Biggs Museum of American Art Expands in Dover
Linda A.K. Danko plays pivotal roll in this treasure’s growth.
DT: Is your big fundraiser, An Affair with the Arts, something that you established?
LD: Actually, I came into it when it was in its first year. It was a relatively small event and I told the board I would take a look at it and see what I could do for it. We just let it grow exponentially. It’s probably in its 10th or 11th year now. It’s the largest fundraiser. We had about 375 people. The majority were from Delaware.
DT: The museum is also supported by state funds, isn’t it?
LD: The Biggs Museum is a wonderful example of the success of a private/public partnership that was established—forged—by our founder and the state of Delaware, and it’s grown and flourished ever since.
DT: How much of your collection is from Sewell Biggs?
LD: The core of the permanent collection was given to us by Sewell. The museum was absolutely his passion, and his collection and his ongoing stewardship (he passed in 2003) are the reason we are still here. The museum still actively collects. (According to curator Ryan Grover, the museum’s holdings doubled with the acquisition of an extensive silver collection in 2008, sculptures by Charles Parks and a number of other artworks—all in keeping with the founder’s mission, says Grover.)
DT: Biggs must have been a voracious collector. What about his taste?
LD: Keen and finely honed—I don’t even know how to explain it. He was just brilliant at [collecting]. He found a niche and he focused on Delaware art and art of the Mid-Atlantic. And he was able to ferret out those objects in an amazing way. I think it’s Delaware’s museum.
DT: How would you describe the museum to someone who had never heard of it?
LD: I would say that it is an opportunity to get up close to these amazing objects that have been assembled in sort of a treasure trove, if you will, and to see some of the masters and a unique, almost encyclopedic, collection of American art.
DT: But other museums have American art, too.
LD: Yes, but this is here in our area. It is something that should be celebrated. The museum is at a time of incredible growth, and it is poised to go on to its next phase of development.
DT: What is the next phase?
LD: I would like to say to the public, “Stay tuned.” It will be absolutely amazing. We are in our infancy at 21-22 years of age. When I got here in 2003, we were sort of on the 2nd and 3rd floors of 406 Federal St. and not really well known to the public. I thought about what we could do [if we had] extra space and how much more we could give to the public, so when I accepted the position of directorship in 2006, we worked really hard to offer programming and lectures and exhibitions, all to benefit the public—this collection is really for the benefit of the public. In 2010 when the museum began its capital campaign, my dreams for the museum were realized. We expanded to the first floor and embarked on a $2 million renovation.
DT: A goal of $2 million is pretty ambitious for a small museum.
LD: Yes, we actually started with our goal at $1.86 million. We were able to raise the funds a year early. I think our deadline was 2014. We had been cautious about expenditures and keeping the project below $2 million. There were things that were very important such as technology upgrades and some other important matters. And then the board determined that we would try to raise that $2 million. We’re only about $60,000 away from it. We’re really close and I am over the moon about it.
This was actually my second capital campaign. Our first was the building of the Delaware Silver Study Center in 2008, when the museum acquired the Col. Kenneth P. and Regina I. Brown collection of Delaware silver (750 silver pieces). That was a $125,000 capital campaign. The center is on our second floor. The works are Delaware and they represent nearly every known Delaware silversmith, 1700-1900, from A to Z, in alphabetical order. The public can come to the study center and open up drawers and get very, very close to the objects that are cataloged A to Z. It was a fabulous accomplishment.
DT: Sewell Biggs collected silverware from Delaware. How does this fit in with his collection?
LD: It was absolutely part of his collecting mission. We were able to arrange a partial purchase/partial gift from the Browns who have collected for over 50 years. Their silver is showcased (along with Biggs’). Students can arrange to come in and study it. It’s a marvelous resource.
DT: Where do your visitors come from?
LD: We draw from all over the country. We track visitation so we know where they come from. We have international visitors as well. Twenty-thousand visitors a years. They are mostly from the tri-state area, from the Delmarva Peninsula, really.
DT: The Biggs is free and open to the public six days a week. How is that possible in this economy?
LD: Well, we are open six days a week and we are free to the public for the moment, but I think in the future we will make a move toward charging for some blockbuster exhibitions, for very, very unique and special exhibitions.
DT: Blockbuster exhibitions?
LD: One coming up—we will be the only museum in Delaware to feature it—will be opening December 2015. It is “Illuminating the Word: The St. John’s Bible.” (The Bible is a contemporary creation of original artwork and hand lettering that was commissioned by St. John’s University and Abby in Minnesota.) This is a fabulous exhibition. It’s one where people will come from far and wide to see. We will be explaining the calfskin, the vellum, the paints from minerals and stones. It will be breathtaking, absolutely breathtaking.
DT: It sounds like a great opportunity for education. You have a lot of programs for youngsters, don’t you?
LD: Absolutely, that’s part of it. We have Biggs Kids and we have Mini-Masters. They are free art education programs for youth. I have been a participant myself in duct tape art (laughs). You never know around here, and I think that’s a testament to the staff’s off-the-chart creativity and the commitment to engagement.
We also have Junior Docents. That’s a program that has been around at least as long as I have. We partner with Campus Community School and a couple of other schools. Our staff goes to the schools and brings resource materials and gives a pretty engaging lecture on how this program works. The students come to the museum and choose an object of their interest. They do their research and conduct a tour for their peers and then they exhibit their own re-creation of that art object. To watch these students and see the absolute joy of seeing their works of art being exhibited and showing their grandparents or their caregivers and pointing with such pride is a highlight of my career.
To see the museum absolutely bursting with activity is another highlight. We’re not just objects on display; there’s a sense of vitality here. On Saturday, as we were running around (getting ready for the gala), we had young children twirling in the Child HELP Foundation Gallery. We have those doors open wide to the public.
DT: Why is it important to have these kinds of programs?
LD: Because it serves to engage and enlighten the public from the very, very young to the very, very old, non-scholars, scholars—it’s without end. That is what we are here for, to engage and enlighten the public.
DT: Do you have children of your own?
LD: I have one son, Jared; he’s 19. He’s working now and busy with his life. But he would come in and volunteer and help. He would do anything for us, from moving platforms to volunteering to watching the security monitors.
DT: You’ve been in Delaware 29 years. Can you tell a bit more about your background?
LD: I’m from suburban Philadelphia. I studied business and marketing at Temple University and I worked at Winterthur’s Historic Houses of Odessa 1988-2003 in group tour marketing and program management. In 2003, I came to the Biggs. I have a lifelong passion for art and history and antiques, so it was a perfect, perfect position for me. I did marketing, programming, all sorts of things, and assumed the interim director role six months later.
DT: You must feel like a Delawarean by now.
LD: Absolutely. I love Delaware. I love our capital. I’ve been able to forge partnerships with the Department of State, the Delaware Division of the Arts, the Delaware Humanities Forum, the First State Heritage Park, Division of Historic and Cultural Affairs, banks, small business, Kent County Tourism. They all are incredibly supportive of what we do here and what we are able to give to our public in the name of art.
DT: What attracted you to museum work?
LD: I was actually going to go into law. I worked for a major law firm in Philadelphia. My husband is a third-generation farmer, and we had farms in Pennsylvania. Some of them sold. We were seeking a new home base and bought a farm here in Middletown. A friend told me about the position in Odessa and said, “Look, positions like this don’t come up often; you ought to try.” And I have never looked back.
DT: Do you still own a farm in Middletown?
LD: Yes, we still own a 200-acre farm in Middletown. And have a 240-year-old house on it.
DT: What accomplishment are you most proud of at the Biggs Museum?
LD: I would say watching my dreams for the museum come true, my vision for the museum fulfilled. I have a stellar team that has been with me; our curator has been with me the entire time I’ve been here. Our team just stays together. I think watching them develop and succeed in their profession is incredibly rewarding. And watching all of our programming develop into successes. It’s not just about revenue; it’s about reaching people that you might not otherwise have reached. Then you know what you’re doing is a success.
DT: You say that all your dreams have been fulfilled for the museum?
LD: My vision has really come to fruition. It was just not as well-known when I got here. It truly wasn’t, and we’ve worked day in and day out to bring it to the forefront of the public. And for the renovation. We were one of the first museums in the country to move to LED lighting, and to be honest, I see these objects every day, but with this new light I go through and I see things in the paintings that I had never before seen. And the lights are better for the paintings and will preserve them for future generations. So we have been able to do so much, and lighting has been a major part of this capital project. To walk through and see the results of this capital project, I am never without words but I almost can’t articulate how exciting that is, and to watch 375 people celebrate art and the Biggs is incredibly rewarding.
DT: So you’re leaving and giving someone else a chance to fulfill a new vision?
LD: This is a lifelong goal, to retire at age 55. I didn’t make it, I’m 56, but I’m darn close. I intend to become a snow bird in Key Largo. I think that is what I’d like to do. I still will collect; I am still very passionate to find obscure pieces of Delaware art at antique shops or wherever I’m nosing around. That’s one of my favorite things to do. I still will be incredibly supportive of the Biggs. This is an exciting time, and this was the perfect time to follow my life’s goals because we [at the Biggs] had reached our goals.
DT: You’re leaving Delaware and the farm behind?
LD: No, I love the farm. And my husband is not quite ready to retire yet. So, we will be staying on the farm and I will be working on my house and continuing all of the things I’m squeezing in now.
DT: What have you collected relative to Delaware?
LD: You can imagine as a newlywed when I came to Delaware, to an old house that had to be restored. We started—and are still working on—the process of putting the house on the National Register, and I was on a mission to fill it up with appropriate objects. I am passionate about period lighting fixtures and antiques and rugs and all of that. I collect absolutely everything.
DT: Looking back, are you sorry you didn’t go into law? If you had become a lawyer, what would you be doing now?
LD: No! If I were a lawyer, I probably wouldn’t be nearly as happy as I am, and I feel really lucky to be able to retire at this age and to have the time to do what I want to do and be leaving the museum in such excellent shape.