Purple clouds blanketed the afternoon sky over Dewey Beach, but that didn’t stop Leah Beach from climbing three flights of stairs to her deck. And it was easy to see why. The deck boasts a sweeping view of the grassy dunes and the ocean beyond.
Fresh from a massage appointment, Beach curled her feet under her and cradled a mug trailing a tea bag string. It was a reflective pose, but then again, Beach has been in a retrospective mode. At 32 years old, she has been the face of the Developing Artist Collaboration (DAC) since its official founding in 2018.
It’s a lot to shoulder for someone with no prior nonprofit experience. Nevertheless, the organization has experienced meteoric growth. It now has a headquarters in West Rehoboth and artist studios on the Forgotten Mile. The open-air West Side Creative Market, complete with live entertainment, is a social hub. But perhaps most importantly, DAC launched career development programs for artists.
“Leah Beach has brought a surge of energy to the emerging artist community in the area,” says jewelry artist Heidi Lowe, the current president of DAC’s board. “Between DAC’s artist development program and providing consistent, affordable opportunities for artists to sell their work, the organization has become invaluable.”
Former board member Kyle Ten Eyck agreed. Beach is a “pretty incredible force down here,” says the photographer and restaurateur. “She had it in her head: ‘How can we give artists the tools to succeed?’ And she’s done an incredible job of it.”
But the past few years have been a roller-coaster ride for Beach, and now it’s time for the artist and the organization she founded to write the next chapter.
“2023 Leah is dealing with decisions that 2021 and 2022 Leah made. She was a very impulsive, passionate girl — I love her to death.”
Beach is a blend of self-sufficiency and vulnerability —a free spirit with a people-pleasing streak. These traits were likely cultivated during childhood. The Dover native was 3 when her parents divorced. Her mother stayed in Delaware; her father moved to Alabama. “I love my parents but definitely clashed with them a lot growing up,” she confides.
At 13, she moved in with her father and stepmother but spent summers at Windswept Stables in Delaware, the horse farm owned by her aunt, Dawn Beach — “a force of nature,” she says.
You could say the same about her niece. As a teen, Beach told her dad she was staying with friends but took off to Nashville and Tupelo. Once he punished her by taking her phone. So, she got a job and purchased a new one. “I just always had the mentality of, like, I will take care of myself and not rely on anyone else,” she says.
Beach discovered photography at her arts-centric high school, and after graduation, she drove to Wilmington to intern with a famous photographer. Unfortunately, he was as verbally abusive as he was successful. When the internship ended, she enrolled full time at Delaware College of Art & Design and worked at Ruby Tuesday to pay her tuition.
Behind the Lens
A photograph of Beach’s great-grandmother launched her Global Dementia Project, which showcases people worldwide with the disease. To capture subjects in developing countries, she bought a one-way ticket to Kenya and volunteered with service organizations.
She’s also photographed patients in South Africa, India and Guatemala, and her work led to public speaking engagements. The project was part of an exhibition at the World Health Assembly and landed Beach a Delaware Division of the Arts grant.
Beach realized that art could change a viewer’s perception. For instance, when her series on Blue Moon drag queens opened at CAMP Rehoboth, a puzzled child asked a subject why a man was dressed like a woman. “Honey, have you seen a circus clown?” the drag queen asked the child, who nodded. “Well, that’s what I am — except I’m a lot more fabulous.” Perhaps that dialogue would influence the girl’s opinion on diversity, Beach muses.
An Outlet for Artists
Beach, a self-taught artist, began creating chalkboard menus and murals for coastal restaurants. She also painted canvases, but finding a place to sell them was difficult. Filmmaker Robert Waters could relate. Many artists can’t afford fair entrance fees, and galleries look for established names. “Leah showed up and gave artists a place to show their art and be better artists,” Waters says.
Beach started in 2015 with Sip & Shop, a holiday event with more than 40 artists. Two years later came DAC, which became official in 2018. The nonprofit is not another art league. “Our focus has always been on the artist first,” says Patrick Gallagher, DAC’s marketing director, who also owns a marketing business. “We aren’t a gallery-based organization. We’re really focused on artists interested in turning their passion into a sustainable career that meets their needs.”
Beach led the effort to secure the headquarters in West Rehoboth. Popular activities included DIY workshops, which skidded to a stop with the Covid outbreak. “A lot of people would have put the brakes on,” Beach acknowledges. Instead, she donned a mask and gloves and bought supplies for DIY at-home kits, which DAC eventually sold online. Meanwhile, the group held popups outdoors, including in Egg’s parking lot.
The kits made money, and in 2021, DAC also received a $158,350 Longwood Foundation grant to “grow and strengthen” the organization and develop artists.
The Next Step
What was casual and fun in 2018 is now a nonprofit responsible for managing and spending significant dollars. By 2022, Beach was burned out. “We grew so fast, so quickly, and I thought I had it handled,” she says. “I have always felt a lot of pressure to perform at a very high level to overcome my ‘shortcomings’ — AKA not having a background in the nonprofit sector or experience as a leader.”
She didn’t want to burden others by asking for help. Not even her closest friends knew she was struggling with the load. “Now 2023 Leah is dealing with decisions that 2021 and 2022 Leah made,” Beach says. “She was a very impulsive, passionate girl — I love her to death.” But putting DAC first took a toll on her spirit and back — she regularly lifted heavy items at events.
In December 2022, she stepped down from the executive director position, and Gina DePaul took over. DePaul is no stranger to DAC; she oversaw the West Side Creative Market, weekly outdoor arts events held on Mondays and Fridays during the summer. Previously, she was a project manager for the construction of Capital One Hall in Tyson, Virginia.
Together, the duo and board are building a firm foundation for DAC to help artists everywhere. “We’ve seen the impact we have here and truly believe that it’s something that can benefit all artists — in Delaware and outside of Delaware,” DePaul says. Program accessibility is a major focus. The DAC Hub, for instance, is an accessible online resource offering courses and networking. However, in-person events, including artist workshops open to the public, are still essential.
While Beach plans to stay involved with DAC, she is also pursuing Creative Connections, which she started with roommate Sophia Sawicki. A combination of meditation and music helps participants tap into their inner artist, explains Beach, who’s led workshops for the state of Delaware employees and SoDel Concepts’ leadership team.
Beach also wants to talk about art at public-speaking engagements. “I live every day for this purpose inside of me,” she says. “That’s why I got on a plane and went to Kenya. It’s the same reason I’ve done all these crazy things. I truly believe my purpose is to show the world what artists can do.”
Leah’s Local Favs
- Beach Saulsbury St. in Dewey -— where I live! 😉
- Restaurant Confucious.
- Shop Bella Luna.
- Brunch spot Egg. I painted the chicken mural.
- Coffee Rise Up.
- Trail Breakwater Trail, it runs right through West Rehoboth.
- Dessert Fifer’s apple cider donut.
- Happy hour Rehoboth Ale House.
- Beach activity Making time to actually go to the beach.
- Ice cream spot The Ice Cream Store.
- Live music scene West Side Creative Market.
- Beach read I love audiobooks on personal and professional growth. I love laughing along with the boys on ‘Oops the Podcast’.
Editor’s Note The Developing Artist Collaboration needs the help of the community to continue to support the arts. For more information on donating or to sponsor a booth at the West Side Creative Market, go to developingarts.org.