Building Community Through the Arts

Meet John Shipman, who became executive director of the 35-year-old DCCA in January

John Shipman (Photo courtesy of the DCCA)
John Shipman (Photo courtesy of the DCCA)

Back in 2000, John Shipman accepted the position of exhibition designer at the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (DCCA), which had just moved into its new home at 200 S. Madison St. in Wilmington. To introduce Shipman to his new post, then-executive director Stephen Lanier took him on a tour of the facility.

During the tour, Lanier pointed out a pair of steel beams in the ceiling that met at an awkward angle. “He told me he thought those beams represented the crossroads of the community—for everyone throughout New Castle County and Delaware,” says Shipman. “They all meet here at the DCCA. That was one of the most impactful things anyone has ever said to me.”

Shipman left his post as exhibition designer in 2006 for a similar job at The Art Gallery of the University of Maryland. In 2009, he was promoted to director of The Art Gallery. Shipman held that position until January of this year, when he returned to Wilmington—almost nine years to the day he left—to take the helm as executive director of the DCCA.

“This is where I started my career, and I always envisioned ending it here as well,” he says. “The aim was always to return as director someday. I’m just thrilled beyond measure that someday is now.”

Michael Kalmbach, director of The Creative Vision Factory, is also thrilled at Shipman’s return. “John’s appointment [to executive director] confirms my belief that the best ideas and talent often lies within an organization’s ranks,” he says. “As former preparator at the DCCA and a practicing artist, John is situated to lead in a way that connects with practitioners and contemporary art enthusiasts alike, and I can’t wait to work with him.”

The 45-year-old Shipman, his wife, Valerie, and his 3-year-old daughter are happy to be “rediscovering” the city and state they’ve been away from for nearly a decade. “I‘m still getting re-acclimated, but from what I can see, the arts remain a force,” he says. “Across the state, too, there are these wonderful pockets—Dover, Smyrna, Rehoboth Beach—of very solid arts scenes.”

The DCCA's strengths "lie in the fantastic exhibition, education and special event programming we offer,” Shipman says. (Photo courtesy of DCCA)
The DCCA’s strengths “lie in the fantastic exhibition, education and special event programming we offer,” Shipman says. (Photo courtesy of DCCA)

The climate is not without its challenges, however. “We’re in a time of transition, in the way culture is consumed in our country,” he says. “Compounding that is a shift in funding streams and giving models.” But the problem is not unique to contemporary arts. “We’re all struggling in this new world, but organizations here are being truly smart in their approaches to solidifying their foundations, and programs across Wilmington are strong.”

Shipman says the good news for him is the experienced, connected professionals who make up his staff. They’ve put together stellar programs that are making a great impact in the city. They know how to create innovative works for and with diverse audiences.

Visual artist and DCCA Board Member Carson Zullinger feels Shipman is the perfect match for the organization’s needs. “We’re excited for John to come back to us,” Zullinger says. “He brings a wealth of arts management experience and fully understands our organization. And his calm, collegial leadership style bodes well for our continuing success and growth.”

“Our strengths lie in the fantastic exhibition, education and special event programming we offer,” Shipman says. “I’ve returned to an organization that is primed and ready to be a meaningful part of the community. This readiness comes from our board, staff and previous leadership. I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel here, and that’s a huge benefit.”

He cites several examples of the creative programming developed by the DCCA staff. Exhibitions like the “xPop Show” by artists Smashed Label (which opened May 31) and “New Eyes: Experimental Photography Today” annual members’ juried exhibition (opened May 28); the monthly Art Lounge gatherings; an active Art Loop presence; the center’s collaborations with music ensemble Mélomanie and the Wilmington Film Festival.

“Our charge,” Shipman says, “is to be vigilant in the exploration of how these elements of creative expression can play a role in people’s lives.” Contemporary art has always had that challenge, and no one recognizes this more than Shipman himself.

“When I first began at the DCCA, my father came to visit and tour the center,” he remembers. “After touring through the galleries, he turned to me, patted me on the back and said, ‘I’m proud of you for the job you’re doing, but I would most likely never feel the need to return here.’”

A well-educated lover of the arts, his father explained that the art here meant little to his own life; it seemed irrelevant to him.

“It was honestly a bit crushing,” admits Shipman, “but it mostly made me think a lot about contemporary arts and its role in our lives. From that point, I knew I wanted to be in a position to impact the way contemporary arts was presented and integrated into the lives of my community.”

This is a big part of Shipman’s vision for the DCCA—similar to the “Crossroads” vision spoken of by Lanier nearly 10 years before. “The whole heart of the DCCA begins with reaching into our community. If those threads take you to New York City or Los Angeles or wherever, great, but it all starts local and grows from there. It starts with showing your community that you love them first.”

"A Man Is A Man," another work by Shipman. (Photo courtesy of John Shipman)
“A Man Is A Man,” another work by Shipman. (Photo courtesy of John Shipman)

Shipman’s approach includes restructuring a more traditional model of some contemporary art venues (where promoting “high level” art is central to the mission) and instead creating a spectrum of experiences for all. “Today, we may exhibit work by [contemporary American artist] Judy Pfaff; tomorrow we could feature a local artist or craftsperson; the next day, highlight education and family programming,” he says. “That’s how you create a real sense of community—when the community is truly integrated into not only into your mission but also your everyday operations.”

Moreover, Shipman wants everyone to know that the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts is “not just a visual arts organization.” “At the center of all this is creative expression,” he says, “and I feel we excel in the exploration of that.”
He is passionate about creative expression in all its forms. “We’re all innately creative, but don’t always know how that expression will manifest itself. Not everyone is an ‘artist’ as modern society defines it, but we all have the ability and desire to express ourselves creatively. It’s not always easy to tap into that creativity, but if people can see that artists/creators they respect also have those challenges, that’s empowering.”

Shipman himself is a visual artist, and his work—which includes painting, drawing and ceramic sculpture—has been exhibited at West Chester University, Woodmere Art Museum in Chestnut Hill, Pa., the Biggs Museum in Dover and Blue Streak Gallery in Wilmington.

He sees the DCCA as a partner with all arts and education entities within the city, building programs and opportunities that will engage a diverse community. His wish list includes developing long-term artist-in-residence programs to connect with area students, educational institutions, elder care and senior living residences, and other potential partners.

What about the longer term? “Our limits come not from our imagination but from our resources,” he says. He looks forward to celebrating what organizations like New Wilmington Arts Association (NWAA) are creating, noting that it’s an organization that can be immediately flexible and responsive to contemporary visual culture.

“We’re the veterans now, 35 years in,” he smiles. “But we’re definitely thinking about what comes next. We’re excited about what it may mean to be the DCCA at 50.”