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NCC establishes public arts commission

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New Castle County will create an arts commission to support local visual artists, enhance public spaces, increase tourism and celebrate the county's cultural diversity.

New Castle County Councilwoman Dee Durham led the effort to establish an arts commission to lift the county’s visual artists and lift tourism. | PHOTO COURTESY OF NEW CASTLE COUNTY

Public art in New Castle County is about to get nine dedicated advocates, as the county council finishes voting on members of its newly established commission later this month.

Last fall, the council unanimously passed Councilwoman Dee Durham’s Ordinance 23-160 to create the commission in an effort to support local visual artists, enhance public spaces, increase tourism and celebrate the county’s cultural diversity.

“Everyone on council can recognize the economic benefits that come from public art in our communities, and the benefits to our communities and individuals,” Durham said. “It’s job creation as well as just enjoyment by everyone that visits or lives here.”

Working on the Concord Pike Master Plan spurred Durham to reflect on the connection between public spaces and economic development, and she began engaging in conversations with various stakeholders, from government, arts organizations and local development corporations.

Existing public arts programs, like Philadelphia’s Percent for Art, were sources of inspiration. So was the Delaware Art Museum’s Public Art Stewards Training Program, and among those Durham reached out to was Molly Giordano, the museum’s executive director.

Per the county ordinance, the commission will “provide an opportunity for all community members, especially underserved populations, to actively and equitably engage in the development and promotion of public art activities.” Examples of public art include sculptures, murals, or statues in publicly accessible places. But above all, public art must build and connect with its community, Giordano said.

“When you see public art, it feels like there’s investment in that community, it feels like it’s a vibrant place,” Giordano said. “People often take a lot of pride and ownership in their public art, and I think we’re trying to instill that same sense of vibrancy in the New Castle County community.”

In total, the nine-member council will include five appointees made by the council and four made by the county executive, with Giordano a council nominee. Included on the council will be:

  • At least one representative from visual arts organizations, including art museums within the county
  • At least two county residents who are visual artists or who have a demonstrated involvement in public art
  • At least one seat from the faculty/governing body of an institution with art or architecture programs
  • At least one representative from a non-profit organization engaged in supporting the visual arts
  • At least one registered landscape architect
  • The director of the Delaware Art Museum or their designee

The county executive’s appointees include: Jarret “Posi” Harris, visual artist; Michael Kalmbach, founding director of The Creative Vision Factory; Cheryl Mack, co-owner of The Bridge Art Gallery; and James “Ray” Rhodes, executive director of Christina Cultural Arts Center.

In addition to Giordano, the council appointees include: Benét Burton, a public art curator with experience at the Delaware Art Museum and Winterthur Museum; Jean Dahlgren, president of Delaware College of Art and Design; Valerie White, owner of the nonprofit Bellefonte Arts; and Anna Wik, landscape architect.

Referencing state data that public art plays a role in increasing tourism revenue, the ordinance emphasized that improving the county’s public spaces will benefit both local artists and local industry. This could be through job creation, tax revenue, or increased property values, among other ways.

Although the economic impact is important, County Executive Matt Meyer said it is not the exclusive reason for his support. He reflected on encountering public art on his own travels, such as The Gates in New York’s Central Park. On another trip, Meyer joined passersby viewing the larger-than-life veteran portraits featured in The Vietnam Black Soldier Portrait Project on the Atlanta BeltLine.

“We’ve been talking for a long time in my administration about how to enliven public spaces with new energy, to turn parks and pathways and buildings into canvases for creative expression. There are places around the country and around the world doing it,” Meyer said.

Philadelphia’s Percent for Art program requires new city construction or major renovation projects to include site-specific public art in the amount of up to 1% of the total budget. In New Castle County, Durham envisions that future county projects, like a new library or paramedic station, would consider public art when going into the design, and make it a part of the project and budget from the start. However, there is no dedicated funding attached to the New Castle County commission at this time, and board members will not be paid.

Grant funding and annually available county money earmarked for investing in public life are two initial possibilities. Right now, the commission is at a slight advantage, thanks to a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. However, that funding – a combination of federal and matching local funds – is specific to enhancing the Jack A. Markell Trail in New Castle.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out how we get regular operational money to help fund art, so that it’s not a one-time expenditure,” Meyer said, adding the goal is to accomplish that “with as little impact on taxpayers as possible.”

In the meantime, appointees will be discussed during the boards and commissions subcommittee meeting on Feb. 20, and voted upon during the council meeting on Feb. 27. The commission’s first quarterly public meeting will likely be held sometime this spring. 

Dara McBride is a contributing writer. 

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