When I first moved to Delaware, I heard a government leader explain that Delaware’s economy—rooted in the innovation of DuPont’s gunpowder mills—is anchored by the “C” industries: chemicals, credit cards, corporations and chickens.
During my past 12 years working at the Delaware Art Museum, where I now serve as executive director, I quickly recognized that a significant “C” sector is missing from this colloquial list: Culture.
Despite our state’s small population, it boasts an impressive list of arts, culture and entertainment organizations that serve residents of all ages and backgrounds, including sprawling historic estates, art museums, symphonies, operas, ballets, theaters, and numerous musical groups and arts venues.
But overall, the arts—like much of the nonprofit sector—have operated in the background instead of being celebrated as the essential threads of our strong social and economic fabric. Arts nonprofits and artists quietly buttress our underfunded public arts education, bring together disparate groups of Delawareans to engage in civic dialogue around critical topics, and enhance quality of life to attract new residents and businesses.
Our sector is proud of this vital, albeit often underrecognized, role. We love to share stories of our programs and education and tout our important piece of the state’s economic pie, as evidenced by the 7,300 Delawareans we employ and the approximately $1 billion we contribute to the state’s GDP.
But stories and statistics don’t address the broader value the arts sector brings to our state. We have an enormous opportunity to vault Delaware from a state known best known for its “C” industries to a cultural capital known as a must-visit arts destination. A place with a thriving creative economy, where the arts are an innovative partner on a range of critical societal issues.
Though many arts nonprofits—and our talented working artists—are still recovering from the financial impacts of the pandemic, momentum is building across the sector toward this vision that squarely centers the arts as both an economic driver and a catalyst for social change.
There is evidence of this renewed energy and urgency up and down the state. For some organizations, like the Choir School of Delaware, a tuition-free choral program for Wilmington youth with wraparound social services—where community service and racial equity are baked into their business model—this has meant growing to serve the swelling need for out-of-school time programming and taking the child care crisis head-on.
“Here at the Choir School, we serve as a community center that sings,” says Arreon A. Harley-Emerson, the school’s executive director. “We are an Athenaeum where students and families come to learn, grow, support one another, access life-saving social services, and explore their cultural heritage and identity. The arts spur social action and call upon us all to work together in the spirit of community to serve the greater good.”
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At the Delaware Art Museum, a larger organization with a century-old legacy, we have spent a decade shifting to serve our local audiences with deeper content that reflects their lives and needs. This has included everything from the immediate economic impact of apprenticeship opportunities to the immeasurable effect of programs and exhibitions that celebrate the diverse identities and cultures of local people.
New initiatives like our public art stewardship program will provide participants with skills to care for public art and obtain transferable skills to support employment readiness, all while stabilizing Wilmington’s outdoor gallery. Past projects, like the citywide Wilmington 1968 commemoration and the Afro-American Images 1971: The Vision of Percy Ricks exhibition, created space for institutions and communities alike to reckon with painful histories of suppression and exclusion.
By centering the needs of our audiences, arts nonprofits are now paving the way for deeper, sustained impact in our communities. We are coalescing around big ideas, such as how the arts can nurture the creative workforce companies desperately need and instigate conversations to bridge a divided democracy, and how our sector is acting as a key thought-partner and program provider in urgent issues such as the mental health crisis.
At DelArt, we are diving into this work with programs such as Healing Through the Arts, an outreach program offered by the museum in partnership with Mariposa Arts. Begun in 2017 to assist cancer patients, survivors and their caretakers, the program has grown to serve people throughout the state with a wide variety of artist-led, hands-on workshops to process stressors stemming from health, environmental, pandemic and historical traumas.
Thankfully, we have a strong sector that makes programs like this possible. To expand such programs to equitably meet community needs, we must place greater value on artists.
The Sussex County–based Developing Artist Collaboration, founded by Leah Beach, is trying to do just that with an Artist First Movement that provides artists with career development, peer connection and physical spaces to build elevated creative lifestyles. They also advocate for Delawareans to understand the value of artists and to educate artists to value themselves and their identities.
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“There is so much potential for artists to be a stronger part of the economy,” Beach says. “But to get there, artists need their basic needs met and have financial security to move from a ‘scarcity mindset’ of survival to having the bandwidth to more fully participate in collaborative community outreach initiatives.”
The future of the arts in our state is in an exciting but tenuous position. We are rebuilding from the pandemic; welcoming new and returning audiences with accessible, inclusive programming that is deeply relevant to our unique communities; and elevating the essential labor of artists. Arts nonprofits and artists—who faced underfunding and underappreciation even before the pandemic—need our help and support more than ever.
At the same time, this is an opportunity to think beyond COVID-19 recovery.
“As our society reorients from the pandemic, Delaware has the rare chance to reimagine how we bolster the economy and meet the multidimensional needs of our communities through the arts,” says Neil Kirschling, the newly appointed executive director of the Delaware Arts Alliance. “I’m excited for the sector to come together around a common vision that includes increased funding and public awareness for the arts’ economic and societal impact. The arts are poised and ready to lead the First State into an era of prosperity.”