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It takes a village

Nov 26, 2017 09:46AM ● Published by J. Chambless

The Delaware Art Museum hosts regular events, such as yoga, to draw new visitors.

By Pam George
Staff Writer

If you haven’t visited one of the museums along the Route 52 corridor in a while, you could be in for a surprise.

At the Delaware Art Museum, for instance, there might be a group of yogis practicing tree pose in the sculpture garden. At the Delaware Museum of Natural History, you might spot “detectives” searching for clues to solve a case. And if you visit Hagley Museum & Library on certain evenings in summer, biking – not the history of black-powder production – is the main attraction.

The activities are all part of efforts to engage a new generation of patrons.

“The graying of the audience, declining membership and subscribers and reaching out to the community have been the topics of theater and museum conferences for years,” said Sam Sweet, executive director and CEO of the Delaware Art Museum. “The solutions have been a long time coming.”

Indeed, in 2009, National Endowment for the Arts’ report on attendance showed that visits to museums, galleries and performing arts institutions have been steadily declining for decades

More recently, local museums have found answers by going outside the gallery walls and into the community. “We’ve opened up conversations about what the community needs and how we can serve those needs,” Sweet said.

As a result, local museums have taken on certain attributes of parks, arts centers, performing venues and community centers.

The debate as to whether a museum should be a temple or a forum has existed for generations, said Lois A. Stoehr, associate curator of education for Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library.

But the aging audiences in many cultural institutions, including theaters, have added more urgency to the discussion. At a museum association meeting in Wilmington, there were up to three workshops focused on attracting millennials, said Jessica Eisenbrey, the marketing manager at Hagley Museum & Library.


Hagley's popular Bike and Hike events are drawing new visitors to the site.

 Traditional print and TV ads have little effect on millennials, who rely more on social media and the internet to make purchasing decisions. They lean toward an affiliation with a product, service or place that is in alignment with their own ideals. Museums aren’t the only ones interested in this age group, which was born from the 1980s into the mid-to-late 1990s. It’s easy to see why. People in this generation are entering their prime working and spending years. Hundreds of business blogs and articles are devoted to their buying habits, which differ drastically from those of their parents and grandparents.

To reach this audience, museum marketing mavens are looking at their lifestyles. In today’s active households, adults work during the day. “They can’t come to the museum on a Tuesday morning the way some people could 20 or 30 years ago,” Eisenbrey explained. On weekends, they might have children's activities and chores to address.

Consequently, many museums have implemented after-hours programs. Hagley, for instance, in summer offers a bike-and-hike program from 5 to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays. Admission is reduced to $2, and guests can stay one hour or all three. (Admission is normally $14 and $8 to $10 for children, depending on their age.)

A partnership with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, which supplies the beer, the evenings have attracted up to 600 people, including families, individuals and couples. Some buy food at the on site café, and others bring their own meals and libations. “It’s a casual, relaxing experience,” said Eisenbrey. “People are reacting in a positive way.”

In October, Hagley hosted an after-hours bonfire. More than 100 people turned out to take walks on the grounds, buy beer, roast marshmallows and listen to music. Hagley also held “Play.Make.Sip.,” which let adults delve into their inner inventor. While sipping Dogfish Head Punkin’ Ale, they made scribbling robots and mini catapults.

The Delaware Art Museum has also started after-hour events. From the start of summer through Oct. 28, the museum hosted happy hours from 5 to 7 p.m. Guest could gather with friends o the terrace, which overlooks the sculpture garden, where dogs were allowed on leashes. They could also wander inside.

Winterthur has featured a beer garden and live music on select Friday evenings. “After Hours is not so much a specific program as it is an availability – an opening of our resources for audiences on select Friday evenings to experience and discover us on their terms,” said Jean Cucuzzella McCuskey, senior manager of adult and community programs.

In addition to wanting more than flexible hours, younger audiences want to explore the property in a more relaxed fashion. They’re not content to stroll quiet museum galleries and squint at the placards beside the exhibits.

Hagley’s periodic Sunday Strolls let attendees wander the property or take a guided tour; it’s their choice. The café is open for breakfast and lunch during the promotion.

It helps that Hagley has 235 scenic acres along the Brandywine near the city, which is an attraction on its own, particularly when events have reduced admission fees. Likewise, Winterthur boasts sweeping grounds and shady woods that let people experience the property even it they choose not to go inside.

The Delaware Art Museum’s 11-acre campus sports a sculpture garden that’s been a backdrop for yoga classes. “It’s a unique setting,” Sweet said. “We’re trying to figure out how to do more of that – to bring art into the outdoor setting to enrich people’s lives. They don’t need to come inside the museum, although we hope that they will. We have people who love the happy hours on the terrace, the sculpture garden and the labyrinth. They’re all part of the museum community.”

Whether indoors or out, younger generations are drawn to places where they can make memories. “They want to have experiences,” Eisenbrey said. The occasional classical music concert at an exhibit opening won’t do.

Several years ago, Winterthur included jazz concerts during its holiday tours. “Musicians love the acoustics of the Galleries Reception Atrium, and crowds thrive in the festive atmosphere,” said McCuskey. It was so well received that Winterthur added a “Music Along the Bank” series outside, which included Americana and bluegrass performers. It’s not such a stretch. The museum is repository of American decorative arts.

Hagley is looking at concert series next year. “We have buildings, we have land – we want to get more people out for live music next year,” Eisenbrey said.

Movies are another added, and unexpected, attraction. Hagley has shown the pop-culture hit “Mean Girls” in the Soda House’s auditorium. Attendees were invited to wear pink and sip pink cocktails.

Winterthur purchased a new projector for its lecture hall. “It’s another local venue for cult and documentary film series,” McCuskey said. The museum hopes to partner with film groups, such as the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

At the Delaware Museum of Natural History, participants became actors during a successful murder mystery. Held in February 2016, the evening sold out a few days after a notice was posted on Facebook. The museum added a second evening. A kids science camp, held at the same time, made it easy for parents to attend the murder mystery without hiring a babysitter.

While beer gardens and jazz music sweeten the museum experience, making it more attractive for people to spend time on the grounds, programs can also enforce the museum’s mission, but in a new way.

The Delaware Art Museum’s labyrinth, for instance, served as the setting for “The Day Before Tomorrow,” an interactive work by Syrian visual artist Emad “Jano” Hemede, a former international artist-in-residence through the University of Delaware’s Art Bridging Cultures program and the English Language Institute. The work, which featured a performance by the SHARP Dance Company and choreography by Diane Sharp-Nachsin, depicted the beauty of Syria and the destruction of war.

In October, the Delaware Art Museum invited the community to sit for portraits, drawn by participating Delaware artists. The event was part of Beauty Shop Project Delaware, spearheaded by painter and portraitist Stacey Davidson of South Carolina.

Winterthur has a book club and craft program for adults (“Crafternoon”) that typically tie into the collection or a featured exhibit. In one craft class, for example, participants made Shrinky Dinks-style earrings that were replicas of 18th-century porcelain dishes. The Bead Garden, based in Havertown, Pa., once led a class that made pendants inspired by the Tiffany exhibits. Because budget constraints limit these programs to daytime, however, they’re mostly popular with retirees.

In April, Hagley started offering walking tours with Elton Grunden, a guide who is also a photographer. “He takes small groups of people out and shows them different picturesque areas of the property, some of which are off the normal route,” Eisenbrey said. Every time the tour is offered, it sells out.

Museums are also collaborating to reach the community. Winterthur and the Delaware Museum of Natural History have joined forces for coordinated events. Parents can drop their children off at the natural history museum and then head to Winterthur for a function.

But the collaborations aren’t limited to other museums. In mid-2018, Winterthur’s garden department will hold an event featuring a variety of Delaware organizations to highlight the environment, McCuskey said.

Next year, the Delaware Art Museum plans to join a collective of cultural, educational, civic and faith-based organizations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Wilmington riots in 1968, which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “It was a very significant and life-changing event,” Sweet said.

He also wants to use art to create discussions around immigration, feminist issues and the Black Lives Matter movement – topics that are relevant to audiences of all ages.

In all of these instances, the goal is to get the community to view the museum in a new light. “We want to keep Hagley relevant and have people say, ‘Hagley has these really cool events, I should check out what they’re doing,’” Eisenbrey said. “So far it’s going well, although it’s in the beginning process. It has great potential.”


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