The idea for the outdoor Platform Gallery at the Delaware Contemporary — an art center housed in a former railroad car factory in Wilmington — came well before COVID-19 hit the region.
With its massive walls visible to pedestrians as well as travelers at the city’s Amtrak station and on nearby I-95, the museum planned to place large-scale works on the exterior of the building to draw people inside.
But when quarantine hit and forced the institution to close its doors in March, staff pivoted to create a drive-through experience featuring works on banners by abstract artist Theresa Chromati, complete with a soundscape and an interactive art toss featuring color-filled water balloons.
It was set to open June 5.
But on May 25, Minneapolis police killed George Floyd after kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, setting off nationwide protests against the killings and injustices suffered by black people across the country.
With a “We Still Can’t Breathe” protest scheduled in a nearby park on opening night, the museum postponed its drive-through exhibit and instead, staff handed out sign-making materials for protesters in the parking lot.
“Our hope is that artists not only react to the world outside but also to each other as the art evolves over the next few weeks,” said Tatiana Michels, the museum’s director of external affairs. “The response to this project has been inspiring.”
And so Friday, June 19, when the free drive-through exhibit is now set to open, interactive artistic experiences will be available both for visitors who are still wary of public interaction and those who have been moved by recent public protests.
In 2020 — a year where everything and nothing feels current all at once, where history seems to be made and then changed within hours — the Delaware Contemporary is doing its best to live up to the contemporary part of its name.
“Everywhere museums are thinking about what they’ll look like moving forward,” said Brittany Powell, director of public engagement. “Lots of people haven’t felt comfortable in museums before so we’re really listening to what people want right now.”
Founded by artists in 1979, the Delaware Contemporary doesn’t have a permanent collection but instead showcases about 24 exhibits a year by local, national, and international artists, Powell said.
Chromati, the abstract artist whose exhibit “Stepping Out to Step In” will be featured in the “Art Escape Drive-Thru” on three massive and vibrant banners — the largest of which is 28-by-28 feet — centers her work on “the real experience of the bodies and lives of black women,” including her own, according to the museum’s website.
Visitors at the drive-through exhibit, which runs from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, will be able to access a QR code that will allow them to listen to a soundscape featuring Chromati’s voice that was created for the exhibit by Baltimore artist Pangelica.
“It’s a really interesting facet that provides an immersive experience and the opportunity to step inside an abstract world,” said Powell.
It takes about three minutes to drive through the exhibit. At the end, a DJ will be spinning records for the crowd in the parking lot and guests are encouraged to participate in an interactive art piece involving water balloons and a secret message.
According to Powell, guests will be able to grab a balloon filled with water and Cal Tint, a paint colorant, and throw it at a giant canvas set up in the parking lot. There may even be some water blasters filled with the colorant on site as well, she said.
Beforehand, staffers will write a message on the canvas with Elmer’s glue, a message which will only be revealed when the colorant-filled balloons start to hit the canvas.
“This is another way to access the work,” Powell said. “We want to help visitors feel like they can be an artist, too.”
Inside the Response Gallery, where the walls have been covered with a primed Tyvek material, visitors can use paint, pens, markers, pencils, and spray paint the museum provides (or they can bring their own) to create art on the gallery’s walls while social distancing and wearing the proper protective equipment. Artists who aren’t comfortable working in the gallery can drop off works to be added there, Michels said.
“Museums miss their visitors but we also need everybody to be safe, so we’re looking for new ways to welcome them back,” Powell said.