“I want art to spill out of the building,” says Joseph Gonzales, executive director, The Delaware Contemporary, gazing at the snow outside. We are seated at the lounge area of the museum, which once used to be a railroad passenger car factory overlooking Christina river. The tall rustic tin sheets that envelope the seven galleries inside, stand testimony to the fact. “At present, we are a little contained in our shell. I want our building to wear more artwork; messy up the exterior. So that those who do not know that we exist…just know it,” adds Gonzales, who joined the institution six months ago.
The seed of the organisation was sown in 1979, when Artsquad, a group of passionate artists, decided to introduce Wilmington to contemporary art. They went around town making site-specific installations — clay impressions of animal footprints collected from Brandywine Zoo, ice sculptures, and a 64-feet high clay pot, to mention a few (according to an essay published by the museum in 2009).
As the group expanded, so did their meeting points: from garages, to an abandoned sheet metal factory, to a waterworks building, before moving to its permanent location on Riverfront. In 2015, the venue underwent a name change from Delaware Centre for the Contemporary Arts to The Delaware Contemporary. Still in the grip of history, Gonzales says, “They (the founding members) went through a growing pain to turn it into the institution that it is today. We are trying to maintain the balance between being an institution and a grassroots artist-driven organisation.”
True to his word, here, the artists and their creative worlds are just a rap-on-the-door away. We walk along the line of studios (there are 26 in total); the walls a massive collage of paintings, sketches and sculptures. Most of the artists are open to interactions with the public, unhesitant to show their work in the making. “The ‘First Friday’ event garners close to a 1,000 people — from artists, art enthusiasts to parents with strollers. The auditorium transforms into a pop-up gallery with display of works by children or by budding comic/graphic novel artists,” he says.
More recently, they began replicating the First Friday events every Wednesdays with a host of events such as ice dyeing, upcycling jewellery and making terrariums. The museum has already begun a survey, asking neighbouring residents: ‘What would they like to do on a Wednesday night if given a choice?’. “Wilmington faces the stigma of being unsafe after dark. We want people to know that there are organisations like ours, where they can unwind, on a mid-week evening,” he says.
“Ours is not just an arts organisation, we want people to know that we are there for them,” he stresses. As someone who has been instrumental in taking art to the immigrant and low income groups in South Philadelphia in the past (along with the team at the Fleisher Art Memorial), Gonzales wants the space to be “reflective of the fabric of our community.” He plans to connect with the South Asian, Caucasian, Chinese, Nigerian and Jamaican communities around Wilmington. “Not many people know that Bob Marley resided in this very town in the 70s!” he lets out a trivia.
Gonzales, originally from Texas and of Mexican descent, says, “My personal experiences and observations of discrimination of Latinos and other minorities, particularly in the National narrative and culture industry, such as television and cinema, museum collections, music, literature, and educational curricula, have influenced how I view my work. I have worked throughout my career to create access to mainstream arts and cultural resources and enrichment opportunities for minority audiences, as well as access for underrepresented groups to resources to stage and express their artistic identity.”
A former academician, who led the Graduate Museum Communication programme in Museum Studies, at University of Arts, Philadelphia, Gonzales has also done research on the professional museum practice in China. With the Ruby jubilee just a year away, he plans to “build a conveyor between art organisations in China and here.” For starters, soon the museum will be exhibiting the work of Chinese artist Lily Yeh as part of a new concept in which a small gallery space will be exclusively available for artists to showcase “any piece of art that is exciting, immersive, messy”. Meanwhile, plans are on for the big ‘Contemporary year of the dog’ (as per Chinese tradition) bash in February 2018.
Events like these would bring in a critical mass, he hopes. “We are in an interesting political time in this country to say the least. I have ideas about the country, things I love about this country, that I am willing to fight for. The way that I best know that fight could be done is through art and the power of art to bring people together.”