Delaware Arts Organizations Bring Economic and Social Change


Arts organizations have significant impacts in Delaware. Photo courtesy of Delaware Art Museum

Arts and cultural organizations contribute to social change and economic growth while making Delaware a must-visit arts destination.

When I first moved to Delaware, I heard a government leader explain that Delaware’s economy, rooted in the innovation of DuPont’s gunpowder factories, is rooted in “C »: chemicals, credit cards, companies and chickens.

In my past 12 years working at the Delaware Art Museum, where I am now Executive Director, I quickly recognized that one important “C” sector was missing from this familiar list: culture.

Despite our state’s small population, it has an impressive roster of arts, cultural, and entertainment organizations that serve residents of all ages and backgrounds, including expansive historic estates, art museums, symphonies, operas, ballets, theaters and many musical groups and artistic venues. .

But overall, the arts – like much of the nonprofit sector – have operated in the background instead of being celebrated as essential threads of our strong social and economic fabric. Nonprofit arts organizations and artists are quietly bolstering our underfunded public arts education, bringing together disparate groups of Delawares to engage in civic dialogue around critical topics, and improving quality of life to attract new residents and businesses.

Pieces of a Dream Inc. performs in front of Joe Moss’ “Orifice II” in the Delaware Art Museum’s Copeland Sculpture Garden.

Our sector is proud of this vital, yet often overlooked, role. We love to share stories about our programs and education and brag about our significant slice of the state’s economic pie, as evidenced by the 7,300 Delawares we employ and the approximately $1 billion we contribute to the state’s GDP. .

But the stories and statistics don’t address the broader value the arts sector brings to our state. We have a huge opportunity to transform Delaware from a state 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.

While many non-profit arts organizations – and our talented working artists – are still recovering from the financial impacts of the pandemic, momentum is building across the sector towards this vision that squarely centers the arts as both an economic driver and catalyst for social change.

There is evidence of this renewed energy and urgency across 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 built into their business model—that has meant growing to respond to the growing need for out-scheduling extracurricular time and tackle the childcare 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 each other, access vital social services, and explore their cultural heritage and identity. The arts stimulate social action and call us all to work together in a spirit of community to serve the greater good.

At the Delaware Art Museum, a larger organization with a century-old legacy, we’ve spent a decade changing to serve our local audiences with deeper content that reflects their lives and needs. This includes everything from the immediate economic impact of learning opportunities to the immeasurable effect of programs and exhibits that celebrate the diverse identities and cultures of local people.

New initiatives like our Public Art Stewardship program will provide participants with the skills to care for public art and gain transferable skills to support employment readiness, while stabilizing Wilmington’s outdoor gallery. . Past projects, such as the citywide Wilmington 1968 Commemoration and the African American Pictures 1971: The Vision of Percy Ricks exhibition, created a space for institutions and communities to heed painful stories of suppression and exclusion.

By targeting the needs of our audiences, nonprofit arts organizations are now paving the way for deeper and lasting impact in our communities. We coalesce around big ideas, such as how the arts can nurture the creative workforce businesses desperately need and start conversations to bridge a divided democracy, and how our sector acts as a thought partner and provider of key programs in pressing issues such as the mental health crisis.

At DelArt, we dive into this work with programs such as Healing Through the Arts, an outreach program offered by the museum in partnership with Mariposa Arts. Launched in 2017 to help cancer patients, survivors and their caregivers, the program has grown to serve people statewide with a wide variety of hands-on, artist-led workshops to address stressors. resulting from health, environmental, pandemic and historical trauma.

Fortunately, we have a strong industry that makes programs like this possible. To expand these programs to equitably meet the needs of the community, 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 creative lifestyles. students. They also advocate for Delawares to understand the value of artists and educate artists to value themselves and their identity.

“There’s so much potential for artists to play a bigger role in the economy,” Beach says. “But to get there, artists need their basic needs met and they need the financial security to move from a bandwidth survival ‘scarcity mindset’ to participate more fully in collaborative endeavors. community outreach.”

The future of the arts in our state is in an exciting but precarious position. We are rebuilding after the pandemic; welcoming new and returning audiences with accessible and inclusive programming that is deeply relevant to our unique communities; and elevate the essential work of artists. Nonprofit arts organizations and artists, who faced underfunding and underappreciation even before the pandemic, need our help and support now more than ever.

At the same time, it’s an opportunity to think beyond COVID-19 recovery.

“As our society reorients after the pandemic, Delaware has the rare chance to reinvent how we strengthen the economy and meet the multidimensional needs of our communities through the arts,” says Neil Kirschling, the new executive director of the Delaware Arts Alliance. “I am delighted that the sector is coming together around a common vision that includes increased funding and public awareness of the economic and societal impact of the arts. The arts are in balance and ready to lead the First State into an era of prosperity.


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