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Wilmington has established itself as a regional destination for arts and entertainment.

Want to broaden the appeal for your local symphony and draw new subscribers from the tri-state area? Offer them an evening with Bugs Bunny. And maybe Led Zeppelin. It can’t help but make Wilmington a wee bit cooler.

“We launched our Plugged In series in 2008 to appeal to a more youthful audience throughout the Delaware Valley,” says Lucinda Williams, executive director of the Delaware Symphony Orchestra. “The shows were a big success, and we added a lot of out-of-town names to our mailing list.”

DSO isn’t the only cultural institution with a good story to tell. Delaware Art Museum is also drawing visitors from around the region. Great shows help. So does advertising them on big billboards along I-95 in neighboring states. And so does a partnership with Amtrak, whose Arrive magazine has helped spread the word in surrounding commuter cities.

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Both institutions are excellent examples of local arts icons casting a widening net and making Wilmington a true destination for regional art enthusiasts.

The city truly does offer it all. There’s art. There are cutting-edge productions by The Delaware Theatre Company and lavish shows by OperaDelaware. There are exciting annual celebrations. And, there are new events that are helping the city up its cool quotient.

Thank the institutions themselves. And thank, in part, Cityfest, a tax-exempt corporation that seeks sponsorships and grants to subsidize Wilmington’s contributions—both money and staff—to arts and culture. “Cityfest is committed to providing leadership in integrating arts and culture into the socioeconomic life of the community,” says Tina Betz, director of the mayor’s office of cultural affairs.

Cityfest supports several homegrown attractions that draw crowds from across the region. Nationally renowned is the annual Clifford Brown Jazz Festival each June, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2008. The weeklong festival, held at various venues downtown, celebrates the brief life of the Wilmington-born trumpeter whose talent has been compared to Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis. The festival draws national performers. All shows are free.

But that’s just one week of the year. To keep the party going, the city and the Christina Cultural Arts Center launched the Clifford Brown Year Round Series of concerts by up-and-coming national jazz acts at The Grand Opera House. Singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding. the Eric Mintel Jazz Quartet, Point Blank and Maurice Brown Effect comprised the inaugural series.

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Mayor James Baker has added his name to one of the most avant-garde music and theater festivals in the country by announcing the debut of Fringe Wilmington in October 2009. A joint venture by the mayor’s office and Spark Weekly, Fringe Wilmington is believed to be the first incarnation of a fringe festival sponsored by a sitting city mayor, not independent producers.

“As Wilmington continues to evolve into a world-class city, it is important we offer our residents and visitors a wide-range of cultural experiences,” Baker says. “Since the first Fringe Festival was held in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1974, Fringe Festivals have become known throughout the world for introducing audiences to innovative, thought-provoking art. The time is right to bring the excitement of the international Fringe movement to Wilmington.”

Rice points out that Delaware Art Museum—famed for its extensive collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings—is the only major art museum in the area that still offers free admission on Sundays. The Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts on the Riverfront joined cost-reduction effort, abolishing its admission fee in November 2008.

The DCCA, which turned 30 last year, is recognized as one of the “most innovative and prominent organizations of its kind on the East Coast” by the Philadelphia Inquirer. It hosts about 30 exhibitions a year.

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“We attract out-of-towners by the simple fact our facility sign can be seen by Amtrak passengers,” says DCCA executive director Maxine Gaiber. “We also attract artists from Baltimore, Philadelphia and New Jersey through our artist residency programs.”

DSO has made significant strides in developing a national reputation. In July 2008 DSO performed “The Machine,” a 20-year retrospective of Pink Floyd music, at Philadelphia’s outdoor Mann Center. “We added the Mann Center’s mailing list to our own,” says Williams.

And it recorded a CD on the renowned Telarc International label with the world famous Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, complete with the liner note, “David Amado conducting.” “Telarc is the biggest label in the industry,” Williams says. “We received worldwide distribution, as well as a potential Grammy nomination.” With a road schedule that includes at least three out-of-town concerts a year, the DSO “remains Wilmington’s ambassador whenever we travel.”

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In its 2010 exhibition schedule, the Delaware Art Museum chose everal programs targeted especially for out-of-town art devotees. “Dinotopia,” designed as a family exhibit, opened in February. It features over 60 works from three volumes in James Gurney’s popular book series. In June the museum featured works by major minimal and conceptual artists from the collection of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel. And in September, “Images of the Jewish Experience,” will display 19th- and 20th-century art collected by Sigmund R. Balka.

With all that and more, Wilmington is well on its way to be the new up-and-coming regional arts and entertainment destination for the mid-Atlantic.

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