The Biggs Museum of American Art Turns 25
Long deemed a hidden jewel on Delaware's arts and culture scene, the Dover museum has grown from a small-town organization to a regional attraction.
Biggs director Charles Guerin says part of what makes the museum special is that its collection represents 300 years of Delaware history.//Photo by Deny Howeth
Upon arriving at the Biggs Museum of American Art in downtown Dover, visitors are greeted by a flock of 1,200 aluminum birds taking flight from the brick plaza overlooking Legislative Hall. Though the birds are static, hanging in the air as if time had stopped, the fluid shape of the untamed flock draws the eye skyward, creating the illusion of movement. In other words, this is exactly the type of grand entrance you’d expect to find at a major art museum in a state capital.
The sculptural installation, “Aloft” by Erica Loustau, was the capstone of a recent major renovation project and acts as a symbol for just how far the Biggs has come since opening its doors in 1993. Back then, the first floor of 406 Federal St. was occupied by the Delaware State Visitors Center. The Biggs, meanwhile, occupied just 14 rooms on the second and third floors. The permanent collection consisted of a few hundred objects, all donated to the museum by cultural philanthropist and Middletown native Sewell C. Biggs (1914-2003). The museum was an experiment, and many wondered if it would ever attract enough stakeholders to survive on its own.
Now, 25 years later, the Biggs has grown into a regional art museum. Recent exhibitions of works by Ansel Adams, Maurice Sendak, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and even the 17th-century Dutch master Rembrandt, have brought tens of thousands of new visitors through the doors. Artists from across Delaware and the region have competed in a series of open call juried exhibitions organized by the Biggs, and some of that artwork has found a home in the permanent collection.
The permanent collection is comprehensive in its coverage of fine and decorative arts created in Delaware and the Mid-Atlantic region from the Colonial period to the early 20th-century and has grown to include over 4,000 objects, mostly paintings and furniture, but also sculptures, textiles and fine silver. Its galleries are filled with renowned names, including Gilbert Stuart, the Peale family of Philadelphia, Hudson River School landscape artists like Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt, and Brandywine School illustrators like Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover and Stanley Arthurs. Alongside these are lesser-known names, like William Baker, a 19th-century furniture maker from Frederica, and John Macdonough, an 18th-century cabinetmaker from Odessa. Walking through the galleries is like peering into time capsules where the art, culture and fashions from 300 years of Delaware history come to life.
“That’s what makes this museum special,” says Biggs director Charles Guerin. “Eighty percent of what’s here is all Delaware: Delaware artists or artists that have Delaware connections. It’s unusual for a museum to be able to say that it represents its region that well.”
“They’ve created a coherent niche, which is really hard to do when you’re also a fairly young institution,” says Heather Campbell Coyle, chief curator and curator of American art at the Delaware Art Museum. “That focus on something so regional, and creating depth within that regional collection, is really unique.”
In more ways than one, the Biggs has defied the odds to become the most unlikely of success stories. In a small building in a small city, through recessions and the Great Recession, when more prominent museums have struggled to make ends meet, and with fewer than eight full-time staff, the Biggs has thrived.
“The real story,” says Delaware Secretary of State Jeff Bullock, “is how far this place has come so quickly.”
A Biggs success story
If everything had gone as planned the first time Sewell Biggs attempted to find a home for his collection of fine and decorative arts, the Biggs Museum would be in Odessa, not Dover.
In 1979, Biggs reached an agreement with a local museum to house roughly 375 paintings in the Brick Hotel in Odessa. According to the agreement, the museum would renovate the Brick Hotel into a suitable gallery space, to the tune of $600,000, and Biggs agreed to lend, and ultimately donate, those paintings to the museum and to provide an operating endowment to cover the costs for maintaining and exhibiting the collection.
At first, it seemed like an ideal marriage. The Sewell Biggs Collection opened to the public in May 1981 at the renovated Brick Hotel Gallery of American Art. Writing for The News Journal, reporter Otto Dekom called it a “historic delight.”
But if there was ever a collection that deserved to be in the state capital, a collection that preserved so much Delaware history, it’s the Biggs, Bullock says. “Everyone wants to see the historic part of Dover, Legislative Hall, then go over to the archives and see our history in documents. But to come here and see a first-rate art collection and fine crafts, many of which Delawareans produced, in a relatively small town in the middle of Delaware, is pretty unique.”
As co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee at the time, state Sen. Nancy W. Cook was well positioned to make this happen. It all started when Cook received a mysterious phone call from a friend, asking her to accompany former Delaware first lady Elise du Pont to an undisclosed location.
“And so Elise came to Legislative Hall and picked me up, and we went to Sewell’s house,” Cook recalls. “I was overwhelmed. His great, big, long dining room table had all this silver on it, and there were all these paintings everywhere. I mean, I had no idea what I was going to go see.”
Working in coordination with then-Gov. Mike Castle, Secretary of State Mike Harkins and both houses of the Delaware General Assembly, Cook forged an agreement to appropriate $2.9 million to renovate 406 Federal St., which at the time housed the Department of Elections, and moved the Biggs to downtown Dover.
As part of the agreement, the state would own the building while the artwork would be owned by the Biggs Testamentary Trust (basically the Biggs Museum). The state would also lease the upper two floors of 406 Federal St. to the Biggs. The Visitors Center occupied the first floor until 2012.
Ask anyone, even the museum’s most ardent supporters like Cook or Bullock, and they’ll tell you the top two floors were never entirely adequate to house the collection, in addition to other programs and rotating exhibitions. Karol Schmiegel, who served as director from 1996 to 2003, remarked to The News Journal in 2003, “One of our problems is lack of space.”
Despite these limitations, the Biggs continued to grow. By 2003, just 10 years after opening, the Biggs was attracting about 4,000 visitors a year. By 2013, that number had quadrupled to 17,000. Meanwhile, the permanent collection continued to grow. In 2008, the Biggs acquired the Col. Kenneth P. and Regina I. Brown Collection of Delaware Silver, described by Antiques & Fine Art magazine as “a near encyclopedic collection of work by Delaware silversmiths and retailers until 1900.”
To make room for all this growth, in 2010, the Biggs and the state reached an agreement for the museum to take over the entire building, all three floors, thereby expanding the museum to 25 galleries, including two large rotating galleries and an education studio on the first floor. Then-director Linda A.K. Danko led the Biggs through a $2 million capital improvement project, which concluded in 2013 with the renovation of the museum’s atrium, including the installation of “Aloft.”
According to Guerin, these renovations were a game-changer. “Now we’re a real museum. We have the entire building. How do we put ourselves on the map?”
When Guerin joined as director in 2015, the Biggs was finally in a position to organize some of the most ambitious exhibitions in its history, and in doing so raise the museum’s profile.
This strategy, says Guerin, is working. “Our membership is growing. Our fundraising is growing. Our staff is growing. Everything is growing!”
The hand-illuminated Saint John’s Bible exhibition attracted 12,000 visitors over the course of just four months. The early works of Ansel Adams exhibition brought in 10,000 visitors. And this summer, “Rembrandt Etchings: States, Fakes and Restrikes” is sure to rival those numbers.
“We’re really trying to bring attention to the museum so that people know that we’re here and that we’re more than just the permanent collection,” says Guerin. “And so that’s what we’ve been doing for the last three years, really, is focusing on programs and exhibitions, so that people come in. Maybe they came to see the Saint John’s Bible exhibition or the Ansel Adams exhibition, and then in the process of seeing the quote ‘big names,’ they discover the rest of the museum.”
A community hub
At the same time the Biggs is organizing ambitious exhibitions of nationally and internationally renowned artists, the museum has also developed into a community hub.
As one of the only museums in Delaware that is free to school groups, the Biggs has forged deep ties with educators and students. For 15 years, the Biggs has partnered with Campus Community School in Dover for the Junior Docent Program, where students in grades 6-8 learn about the collection, learn how to look at art and talk about art, and for a final project give tours to elementary students.
“They have art conversations and learn how to be good museum visitors,” says Jennifer Boland, art educator at Campus Community School. “This benefits not only the students who want to become artists, but also the people who want to be art consumers, the people who would like to go to an art museum and feel comfortable. We’re developing those skills early so they feel comfortable going to a museum on their own.”
But even with free admission for school groups, too many students are unable to make it through the doors, says Reggie Lynch, curator of education at the Biggs.
“Again and again we were hearing that it’s really hard to take a field trip to the Biggs,” says Lynch. “We wanted to make it as easy as possible to bring the Biggs into their classroom on a regular basis.”
So this year, the Biggs is launching 25 Schools, 25 Biggs Works of Art. In the fall, 25 schools will receive a life-size reproduction of a work of art from the Biggs, and art educators in those schools will develop lesson plans that will teach students how to appreciate art. Then, in an effort to get more students and their families through the doors, students in participating schools will receive a “passport” that will be stamped for every work of art they see in person.
“It’s like kids teaching the parents,” says Lynch. “We want the Biggs to be as much of a community resource as possible. You can’t be a community resource if the community isn’t coming or feels like they can’t come or feels like they’re not invited to come. We’re trying to create as many initiatives to be as open as possible and to represent as many people’s stories as possible.”
One more way the Biggs makes itself relevant to the community is through juried exhibitions, which have allowed it to build a network of relationships with local artists.
Every year, the Biggs organizes one of three open call juried exhibitions, providing local and regional artists a high-profile venue to display their work. The photography exhibition, Biggs Shot, is open to artists living anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic region. The landscape exhibition, Biggs Picture, is open to Mid-Atlantic artists working in all media. And the decorative and craft arts exhibition, Delaware By Hand, is restricted to artists who hold a special membership with the museum. For every exhibition, at least one work is purchased for the permanent collection.
“When you look at our collection, so much of it is from Delaware artists,” says Guerin. “And that really has informed our more contemporary mission. We continue that tradition with a commitment to exhibiting and collecting artists from Delaware and the region.”
According to Curator Ryan Glover, the benefits of these competitive exhibitions are felt by the entire community.
“You want to find individuals who will want to buy this artwork, so you’re creating a community not only of makers of art but also collectors of art,” says Glover. “And then those collectors become supporters of the museum, and they become supporters of this idea of a community of art-making. You want to develop an art market that we’re all beneficiaries of.”
Looking forward to the next 25 years, board president Marcia DeWitt thinks the Biggs has laid the foundation to become not only a major regional art museum, but a major national museum. The Biggs has updated its infrastructure, expanded its staff and expanded the board to include trustees from all three Delaware counties, as well as Pennsylvania and Maryland. Next is accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, which will allow the Biggs to continue to attract world-class exhibitions.
“I believe strongly that we have the capability to expand our programs here in Dover as one of the critical American art museums in the United States and become recognized as such,” says DeWitt.
The Biggs has come a long way since opening its doors in 1993. Standing in the atrium, beneath the flock of aluminum birds, Nancy Cook can hardly believe how well things have turned out. “Sewell would be happy to see how the museum has grown.”