As the Biggs Museum of American Art's capital campaign enters its public phase,the  museum aims to serve its growing audience. The only visual art museum in Kent and Sussex counties saw a 39% increase in visitors in 2010 over 2009.

While other arts organizations are struggling in the dismal economy, the Biggs Museum of American Art is evolving, and thriving.

In 2010, the museum saw a 39 percent increase in attendance over the previous year.

In January 2010, the museum also became the sole occupant of 406 Federal St., Dover, after the Delaware Visitor Center and Galleries vacated the first floor.

Since then it has been working to raise the approximately $1.86 million needed for architectural and cosmetic updates, and 3,500-square-foot expansion into the first floor for new galleries, more educational space and modern storage facilities.

State divisions and private foundations have donated 80 percent of the funds, and now the museum is turning to its patrons and the community at large for the final 20 percent.

George Hering III, chair of the campaign leadership committee, said the committee is thrilled with the campaign to date. They encourage donors at all levels to show their support as large organizations such as the Choptank Foundation and Longwood Foundation have.

Funding the expansion helps the museum offer more no- to low-cost programming.

“We bring art to everyone, we’re not elite and we are appealing to all levels of knowledge, and experience,” said Director Linda Danko. “With the extra space and the newly designed spaces we’re able to do so, so much more.”

‘Our public’s museum’
Curator Ryan Grover said unlike other museums, the Biggs’ attendance is increasing. In 2010, attendance jumped by 39 percent over the previous year.

“You can go to most established institutions that have been around for a number of years and almost all of them will say that their visitation is sinking,” Grover said. “Ours is still on a growing trend.”

With the expansion onto the first floor, the museum now has room for those additional guests.

Walk into the gallery and there could be visitors perusing a temporary exhibit in the Grand Gallery, straight ahead. To the right, glimpse grand clocks and furniture in the Founder’s Gallery, which appropriately also features a portrait of Sewell C. Biggs. To the left children might be making reindeer during a Biggs Kids workshop in the brightly painted Sewell’s Studio.

The new additions mean workshops previously capped at 25 can now accommodate 75. It also gives visitors and the work breathing room.

“With all of this space comes a new level of responsibility,” Grover said.

Boosting community engagement is a key component of the museum’s changes.

For example, when the museum was updating its storage facility, the team decided on an open storage facility with glass doors so the public could see in. They can also go inside with a guide, as can scholars.

Museum donors may even see their artwork displayed as part of a community art project, Hanging at the Biggs, set to debut in the next few months.

“This museum is our public’s museum,” Danko said. “We’ve worked really hard to bring it to the community here, and the region, and the state, and beyond.”

Beyond Kent County
Museum supporter Rosemary Twilley said that there’s been a renaissance of interest in the arts in Kent County, and that the Biggs Museum has had an integral role in that. She’d like to see a wider audience share her appreciation for the museum.

“A lot of times people go from Wilmington directly to the beach without stopping in Dover,” she said. “I think it’s important that Dover has something to offer, and they do have something to offer in the Biggs Museum and the other arts organizations.”

Twilley has given to the Biggs as both an individual donor and through her family's grant program, the Kent County Fund for the Arts.

Hering, a Biggs trustee, was asked to serve on the museum’s board, in part, to give it a more regional perspective. The New Castle native shares Twilley’s goal of expanding the Biggs’s reach.

“The museum has a very unique, superlative collection, and we would like to share that with not just Kent County but the entire state, and the surrounding regions,” he said.

Hering called the museum a Delaware repository of paintings, furniture and possibly the most comprehensive silver collection in the state.

“We’re one of the only institutions, if not the only institution, in the state that deals specifically with trying to not only save …‘Delawareana,’ but at the same time try to give it a context within all of America,” Grover said.