Feature

The Rebirth of the Delaware Art Museum

With a fresh start, the Wilmington institution can now put the focus back on art.

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Delaware Art Museum marked its centennial in 2012, with much to be proud of in its past but a deep uncertainty about the future. Clouding the celebratory mood was a multimillion-dollar debt from an earlier building expansion that threatened the facility with closure. 

Today, the museum—which overlooks the tree-lined Kentmere Parkway in Wilmington—has paid its creditors, replenished its endowment and put the focus back on art. Getting there wasn’t easy, or without controversy. 

When the museum embarked on an ambitious expansion and renovation project in 2003, times were good and support for the project was strong. More space was needed and three new wings of contemporary design were added to the Georgian-style brick building constructed in 1938. A six-acre sculpture garden was created on the gently rolling property. 

The spacious new galleries allowed for a greater number of the 12,000 works in the collection to be on display. But the renovation also saddled the museum with a $19.8-million construction debt. Repayment of the debt became more difficult after the 2008 economic downturn.

“After trying just about everything, we were in serious jeopardy of running out of money,” says CEO Mike Miller, a retired DuPont Company finance executive. Miller, who was brought in as part-time chief financial officer beginning in 2007, was chosen as director in 2013 with the charge of getting the museum back on solid financial footing.

“We repaid the debt with our endowment,” says Miller, “and that’s really what brought the board to the decision to sell art. It was not an easy decision. The board felt it was more important to keep this place open for the community than not to sell art.”

In 2014 the trustees approved the sale of four pieces in order to replenish the endowment and keep the museum operating. Works by Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, Alexander Calder and William Holman Hunt were sold privately and by auction over the course of a year.

While such a move was deemed necessary from a financial perspective, the sale of the artwork caused an outcry among museum professionals and art lovers. The museum lost its accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. The Association of Art Museum Directors advised its members to stop loaning works. 

The sale of the artwork caused an outcry among museum professional and art lovers.

Such sanctions were hard on museum staff. “When you are a curator,” says chief curator Margaretta Frederick, “you’ll stand in front of the bus to keep the bus from hitting the painting. Each of us cares for a collection about which we know more than any other person on earth.” 

Frederick and her fellow curators oversee a remarkable collection of more than 12,000 works. A newly designed entrance hall introduces visitors to the museum’s core collections that include works by Howard Pyle and fellow American illustrators, a major collection of British Pre-Raphaelite art, and urban landscapes by John Sloan and his circle. 

“The Council Chamber,” 1872-92, Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898).
“The Council Chamber,” 1872-92, Sir Edward
Burne-Jones (1833-1898).

As heart wrenching as the sale of art was to the staff, Frederick says the idea of the museum closing its doors was unthinkable. “This collection represents the cultural passion of this area, not Philadelphia, Washington or
Baltimore—right here. And to have that go anywhere else is just not right,” she says. 

It was in fact a feeling of cultural passion in the community that brought the museum into existence. Wilmington’s native son Howard Pyle was not only an enormously successful illustrator but an inspired teacher who nurtured the talent of the best illustrators of the early 20th century. 

The 58-year-old Pyle had gone to Italy in 1911 to study painting when he died unexpectedly in Florence. A grieving community bought nearly 100 of Pyle’s works and created the Wilmington Fine Arts Society to preserve his artistic legacy. Exhibits held in the Wilmington Library and other venues attracted as many as 10,000 attendees. 

The society gained a permanent home when the heirs of Wilmington textile mill-owner Samuel Bancroft gave them his collection of British Pre-Raphaelite art, plus 11 acres on the outskirts of the city. Bancroft was a passionate collector of Victorian-era artists inspired by Medieval and early Renaissance art predating Raphael. The terms of the 1935 gift required the society to raise funds to build a museum with a gallery devoted to his collection. 

Again there was an outpouring of financial support and $350,000 was raised—this during the Depression years. With great fanfare the Delaware Art Center opened in 1938 with Pyle’s illustrations and Bancroft’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings of sensuous women and literary themes on display. 

In the 1960s the museum received another windfall. The widow of John Sloan, an American artist known for his gritty scenes of city life, gave more than 5,000 of his works to the museum, making it the center for Sloan studies in the United States.

In contrast to the holdings in large museums, such “quirky” collections, says Frederick, are typical of regional museums, where art is often donated. “It’s a microcosm of the tastes of a given area,” she adds. 

Delaware Art Museum CEO Mike Miller.
Delaware Art Museum CEO Mike Miller.

With its finances now in order, the museum has launched a search for a new director. Mike Miller, having completed his charge, says: “They needed my help. I think I was in the right place at the right time for them.” A priority for his successor, he says, will be to resolve the sanctions against the museum. 

Frederick credits Miller with raising morale and guiding the staff to work as a team. As part of the search committee, she is looking for a director with a passion for art who will be a good manager and a good fundraiser. “Some level of museum experience is a must,” she says.

Meanwhile, curators are preparing for upcoming exhibits. The first ever retrospective of the art of Pre-Raphaelite artist Marie Spartali Stillman opens in November. The museum owns eight of her paintings, the largest public collection of her work. The exhibit will feature a total of 50 works, including paintings from private and public collections in the U.S., U.K. and Canada. Opening in March is an exhibit organized by the Smithsonian titled Our American: The Latino Presence in American Art

Galleries are being updated with LED lighting and paintings re-hung in creative new ways. A new salon-style display of American art features a wall of paintings hung floor to ceiling, as they would have been in a Parisian salon. Vintage seating allows visitors to pause and read about the works. 

With free admission offered Thursday evenings and Sundays, the Delaware Museum hopes to attract new members and patrons. More education and outreach programs are in the works. Longtime supporters have given their vote of confidence by stepping up donations and special gifts. 

“I think all of us now feel poised to go forward,” says Frederick. “We are free. It’s only up to us now.”

To learn more, visit www.delart.org.