Artist-friendly Wilmington–Michael Kalmbach helps it happen

You may not know or care about Michael Kalmbach–yet. But perhaps that’s only because you don’t live in Wilmington.

Kalmbach is practically a one-man band, beating the drum for keeping young artists in town and turning this close-by city once again into a place worth visiting for contemporary art. Thanks in part to him, young artists coming out of Delaware College for Art and Design (DCAD) and the University of Delaware have more reasons to stay in Wilmington after graduation, lured by the possibility of joining and exhibiting at the New Wilmington Art Association (NWAA), which Kalmbach founded, but also thanks to the just-opened low-cost artist residences, Shipley Lofts, a project in which Kalmbach has also had a hand.

Michael Kalbach at the Delaware College of Art and Design, aka DCAD. The arched window building afar is Shipley Lofts

Wilmington didn’t always need Kalmbach’s infusion of vision and energy. It used to be a place Roberta and I would visit on a regular basis. That was when the Delaware Museum of Art had an ambitious contemporary, regional biennial that invariably had provocative, ambitious work. At the same time, the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (DCCA) was growing and showing. But when the Delaware Art Museum pulled the plug on the biennial, the impetus to take that 35 minute car ride faded fast. One strong venue is not enough.

NWAA opened two years ago with a show in this vacant store front, with a pinata performance (the candy spilled out onto the street) and music.

Wilmington has a gem in Kalmbach and knows it. The city has given him support, making important business connections for him; his employer the Delaware College of Art and Design is behind his civic efforts and has revitalization of Wilmington as part of its mission. In October he was recognized with a 2009 Christi Award (from the Christina Cultural Arts Center) for his outstanding arts advocacy and community service.

All this has happened in the past two years, since Kalmbach graduated with an MFA from the University of Delaware.

I first became aware of Kalmbach a couple of years ago at the University of Delaware MFA exhibit at the Crane Arts Center here in Philadelphia. He has stayed in touch ever since, letting me know about NWAA shows, Shipley Lofts and everything else he has touched. He has the p.r. side of art down cold!


I visited Kalmbach earlier this month to learn more about him, NWAA, and Shipley Lofts.

nwaa current storefront
NWAA is a moveable feast, moving to whatever storefront or space it can utilize. Here’s the site for the members show I just saw and an upcoming UDel BFA show.

Kalmbach, bucking the trend most Wilmington-area young artists follow of earning a degree and get out of Dodge, decided to stay in Wilmington on graduation because  of a harmonic convergence of circumstances. He landed a job at DCAD (he’s assistant director of admissions) a week after his MFA show; his wife, Rebecca, already had a job there teaching French in Wilmington’s William Penn High School; and the couple had a newborn.  (Baby Thurman is named after the late great catcher for the New York Yankees, Thurman Munson. Michael’s middle name is also Thurman).

Installation shot of one of the gallery rooms for the juried members show in March.

He quickly discovered Wilmington was not an easy place to find studio space, however. But what Kalmbach did find was plenty of vacant properties near DCAD, most of them owned by the same developer, who during this economic downturn was just sitting on them.

longsdorf drain
Ronald Longsdorf, Drain, 2010. The projection onto the floor reflects Longsdorf’s interest in photography as illusion. This is one of the works in the March exhibit.

While an MFA student the University of Delaware, Kalmbach had organized several exhibits in Brooklyn with his fellow students, renting space at the Brooklyn Artists Gym. So Kalmbach figured he knew about renting space. But how to access what space there was in Wilmington? Help from the power structure. “It takes a month to meet everyone you need to know in Wilmington,” he said to explain the leap from just being an artist with a need, to being an artist meeting the needs of other artists. That first post-MFA summer at a Greek festival he met a man from the Department of Economic Development, whom Kalmbach quoted as saying, “Every year I go to work we try to figure out what would keep guys like you here in Wilmington.”

This markers on paper work is by Stuart W. Durrell, who works security at DCAD.

Kalmbach’s snappy answer was, “I’m stranded here.” But his follow-up answer was, cheap space. Most of the space on Market street near DCAD was owned by a single developer, the Buccini/Pollin Group. The city’s Economic Development guy helped make the connection for Kalmbach, and Buccini/Pollin agreed to let him use some of their space. Buccini/Pollin’s requirements were, space “as is” and liability insurance. NWAA pays the insurance and has been organizing shows in the empty spaces for two years now.

Catherine Maloney, The Peekers (sorry about the reflections, boys and girls; I couldn’t find a decent angle).

NWAA is a members organization, with 100 members who each pay $120/year. Kalmbach, the organization’s director, seeks sponsors from area businesses for artists who can’t afford the fee. And the influx into Wilmington from UDel and DCCA provide a fresh influx of members who take the place of those who move on. Kalmbach has enticed his network of friends from Virginia Commonwealth University to join the organization. “Everyone brings in their network.” NWAA has been inserting some out-of-state artists into the shows, but they have to pay their own exhibition costs. On the day I was in Wilmington, a member group exhibit was occupying one of the store fronts and space behind.

Nancy Breslin, Amenities in Manhattan, ultrachrome print on Hahnemuhle photo rag.

Kalmbach and I walked over to see the show, and typical of Kalmbach, he shared the limelight–I got there and found his fellow NWAA traveler, artist Ron Longsdorf. They told me about other shows in their lineup–Opening April 9 is a juried show of University of Delaware BFAs and also an exhibiton of UDel MFA candidates. “There’s a University of Delaware NWAA partnership,” said Longsdorf, who is NWAA’s curator and exhibitions coordinator. “We got some support from the University of Delaware. They paid the MFAs’ dues.” NWAA produces a show a month, and has been doing so since August 2008. Longsdorf, like Kalmbach, is a University of Delaware MFA, and he too had a reason to hang out in Wilmington after his graduation: He has a job with DCCA as their security jefe.

The NWAA exhibit was worth a look, with some really interesting work, including a great photo by  Catherine Maloney (she’s a Yale MFA who’s slumming in Wilmington with her boyfriend who’s in a local band) and a projection from Longsdorf himself.

Shipley Lofts interior
Shipley Lofts interior, with Kalmbach giving me the tour.

Kalmbach’s other big civic commitment is Shipley Lofts, now accepting applications. The lofts are another downtown revitallization, 23 artists residences, 18 of them subsidized at $600 to $650/month for low-income applicants. Five of the apartments are at market rate. Kalmbach is on the board of the Shipley Village Community Development Corporation, the developer of Shipley Lofts. He said he is bringing an artist’s perspective to the board, “speaking a different language than the developers. I am trying to create better living conditions for artists.”

shipley lofts interior
Open plan used in Shipley Lofts apartments for artists in Wilmington

The housing, which the SVCDC leased for 99 years, was built with the help of historic tax credits.  Kalmbach took me on a tour. The open-plan apartments are mostly one bedroom area, and have wonderful light and windows. A few have an additional, enclosed bedroom.

Kalmbach has some long-term ideas of how he can bring art exhibitions into the loft building at some time in the future. Not that he doesn’t already have an exhibit percolating. That UDel MFA exhibit will be in the building. “As long as they are not asking for anything, however we will be showing at Buccini/Pollin’s spaces.” That is spaces in the plural. NWAA is roving, moving from property to property to mount its shows. “Right now we are all frustrated missionaries. The University of Delaware is giving us a new crop of artists each year, and we are trying to give them a reason to stick around.”

Kalmbach is interested in the relationship between paint and glitzy materials like fabric and wrappings.

Kalmbach’s personal reason to stick around was the baby and benefits. “If there wasn’t a baby, of course, I would have wanted to move to Philadelphia. But Wilmington can provide a great start for people.” For example, NWAA members recently had a great showing in the Delaware Division of the Arts grants winning five of the eight visual arts grants, including one to Kalmbach for painting.

Many of the DCAD kids won’t be sticking around because DCAD was created as a feeder school for 4-year programs at the Corcoran and Pratt, which offer automatic admission to students who qualify with a 2.0 GPA. “The moment there’s an opportunity, we will lose our talent. So instead, we are thinking about how they can take with them [all that we are learning about organizing a group]. I don’t think you could be a mid-career artist in Wilmington. There are too few tenure-track positions.” But then he looks on the bright side. “You hope you can create a generation of artists who can make these walls work for them.”

Another post on more stuff going on in Wilmington to follow.