On january 25th, the creative crowd, along with most of Wilmington, was shocked to learn that Deborah Velders was resigning from her five-year post as director of the Cameron Art Museum. Though she endured both praise and protest during her time in office, she was responsible for bringing in millions of dollars in trusts, along with nationally recognized exhibits like William Ivey Long’s “Between Taste and Travesty” and Robert Delford Brown’s residency. Underhanded comments were made by board members and even artists within the community who weren’t used to being challenged. Yet, her steadfast belief in a progressive landscape helped raise the museum’s public profile and increase Wilmington’s place on the artistic map. As Velders prepares for her February move to Texas, she remains on the steering committee for the still-developing arts council.
“It is my understanding that we are the only major city in the state currently lacking an arts council,” Velders says. “This translates into attracting less money and having no unified voice advocating for the many fine arts organizations and artists working here.”
Recommendations for forming an arts council were recently released by the committee in a thorough 28-page report. The work details the budget needed, highlights the attractions and developments that need the most attention and lays out a plan for getting the council started. The most encouraging part of the report adds about $75,000 into the yearly budget secured from the state art council and other sources. Also boding well for the plan is the public survey included in the report, which revealed the public’s general approval and desire for a unified arts program in Wilmington.
Velders says that the geographical location of Wilmington isn’t enough to keep up the economic growth. She says an acknowledgement and support of the town’s creative resources is needed to attract prosperity.
“The combination is unparalleled and seductive in its attraction of people seeking intellectual vitality alongside recreational opportunities.”
She supports her point by addressing other cities that have benefited from an investment in the arts. “Wilmington can be equal to more established sites, such as Santa Fe with its surrounding mountains and desert, the Berkshires [in Massachusetts] with the Tanglewood Music Festival, and Charleston, which has [the Spoleto Festival USA].”
When asked what made Wilmington’s arts unique, both Velders and fellow steering committee member Philip Gerard answered “diversity.” “The great thing about Wilmington is that whatever your medium is, there is something here for you,” Gerard says. “There is a huge range of resources here, and they are good ones.”
Gerard is a professor in UNCW’s widely respected Department of Creative Writing. He says there are so many incredible strengths to be found in Wilmington. In fact, many of them are represented in other members of the committee: With Velders standing for the museum and Gerard displaying the town’s writing talent, there is also Cucalorus Film Festival director Dan Brawley representing the film community, DREAMS Center for Art Education’s director Tracy Wilkes representing youth involvement, and Rhonda Bellamy standing for the Black Arts Alliance.
“We also have the Bottle Chapel and Minnie Evans’ legacy, Thalian Hall and the theater community, and so much musical talent here. There is a lot to be found,” says Gerard.
As for any skeptics that see the council as another expense in financially-tight times, Gerard reminds locals that this council is not just there to support artists. He insists that a successfully run operation will attract developments for all residents of Wilmington.
Velders adds that the creative community has been patient enough and that action is needed to highlight the city’s artistic treasures. “There is growing, widespread recognition that this initiative is long overdue. An arts council is critical for this community’s future economic development through creative industries. It is beneficial to branding the city’s identity as a culturally rich, vital place and essential to encouraging arts professionals and innovators to move and remain in this county.”