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Painting the future for Delaware’s creative economy

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Delaware’s arts sector in 2022 generated $209.4 million in economic impact, according to studies. To support the creative economy, support is needed for the artists.

Noel Cross is a contemporary painter and photographer from New Jersey. Right now, she is one of four artists in residence at the Delaware Contemporary. | PHOTO COURTESY OF NOEL CROSS

Noel Cross expects to finish this year financially in the red. Next year might not be much better.

 As one of four resident artists at Delaware Contemporary, the young painter with a recent masters in fine arts from the University of Delaware receives a modest financial stipend. While hardly a starving artist, the stipend isn’t enough to completely cover her living expenses and hour-long commute from New Jersey.

Yet she isn’t complaining.

“This is an amazing place,” she said, referring to the Riverfront facility which offers 25 artist studios and several large exhibit areas. “For me, it fosters so much opportunity for professional development. There is nowhere else on the East Coast that provides year-long residencies.”

The Delaware Contemporary is what executive director Leslie Shaffer calls an “an incubator for artists,” providing developmental opportunities for Cross and dozens of other emerging and established artists living within the nonprofit’s 250-mile bandwidth.

Fostering a nurturing culture for artists is only one part of the state’s accelerated efforts to build an arts-based economic juggernaut. It’s one that Delaware Art Museum executive director Molly Giordano says should be given the same attention that state and local governments and the business community have lavished upon biotech, fintech, construction and agricultural industries. Collectively, it has been christened “the creative economy.”

Delawareans may be surprised to know the creative economy is already here and is quite significant. The Arts and Economic Prosperity 6 (AEP6), prepared from 4,562 audience surveys and 118 organization surveys collected by the state’s Division of the Arts, showed Delaware’s arts sector in 2022 generated $209.4 million in economic impact. 

That includes 3,330 jobs that provide $150.8 million in personal income and another $40.2 million in taxes.

Included in the $209.4 million, $148 million was generated in spending by the state’s many arts and cultural organizations. 

For example, in 2022, according to figures provided by ProPublica, Winterthur Museum spent $29.5 million in 2022, the Delaware Art Museum $5.59 million, the Biggs Museum $1.66 million, Delaware Contemporary $1.33 million and the Freeman Arts Pavilion $87,000.

The other $61.4 million of the $209.4 million total was for event-related expenditures by their audiences.

One Voice

Encouraged by this impressive economic showing, many state and nonprofit arts officials believe the collective efforts can be better coordinated and, for a small state with barely one million residents, with more focus. In the summer of 2023, the Delaware Arts Alliance (DAA) launched a strategic plan to draw the future of the state’s art scene.

DAA executive director Neil Kirschling reports the “Creative Economy and Cultural Tourism Recovery and Growth Plan” is on target for its reveal this summer.

“We’ve finished the phase of collecting input, and over 300 people were surveyed online and 25 focus groups were conducted with patrons, artists and other stakeholders, as well as holding roundtable discussions,” he said. “It was our chance to challenge what our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities were. We found the responses were impressively candid and forthcoming.”

Kirschling explains the project uses The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s definition for the creative economy and its seven sectors: performance and celebration, music recording and publishing, cultural and natural heritage, visual arts and crafts, books and press, audiovisual and interactive media and design and creative services. The DAA tapped Sound Diplomacy, a global research and strategy consultant, to lead the effort.

“We’ve already identified some key findings,” he said, “including the need for arts funding that is sustainable, finding better ways to support artists, doing a better job than we now are at marketing and audience development, better positioning of cultural assets and doing more arts education from K -12.” 

“One of the early things we know is that we need to align in a common direction and not in individual silos,” Kirschling added.

This need for an integrated approach is echoed by Giordano. “This is something that the state has not focused on before,” she said. “There has not been a strong, unified effort on defining what are our goals and objectives and how we get there.”

The Business of Art

As head of the art museum, Giordano highlights some of the pluses and minuses shared by many of the state’s cultural institutions. “One positive is that in a small state it is easy to reach people, to sit down with leadership,” she said. 

But part of the problem Giordano points to is Delaware’s small population to get enough supporters — and ticket sales — to cover high fixed costs of venues.

“It takes $30,000 a month for us just to keep the lights on,” Giordano said.

Not surprisingly, even with about 64,000 annual visitors, ticket sales remain a small part of her operating expenses, including a staff of 45, around 33 of them full time with benefits. Personal and institutional philanthropy is the biggest source of funding, Giordano said, followed by government monies with visitors and paid membership third.

At the same time, local visitors and tourists have a high financial impact on the community beyond the institutions they are visiting.

 As the AEP 6 study notes, people attending cultural events often make an outing of it, dining at a restaurant, shopping or paying for parking or public transportation. Overnight tourists, especially those traveling in groups such as bus tours, require local lodging. 

Overall, in the State of Delaware, attendees spend $43.45 per person per event beyond the cost of admission, the AEP6 study reports.

Trickle Down Effect

In the Brandywine Valley region, Wintherthur is among the many draws for out-of-state tourists to come to the small wonder state. Many of these visitors stop by attractions like Hagley, the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science as well as Longwood Gardens and Brandywine River Museum in nearby Pennsylvania.

“Our fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30,” Winterthur Director and CEO Chris Strand said. “Last year we had 109,000 visitors, and this year we already have 109,000 through January.” 

“Winterthur, Longwood, Hagley and Nemours all have a big effect on our business,” said Tom Hannum, co-owner and chef at Buckley’s Tavern in Centreville. “That ranges from walk-in traffic – the staff at those sites recommend us – for tables of two, four or six to large bus tours. So far in 2024, I have about 30 buses booked, and in 2023, we had about 50 buses going to those locations.”

Downstate, the Biggs Museum in Dover draws about 5,000 visitors annually. The Freeman Arts Pavilion in Sussex County reports that since 2008, its activities have contributed more than $100 million  to the local economy.

The Rehoboth Art League represents about 700 artists, all of whom buy supplies as well as sell their works at the group’s annual shows and in open studios. 

“The local chamber of commerce uses our August Outdoor Show, our biggest of the year and most people’s favorite, as a benchmark for hotel occupancy,” Rehoboth Art League Executive Director Sara Ganter said.

Another major goal of the comprehensive creative economy effort is to create art and culture enclaves, whether in towns or neighborhoods within cities, to provide cultural and economic hubs – a critical mass – that support artists such as Noel Cross and attract patrons of the arts.

It’s part of the reason why Claire van den Broek and her co-owner decided to open Huxley & Hiro bookstore on Market Street in Wilmington.

“We felt that downtown Wilmington is reaching a critical density of residence and arts and culture to support a much more lively retail scene,” van den Broek said. “We felt that this was the perfect time to invest in downtown and hopefully encourage other retail businesses to finally open up on Market Street as well.”

That effort has been helped by building more new residences in central Wilmington as well as opening additional restaurants and hotels. One major player, the Buccini Pollin Group, said it has created 2,200 residential units in the heart of the city with another 700 on the way. Additionally, it has opened spaces for restaurants and hotels as further incentive for residents and visitors to seek out art and cultural activities while providing a focal point for local artists.

Now that the final creative economy report is almost ready, Kirschling and the DAA are anxious to see what that roadmap will suggest as a collective path forward for the arts community, allied businesses and state and local governments.

“There is a sense of excitement,” he said. “We’re turning over the stone, and we’re not quite sure what we’ll find under it.”

Editor’s note: This story originally reported that the Freeman Arts Pavilion generated an economic impact of $100,000, not $100 million. We regret the error.

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