Joseph Gonzales brings people together at The Delaware Contemporary
New Artblog contributor, Naveena Vijayan, speaks with the newly-appointed executive director of The Delaware Contemporary, Joseph Gonzales. Gonzales aims to make the museum a gathering space for the public, even while maintaining its reputation as a happening spot for contemporary art.

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“I want art to spill out of the building,” says Joseph Gonzales, executive director of The Delaware Contemporary, gazing at the snow outside. We are seated at the lounge area of the museum, which was once a railroad passenger car factory, adjacent to the Christina River. The tall rustic tin sheets that envelop the seven galleries inside stand testimony to the fact. “At present, we are a little contained in our shell. I want our building to wear more artwork — messy up the exterior so that those who don’t know that we exist…just know it,” adds Gonzales, who joined the institution six months ago.

Joseph J Gonzales, PhD, Executive Director, The Delaware Contemporary.

A rich history

The seeds of the organization were sown in 1979, when Artsquad, a group of passionate artists, decided to introduce Wilmington to contemporary art. They went around town making site-specific installations — clay impressions of animal footprints collected from Brandywine Zoo, ice sculptures, and a 64-feet high clay pot, to name a few (according to an essay published by the museum in 2009).

As the group expanded, so did their meeting points — from garages, to an abandoned sheet metal factory, to a waterworks building — until they found a permanent location on the riverfront. In 2015, the venue underwent a name change from Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts to The Delaware Contemporary. Still in the grip of history, Gonzales says, “they (the founding members) went through growing pains to turn it into the institution it is today. We are trying to maintain the balance between being an institution and a grassroots, artist-driven organization.”

Much to do and see

True to his word, here, the artists and their creative worlds are just a rap-on-the-door away. We walk along the line of studios (there are 26 in total); the walls a massive collage of paintings, sketches and sculptures. Most of the artists are open to interactions with the public, unhesitant to show their work in the making. “The ‘First Friday’ Art Loop event garners between 300-1000 people — from artists and art enthusiasts to parents with strollers. The auditorium transforms into a pop-up gallery with display of works by children or by budding comic/graphic novel artists,” he says.

More recently, they began replicating the First Friday model every Wednesdays with a host of events such as ice dyeing, upcycling jewelery and terrarium making. The museum has already begun a survey, asking neighbouring residents what they would like to do on a Wednesday night if given a choice. “Wilmington faces the stigma of being unsafe after dark,” Gonzales says, “we want people to know that there are organizations like ours where they can unwind on a mid-week evening.”

Art for all

“Ours is not just an arts organization,” Gonzales stresses, “we want people to know that we are there for them.” As someone who has been instrumental in taking art to immigrant and low income groups in South Philadelphia in the past (along with the team at the Fleisher Art Memorial), he wants the space to be “reflective of the fabric of our community.” He plans to connect with the South Asian, Caucasian, Chinese, Nigerian and Jamaican communities around Wilmington. “Not many people know that Bob Marley resided in this very town in the 70s!” he says, revealing a bit of trivia.

“My personal experiences and observations of discrimination against Latinos and other minorities, particularly in the national narrative and culture industry, have influenced how I view my work,” explains Gonzales, who is originally from Texas and of Mexican descent. “I have worked throughout my career to create access to mainstream arts and cultural resources and enrichment opportunities for minority audiences, as well as to create access to resources for underrepresented groups to stage and express their artistic identity.”

Program with LAAC Preschool Class. Photo credit: Staff photo.

Looking Ahead

A former academic who led the Graduate Museum Communication program in Museum Studies at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, Gonzales has also done research on professional museum practice in China. With The Delaware Contemporary’s (40th) Ruby jubilee just a year away, he plans to “build a conveyor between art organizations in China and here.” For starters, the museum will soon exhibit work by Chinese artist Willie Yao as part of a new concept in which a small gallery space will be exclusively available for artists to showcase “any piece that is exciting, immersive, or messy.” Meanwhile, plans are on for a big ‘Contemporary year of the dog’ (as per Chinese tradition) bash in February 2018.

Events like these will bring in a critical mass, Gonzales hopes. “We are in an interesting political time in this country to say the least. I have ideas about the country, things I love about this country, that I am willing to fight for. The way that I know best to fight is through art and the power of art to bring people together.”

More about the Delaware Contemporary at their website.

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Joseph Gonzales, The Delaware Contemporary

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