100 years.

The Candlelight Theatre in Ardentown is a great bet for dinner and a show, as well as such events as murder mysteries, a monthly comedy club, Quizzo night and Just Drag, a Broadway Backwards-style revue.

 Every year the Arden Fair and Antiques Market is held the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. It features a variety of activities, as well as handmade items by more than 100 vendors, many of whom are local artisans.

 

Photo by Joe del Tufo

WILMINGTON: CULTURE EVERYWHERE

Broadway musicals. Experimental theater. American art and illustration. Shakespeare in the park.

Delaware’s largest city is known for its vibrant and eclectic arts scene. The landmark Grand Opera House in downtown Wilmington presents more than 75 shows each season, ranging from musical masterpieces and classical ballet to jazz, and folk to comedy and family entertainment. The Grand lures more than 120,000 people into downtown Wilmington every year. OperaDelaware, the Delaware Symphony Orchestra and First State Ballet Theatre all stage major productions at The Grand, as well as more intimate performances next door at the Baby Grand.

The Playhouse on Rodney Square presents touring companies of Broadway musicals, stand-up comedy and concerts in the luxurious setting of the iconic Hotel du Pont.

Downtown Wilmington also boasts the Christina Cultural Arts Center, one of the Delaware’s only integrated arts and academic programs, which uses  the power of the arts to promote school success, career training and positive social behavior. 

The Delaware Theatre Company on the Wilmington Riverfront mixes productions of new works and respected classics, as well as world premieres and previews of productions heading to Broadway and Off-Broadway in New York City.

Edgy troupes like the City Theater Company and Bootless Stageworks engage audiences with provocative works ranging from zombie musicals to one-act festivals featuring the works of local playwrights. 

The Wilmington Drama League lays claim to such illustrious alumni as Keith Powell (“30 Rock”), Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”) and John Gallagher, Jr. (“The Newsroom”). 

The Delaware Shakespeare Festival invites folks to enjoy the best of the Bard under the stars at the historic Rockwood Mansion and Park just outside the city.

The Delaware Art Museum located on Kentmere Parkway is a treasure trove of American art and illustration, including works by Wilmington native Howard Pyle and students Frank Schoonover and N.C. Wyeth. It also houses the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art outside the United Kingdom.

The Delaware Contemporary on the Wilmington Riverfront is a non-collecting museum that explore new ideas at the intersection of art, design and technology. The facility also hosts performances by Melomanie, the musical ensemble noted for its provocative pairings of Baroque and contemporary music.

 

Photo by Maria DeForrest

MILTON: COMING UP

Milton is on a mission to make itself an art town. The re-emergence of the Milton Theatre has given this small off-the-beaten path city a cutting-edge vibe through a slate of monthly cult films, stand-up comics like Sasheer Zamata of “Saturday Night Live” and the weekly Lo Del Live, an event that allows performing artists to showcase their talents. The Milton Arts Guild recently acquired space for artists to create, teach and show their work. The Federal Street Gallery & Espresso Bar also exhibits local artists in addition to serving coffee, tea, hot chocolate, fruit drinks and snacks.

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