Donate
Join
Member Sign-In

The History of the Biggs Museum

A History

Through its mission and location, the Biggs Museum of American Art (BMAA) is the preeminent art museum on the Delmarva Peninsula south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and is a cultural anchor of Kent and Sussex counties. It is a cultural beacon in downtown Dover as it presents over 15 dynamic exhibitions annually and numerous performances, school tours, art-making classes, lectures, symposia, special needs camps, social gatherings and unique services. It serves a dynamic community that is 65% White, 23% African American, 10% Hispanic, 4% Asian American and 2% other. In a normal year, the institution welcomes over 25,000 visitors annually. Active military personnel and dependents are free. The Biggs Museum of American Art is looking to the future, while cherishing its rich and venerable heritage to reaffirm its commitment to community service.

The BMAA is the cultural centerpiece of Delaware’s capital city, Dover. It was founded by visionary collector Sewell C. Biggs, a passionate art lover, philanthropist and art collector with a particular interest in the fine and decorative arts of Delaware and the surrounding Mid-Atlantic region. He supported many charitable causes during his lifetime, but his legacy is his art museum – the Biggs Museum of American Art. This legacy allowed him to share his extensive art collection and his knowledge of art with the general public in the dramatic setting of the Delaware State capital grounds.

In 1993, through the intervention and advocacy of Mrs. Elise du Pont, wife of former Governor Pete du Pont, the idea of an art museum to house the Biggs collection took shape. She impressed upon the sitting governor, Michael Castle, the potential of a joint partnership where the State of Delaware might build a building and lease it to a stand-alone 501(c)(3) nonprofit governing board to create a privately operated public art museum. Through her efforts and those of many others, the State agreed to build a building at 406 Federal Street in Dover to house the Biggs collection and a newly created State Visitor Center.

The BMAA exhibited on the upper two floors of the new three story building for 20 years while the State Visitor Center operated on the ground floor. In 2012, the Visitor Center moved to the newly constructed Delaware Public Archives building, and the Biggs Museum was given full control of its entire structure. At that time, the Museum mounted a successful $2,000,000 capital campaign and redesigned and fully renovated the entire facility to make it a state-of-the-art, stand-alone art museum. Finally, the full scope of Biggs’ collection could be displayed, changing exhibitions could be mounted, and educational programs could be presented in a dedicated educational space. For the first time, the BMAA had a fully dedicated museum facility, marked by a dramatic three story entry atrium with a dynamic sculpture on the exterior that announced to the public that this was truly a first class art institution worthy of their curiosity, visitation and patronage.

The BMAA’s collections are recognized throughout the Northeastern United States for their unique nature and their extraordinary quality. The Museum houses one of the finest collections of regional and American fine and decorative arts from the 1700’s to the present; furniture, silver, ceramics, textiles, glass, sculpture, paintings and works on paper comprise a comprehensive art collection. Continuing in Mr. Biggs’ collecting tradition, the Museum’s collections have doubled in size from Mr. Biggs’ original gifts. Special features of the expanded permanent collection include: painting collections by the Peale family, Albert Bierstadt, Gilbert Stuart and Childe Hassam; sculptures by Nancy du Pont Reynolds Cooch, Charles Allmond and Hiram Powers; images by Brandywine School illustrator Frank E. Schoonover; and examples of furniture by early-American cabinetmakers such as the Janvier family of Odessa, William Savery of Philadelphia and dozens of others. In addition, the Museum’s Delaware Silver Study Center holds one of the finest collections of regional silver in the Country. The Museum also presents a full array of contemporary and traveling exhibitions such as the art of Salvador Dali, Ansel Adams, Rembrandt and Audubon as well as invitational and solo exhibitions of contemporary artists. It features a broad range of educational programs and it is proud of its ongoing relationships with Title 1 schools.

The Museum presents openings, events and performances around each exhibition that are geared towards children, classroom field trips and adults from a diverse community. A broad offering of virtual programming emerged during the COVID-19 Pandemic and will continue as a regular effort in the future. Many Museum programs
feature Delaware artists, chosen by Museum curators and by the Delaware Division of the Arts in their fellowship program. The Museum’s focus demonstrates an ongoing commitment to artists of color, women artists, and other traditionally underserved artist populations in group exhibitions and with solo exhibition opportunities. Museum programs embrace diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion within its community, and allows visitors to engage with the arts in unique ways, often for the first time in their lives.

As an organization, the Biggs Museum has matured over its 27-year history. It has established sound leadership through an exceptional Board of Trustees that is recognized throughout the State as a model. Its board members and staff have been asked to attend and present at American Alliance of Museum conferences and at national Museum Trustee Association meetings. It has secured a professional staff with advanced degrees in their fields, with the knowledge and experience to execute the mission of the institution with vision, creativity and sound management practices. It has interpreted the collection in ways that make it engaging to scholars and collectors while making it interesting and accessible to the general public. The Biggs has published its scholarship frequently through exhibition catalogs and produced thought-provoking and interesting special exhibitions inspired by the collection and by major trends in the art world. It has achieved the highest professional standards, and is awaiting accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums, pending the final review of its Strategic Plan in the Fall of 2021.