Registrar, Delaware Art Museum

Founded in 1912, the Delaware Art Museum has a mission to connect people to art offering an inclusive and essential community resource through its collections, exhibitions, and programs. The Museum is known for its large collection of British Pre-Raphaelite art, works by Wilmington-native Howard Pyle and fellow American illustrators, and urban landscapes by John Sloan and his circle. In addition, works by contemporary American artists have been added to the growing, increasingly inclusive Museum collection.

Gallery Systems spoke with Allison Nicks, Registrar at the Delaware Art Museum, about her role in the Museum, the challenges faced by small and mid-sized museums, and how she is working on saving staff time, natural resources, and costs for the Museum’s artwork borrowers through an innovative use, and re-use, of crates.

What is the biggest challenge your team faces on a daily basis?

As a smaller institution, the biggest challenge my colleagues and I face is how to accomplish our ambitious goals with the limited resources at our disposal; be they time, funding, or capacity. I think every museum has the job of balancing and prioritizing projects based on what is needed most. Sometimes to get something accomplished you have to be willing to put in that extra time yourself.

How do you see the use of technology evolving at your institution?

I am personally always looking for ways to incorporate new technology into my projects and daily responsibilities. I have seen firsthand how tech can help increase efficiency, visualize results, and create a resource for future employees. I would encourage all of my colleagues to engage with technology more in their daily work. In the future, I would love to see my workplace beginning to integrate our information silos, so that we can share information across departments seamlessly. Technology can also be used to communicate between institutions in an innovative way such as listservs or online team collaboration tools.

What is the one change that you’ve made at your institution that has had the biggest impact?

Currently I am completing my initial review and cataloguing of our on-site crates. I hope moving forward that this work will allow me to pass along thousands of dollars in savings to our artwork borrowers as well as saving valuable staff time and natural resources. It is important for museums, especially small and mid-sized museums, to utilize all resources at their disposal, and crates have often been overlooked even though they could offer an immense return on investment for our industry. Imagine, for instance, if local institutions shared crates back and forth. Colleagues could inquire with their local network about the availability of a crate in a certain size and instead of possible disposal, that crate could go to a new institution and have a second life. Some of this is being done already and I commend those colleagues for their efforts.

Crates at the Delaware Art Museum

Crates at the Delaware Art Museum

If you were given $100,000 to spend on management of your collection or department, how would you use it?

There are so many worthy projects from which to choose. It would be wonderful to use this on some of our conservation projects such as our large outdoor sculptures. I also manage our Rights and Reproductions office and think that putting money towards a Digital Asset Management system could benefit my whole organization. This is an example of an information silo that I think would be the easiest to integrate. Another fun use would be to trick out all of our storage rooms with state of the art shelving and racks.

Do you have a favorite book, event or training resource that has helped or motivated you in your career?

The Gallery Systems webinars have always been tremendously helpful. For general collections care info, I have found the online resources provided by the team at Connecting to Collections Care to be invaluable. They provide so many webinars for professionals to review and a backlog of information extending, I think, to at least 2011 and covering a wide range of topics.

What is one of the most interesting projects or exhibitions organized by your institution and why?

In the summer of 2018, our museum organized a series of exhibitions to remember and reflect upon the 1968 National Guard occupation in Wilmington following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. As part of that series, the museum commissioned a new work from conceptual artist, Hank Willis Thomas. Drawing on resources from our local historical society, Thomas created a series of 14 large-scale retroreflective screen prints based on the archival document, Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot. Visitors were encouraged to activate the prints by shining a light on the images to unveil photographs taken during the occupation. The installation created an extremely powerful experience for our visitors, especially those that could remember that time firsthand. It was the kind of project that makes you proud of your institution, and makes all your hard work worthwhile.

What is your favorite item from your collection and why?

Interior with Apples, 1975, Paul Wiesenfeld

Interior with Apples, 1975
Paul Wiesenfeld (1942-1990)
Oil on canvas, 43 5/8 x 38 3/16 in. (110.8 x 97 cm)
Delaware Art Museum, Purchased with funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Chichester Foundation, 1976
© Estate of Paul Wiesenfeld

I tend to favor works in the collection that don’t go on view often. Maybe I just like an underdog, but also those works feel more special because they remind me how lucky I am to get to see them. If I had to pick one of these examples, it would be a painting by Paul Wiesenfeld, Interior with Apples, from 1975. I first encountered this work early during my tenure at Del Art and it has continued to hold my interest even though it is rarely on view at the museum. I love the contrast between the haphazard furniture arrangement and the rigorously detailed rendering of the rug pattern, all awash in a golden late day light.