A home for the arts in the heart of MiddletownDec 31, 2020 11:17AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
The building that holds the Gilbert W. Perry Jr. Center for the Arts is a fixture in the heart of Middletown’s Main Street. Today, it’s a vibrant showcase for the region’s artists, a place to learn, and a place to engage with creativity.
The large, high-roofed building next door to the Everett Theatre once held a Hudson car dealership, and its open floor plan shows evidence of that history. Having been the home to a wide range of businesses over the decades, it now features a sleek retail and exhibition space, a stage, and plenty of room to host visual and performing arts events.
For Caroline Zeitler, the center – known by the affectionate shorthand The Gibby – is a resource for the wider community.
“Ellen Combs, who was in the insurance business in the area, started a non-profit group in 1983 to save the Everett Theatre,” said Zeitler, who is the Hudson Contemporary Director at the arts center. “She knew the local artist Gilbert W. Perry. They worked very hard with a small group of artists, business people and members of the Perry family and together they built the concept for the art center. She was very ... motivated,” Zeitler said, crediting Combs with securing the initial funding for the operation.
The Associated Community Talents, Inc., purchased the Everett Theatre to restore it. That group evolved into The Everett, Inc., a nonprofit organization that operates both the Everett Theatre and The Gibby Center for the Arts.
The Gibby’s opening in 2006 was aided by the efforts of volunteers and some lucky finds. “Initially, this was all one big room,” Zeitler said. “Then we added the interior walls, so we could show more art. We found some second-hand shelves for storage, and got some critical funding for the gallery space.”
The welcoming shop area hosts a new exhibit every month that spotlights the talents of regional artists, many of them members of Guild By Association, a group of about 25 artists and artisans. There are 11 members of the Board of Directors, and everyone is a volunteer. The center is supported year to year by grants and fundraisers, and there are several events held in conjunction with downtown merchants.
“The space is very flexible,” Zeitler said. “It’s a good learning environment, because artists can come in and see different media and styles.”
Director Milton Downing has been involved with The Gibby for about seven years. He’s a teacher and artist as well. He’s especially proud of overseeing the center’s art classes, which are offered to anyone, ages 5 or older. “A lot of times, Caroline and I collaborate on things. Since I’m part of the school district, I try to bring students in, to increase awareness of the Gibby Art Center,” he said. “We’ve had several student exhibits. The big excitement for me this year is that our fall classes are full,” thanks to the center’s reputation and its stringent Covid-19 safety procedures. The open, airy space can be opened up for strict social distancing, and all safety protocols are being followed, Downing said.
“To me, this is one of the few opportunities in this area for people to get a total art experience,” he added. “They get to see art exhibits, to be creative in their own way, and to share theater and movies at the Everett Theatre.”
Zeitler is proud of how The Gibby fosters young talent. “Both here and at the Everett, we’ve seen students really grab ahold of their craft and succeed in their chosen fields,” she said. “There’s a local woman who started as a teenager at the theater, and is now a voice teacher. We have artists who go on to study art in college. There’s quite a number of them.”
“It’s a family,” Downing said. “We embrace the whole community, the community embraces us, and then we become a family. Everyone gets to know each other, and they want to participate. Even board members who leave stay in touch.”
The board oversees the many activities and exhibitions offered at The Gibby, “using a roundtable discussion of what would fit the community – what’s right for Middletown and what’s right for our organization,” Downing said.
Board member Jess Davis, a teacher at Appoquinimink High School, is working to bring students from the area’s three high schools to The Gibby to share space and foster creativity.
She is overseeing a co-effort with the Biggs Museum of Art and the Historical Society of Middletown that will spotlight local women who were part of the fight for women’s suffrage. “The students were able to come up with the show’s title, the thesis statement and the general themes,” she said. “Kids can create artwork about the specific women of Delaware who fought for the suffrage movement, about protesting in the U.S. and Britain, and about aspects of women’s empowerment.
“My AP Studio and Drawing and Painting II students are working on the project, doing a lot of research,” she added. “The opening night for the show is Nov. 14. Any artwork that doesn’t specifically relate to the theme in the show at the Biggs Museum will be shown here at the Gibby. The students will help organize the show. They’re learning about the whole process.”
That kind of cooperative experience fosters community involvement and generates excitement around The Gibby, Davis said. It also brings in families of students who might not otherwise have visited the center before.
“My goal is to bridge the gap between the arts in the school district and the arts in the town,” Davis said. “To build a sense of an art community. I’d like to invite art students from all three high schools – Middletown High School, Odessa High School and Appo High School -- to come here to hang out and create art together.”
As an arm of the Everett Theatre, The Gibby works closely with the creative people on the other side of its wall. The performance space in the art center has hosted cabarets, children’s musicals, dramatic readings, musicians and singers, and offers open space for set building at the theater. The Everett will present a live staging of the comedy “Clue,” using masked actors and strict social distancing for the audience, from Nov. 13 to 22. It’s a way to keep the theater vital during a challenging time.
Zeitler echoed the importance of community outreach, saying The Gibby is always looking for ways to open its doors to more visitors. “We’d like to have more visitors, we would like people to give us input about what they’d like to see,” Zeitler said. “Maintaining the buildings is always a challenge financially. And then we need volunteers – to teach, to help with the shop, or in organizing the classes. There are a lot of people in the community who aren’t professional artists, but who have great skills that we can rely on.”
Despite the upheaval dealt to every business by the Covid-19 pandemic, The Gibby is adjusting, adhering to guidelines and working to let people know that the arts are alive and well.
Downing added that, “We don’t want this to disappear. We are a treasure in Middletown. Not just the history, but continuing into the future. We’re trying to get more young people in, because they’re the future. Everybody can enjoy the arts.”
To mark the holiday season, The Gibby will host “Small Works, Perfect Gifts,” a show of art and crafts for gift-giving, from Nov. 12 to Jan. 1. The Gilbert W. Perry, Jr., Center for the Arts is at 51 W. Main St., Middletown. Regular hours are Thursdays and Fridays from noon to 5 p.m., and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 302-444-0332, visit www.thegibby.com, or email [email protected]