The Wilmington mayoral candidates discussed arts and culture Tuesday night during their third debate, hosted by WHYY and the News Journal.
Seven of the eight candidates—all Democrats—took part in the mild mannered debate at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House. Incumbent Mayor Dennis Williams did not attend.
The audience gasped when none of the candidates said they subscribed to any arts venues in Delaware and aren’t currently on an arts board.
But all candidates said the mayor elected—or re-elected—in November should put plans in place to expand arts in Wilmington.
“The arts need no justification other than its existing,” said Mike Purzycki, executive director of the Wilmington Riverfront Development Corporation. “It has the power to lift all of us, especially our young people, and art speaks to our souls.”
State Senator Robert Marshall said the arts also have an economic value, as it collects about $150 million a year in the state. He said he would develop a creative artist colony in downtown Wilmington.
“Downtown Wilmington needs buildings occupied by workers,” Marshall said. “We need to create artist communities where an artist can make a living in this town.”
Former City Councilman Kevin Kelley said he would expand on his prior mural program that recruits young people in the city to create mural art in their neighborhood. He said the city also needs to protect people of color and the LGBT community, expand their art and provide them the space and funding they need.
“There’s a lot of tension between arts community and city of Wilmington,” Kelley said.
Non-profit leader Eugene Young said there isn’t enough communication between the city and local artists. He said he would educate artists about financing opportunities and create more spaces for them to perform and show their work.
“[Art] is the heartbeat of the city and no matter what city you go to around this nation, if you show me a flourishing city I will show you a flourishing art space,” Young said.
City Council President Theo Gregory said he wants Wilmington to be known for its festivals, and incorporate the arts into those events. He also said he would create a special fund that would be used to develop venues for local artists.
Gregory also would like to establish a Wilmington arts round table who would work with the Office of Community Affairs to reach out to the grassroots artist community to create his vision of movement similar to the Harlem Renaissance.
“They are not engaged as much as they should be in the processes and substantive results and decision making,” he said of local artists.
City Councilwoman Maria Cabrera, who previously worked in the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and for the Grand Opera House, said she would support Arts in the Park, which, under leadership of the Grand Opera House, brings the art to the people in their own community. She said the mayor also needs to meet with corporations and advocate for arts funding.
Cabrera, who played music, wrote poetry and danced, said the arts provide an outlet for children and help them become productive citizens. She said it has been key to her son’s development.
“When these children, especially those living in neighborhoods with trauma, the arts is an outlet—you make something out of nothing,” Cabrera said.
Former City Councilman Norm Griffiths said investing in the arts is important because there are social justice correlations. He said schools have a responsibility to provide arts education.
“For young people, having something that gets their interest as they’re delivering a message is one good way for them to learn things,” Griffiths said. “Bringing out social justice issues—and we have many of those right now—is one of the key factors of art.”