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Daytime visitors to Coastal Delaware might look like any other beachgoers. They soak up the sun on the beach, relax or ride a few waves in the ocean or stroll down the adjacent boardwalks snacking on ice cream and sipping cold lemonade.

But by night, vacationers transition into treasure hunters, scouring dozens of art galleries and shops up and down the coast for unique souvenirs that could complement the big city homes they left behind.

“It’s kind of like a routine for people. You get up, go to the beach, go to dinner and then walk the streets looking for treasure,” said abstract expressionist Ward Ellinger, who owns Ward Ellinger Gallery in Rehoboth Beach.

“People don’t normally just hang anything on their walls. This is quite an art scene, where people are buying real art from real artists, not just posters.”

Rehoboth Art League Artistic Director Jay Pastore estimates there are about seven galleries in the downtown area, each with its own specialty. From handmade crafts to photography to contemporary paintings, treasure seekers have a wide range of art to investigate.

“They each have their own thing, which is really cool. Everyone has his own lens,” Pastore said. “With our location near Washington, D.C. and New York, we get a metropolitan population, and these types of galleries spawn out of that type of clientele.”

Coastal Delaware’s proximity to some of the most populated and high-end cities in the country attracts not only vacationers with an eye for art but the artists themselves, who draw inspiration from the joys of beach living.

“There are so many artists who have gravitated to the coast here. It’s amazing how many groups are thriving,” said Tara Funk-Grim, a partner at Gallery One in Bethany Beach. “I think it’s the draw of the water and the wide-open sky that stretches everywhere that is really settling for everybody.”

For jewelry artist Heidi Lowe, Delaware offered opportunities to thrive as a young artist that the larger cities did not. After years in New York City, the owner of Heidi Lowe Gallery in Rehoboth Beach moved back to the area where she grew up to open a gallery in a storefront her family owned.

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“I really wanted an avant-garde gallery, not just a jewelry store,” she explained. Rehoboth Beach “was appealing just for the fact that I could do it here. It allowed me to learn and grow slowly, and to learn about business. I wouldn’t have made it having to pay a New York City rent.”

Coastal towns, including Rehoboth Beach, Lewes and Bethany Beach, tend to attract smaller crowds than nearby Ocean City. But Lowe says many visitors to Coastal Delaware appreciate a sophisticated vacation spot that often includes art.

Visitors come in different groups, depending on the season. The towns hold several festivals in the fall that attract art lovers’ attention; vacationers come in the summer and steal away with unexpected treasures; and locals stock up on unique gifts around the winter holidays, Lowe said.

“There are a lot of markets to serve, and it’s great because it keeps the business growing and thriving,” she said. “They are coming from big cities, and they already know about art and are very savvy.

“We’re showing art that’s the same caliber they have seen around the world.”  

Visitors don’t just come to acquire art; many come to participate.

The Rehoboth Art League opened in 1938, and today it represents about 700 artists. Many of them show work in the group’s gallery, but others participate in the numerous educational experiences, including a variety of art classes and writing workshops, Pastore said.

“This whole environment is art,” he said. “It’s not a store; we’re an art center. We’re offering to teach art and take art out into the community.”

At Heidi Lowe Gallery, couples can take on more personalized art, designing and creating their own wedding rings. Artists can also participate in Lowe’s monthly “Art in the Yard” gathering, during which she opens space on her property for creating masterpieces.

“We have people from all generations interested in art here,” Lowe said. “It has really grown with all these groups of artists helping each other grow in the arts. There’s so much support.”

Funk-Grim marveled at the enthusiasm art lovers bring to the area that has made a vibrant art scene possible in such small, resort communities. At Gallery One in Bethany Beach, work from 14 partnering artists working in a variety of media is displayed on different themes each month.

“The people here just love to look at the local artists and get to know them,” she said. “They really do love to come in and see what we have every month, and the people enjoy seeing the diversity of styles we have to offer.”

Lowe and Pastore believe Coastal Delaware could even be experiencing a bit of a resurgence. The recent U.S. recession forced some galleries to close down during the past 10 years, but Lowe said she is seeing progress toward bringing back popular art events that died out during tougher economic times, including a possible art festival in the fall.

For artists and art lovers, the scene in Coastal Delaware appears to be ideal.

“I think it’s fantastic that more and more people are coming here all the time,” Ellinger said. “I think most of the shops in Rehoboth reflect a certain quality. It has a certain charm to it that people just love.”

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