In times of economic hardship, funding for the arts tends to be among the first cuts in corporate and government spending. Perhaps that’s because some people see the arts as merely nice to have. In Wilmington, however, the arts are considered a necessity, an essential element of urban living.
In Wilmington, the arts are seen as enriching people’s lives, fueling the city’s economic engine and energizing its revitalization.
When looking at the diversity of local arts organizations, Wilmington’s true wealth is beyond measure. From musical performances in the iconic 135-year-old Grand Opera House on lively Market Street and the dramatic arts of the Delaware Theatre Company, to the visual arts at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts and Delaware Art Museum, to the classic and modern choreography of the First State Ballet Theatre, the arts make Wilmington rich.
Local arts leaders remain steadfast in providing visual and performing arts—as well as arts education—to the community.
“This is the time when people most understand our compelling argument that without the arts, so much more is lost,” says Steve Bailey, executive director at The Grand Opera House. “When things look dark and grim, we’re the place where the lights are still on and the show will go on. We’re here to give you a little magic and help to reinvent the thing that makes you feel good. For some, it’s the total escape. For others, it’s something much more subtle that comes from the inherent beauty of what you allow yourself to be wowed by.”
The Grand has worked as an advocate for all local arts organizations, which has paid off for groups large and small. Says Bailey, “We’re highlighting the overall experience of The Grand and the wonderful choices available from a menu of arts, from A to Z.”
In residence at The Grand are the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, First State Ballet Theatre and OperaDelaware. That’s all in addition to a slate of nationally known pop and contemporary performers who appear there.
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The Delaware Symphony Orchestra has been delighting aficionados of classical music for more than 100 years. Under the direction of conductor David Amado, the symphony has recently broadened its musical offerings for audiences of all ages and means. With the addition of Lollipops Saturday concerts for kids, the Champagne Chamber Series at the Hotel du Pont and shows such as “Bugs Bunny on Broadway,” where the symphony played the backing music to classic Looney Tunes cartoons, DSO has taken the joy of orchestral music to expanding and appreciative audiences.
First State Ballet Theatre presents professional and pre-professional dancers in major ballets and mixed repertory productions, while The School of First State Ballet Theatre educates future dancers of the world. In May the ballet will take “New Works” to the stage of The Grand, and OperaDelaware will present Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Executive director Raye Avery explains how her Christina Cultural Arts Center worked with The Grand on several programs that combined education and performance. One recent effort brought the famous Philadanco contemporary dance company to town.
“We were able to provide them with a very substantive experience here in Wilmington,” says Avery. “The beautiful venue of The Grand and the programming support they received from the Pennsylvania Performing Arts on Tour and the National Dance Project of the New England Foundation for the Arts, combined with the significant dance audiences we’ve cultivated over the past 15 years, was a powerful partnership for Philadanco.”
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The partnership went well beyond the performance through a series of classes offered to area dancers, as well as a workshop for owners of small performing arts companies, led by Philadanco founder and director Joan Myers Brown.
Other relationships go beyond partnering for a single show by providing support for each other, out of care and respect for another organization’s work. When the Academy of the Dance closed the doors to its original location after more than half a century, Christina Cultural Arts Center took it in. The Academy now operates as a new business at the CCAC, where the two organizations share their resources and talents. When the Delaware Music School was about to fold, the Wilmington Music School joined with it to create The Music School of Delaware, which now has branches in Wilmington and Milford.
“What’s so special for audiences in Wilmington is that we have world-class art that’s much more accessible than in a bigger, more congested city,” Avery says. “Ticket prices are comparable, but there’s an intimacy here and more opportunities to connect with the artist whose work you are enjoying. We don’t present anyone who is not willing to meet with the audience. The experience here is more personal, and I think audiences are looking for that.”
When CCAC partnered with the Delaware Art Museum to present “Bare Witness: Photographs by Gordon Parks,” for example, one of Parks’ closest friends, LIFE Magazine photo editor Bobbi Brown Burrows, gave an informal gallery tour and chat.
Not only does the museum contain what the Guardian newspaper in London called “one of the finest Pre-Raphaelite collections outside Britain,” but it also has an extensive collection of American art that spans more than 200 years. It includes the works of artists such Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper and Raphaelle Peale, as well as the illustrators of The Brandywine School.
The Delaware Art Museum also participates regularly in Art on the Town, called “The Art Loop,” which is facilitated by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. The Art Loop is a great way to see what’s happening on the Wilmington scene and meet the people who drive it. On the first Friday of each month (except January, July and August), people can explore art of many disciplines by local and national artists—and chat with them—at establishments all over town. Admission and shuttle service between venues is free.
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A regular on the Art Loop is the Delaware College of Art and Design. With six exhibitions per year, DCAD participates on the loop every other month. Works by DCAD students are also frequently displayed at the Delaware Theatre Company on the Wilmington Riverfront.
“They’re doing some really interesting work at Delaware Theatre Company, too,” says Avery, who points to the play “No Child” by Nilaja Sun as an example. More than 200 local public school teachers joined audiences to witness two actors playing 16 different roles in the tale of challenges facing an inner city teacher in New York.
DTC, now in its 30th year, presents professional performances of classic, musical, contemporary and new works, and it offers a host of programs for children, such as Summer on Stage, which lets them explore acting techniques, improvisation and stagecraft. Special guests host master classes, and students present a final performance at the theater. While some kids are learning to perform, others are engaged in the Delaware Young Playwright’s Festival and the Young Critics programs, which explore their creativity in writing and critiquing theatrical works.
Through the Totally Awesome Kids and the Arts Across the Curriculum programs, and through cooperative ventures with A.I. duPont Hospital for Children, the Latin American Community Center, Delaware School for the Deaf and other organizations, DTC classes and performances have helped chronically ill, autistic, learning disabled and deaf children, as well as at-risk kids faced with conflict and domestic violence.
“The arts can open doors to children who have trouble with traditional styles of learning,” says executive director Maxine Gaiber of Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts—and that’s often what happens at the DCCA. Children as young as age 3, their parents and other adults find exhibits, classes and programs at the DCCA that explore art and its relationships to other parts of life. The DCCA is a non-collecting museum that presents nearly 30 exhibitions of regionally, nationally, and internationally recognized artists each year. It is so committed to the community that it has waived admission fees for the year.
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Speaking of contemporary art, one of the largest and most ambitious exhibitions of contemporary marine art will be mounted May 16-June 6 at the Chase Center on the Riverfront. The 30th Anniversary Exhibition of the American Society of Marine Artists will present art from more than 100 of the best marine artists working today.
Learning to enjoy or be part of a performance is the mission of the Delaware Children’s Theatre on Delaware Avenue, which presents such classics as “Babes in Toyland,” “Pinocchio,” “Aladdin” and other childhood favorites. The Wilmington Drama League has provided quality community theater for more than 75 years, giving opportunities for community members to write, act and design sets for plays. And the Victorian DuPont Theatre—the oldest continuously operating theater in the country—presents Tony Award-winning shows that have brought beloved Broadway stars to its stage. Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone are two of the most recent stars.
Moving from stage to screen, audiences at Theatre N at Nemours find their tickets provide passage to the intellectually and artistically stimulating world of independent and foreign films. The intimate 221-seat theater is operated by the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, and independent films for screening are obtained through Emerging Cinemas in New York City. Each month, Theatre N hosts Icebox Talks, lively after-film chats among theater-goers.
Keeping the conversation going long after the film, ballet or exhibit has ended is important for audience development and the continued success of Wilmington’s arts institutions.
“We have to do a better job of making people aware of what we have in the arts scene,” says Avery. And, as arts leaders ride out the storm of the recession, “We have to be resilient, and I’m confident that we can be.”
For more about these organizations, shows, performances and exhibits, visit www.delawaretoday.com.