The New Wilmington Art Association brings exhibits to vacant buildings in Wilmington, but director Michael Kalmbach said the effort is about more than art -- it's about bringing life downtown.

Can art breathe life into downtown Wilmington?

Michael Kalmbach thinks so. He founded the New Wilmington Art Association last year to help local artists show their work and he’s hoping it gives birth to a vibrant, downtown artist community.

The NWAA began as a solution to a problem the Newark resident faced after he graduated from the University of Delaware and took a job at the Delaware College of Art and Design – he couldn’t find any affordable studio space downtown.

From an artist’s point of view, Wilmington is seriously lacking any kind of a commercial gallery system, he said, and if a gallery owner isn't breaking down your door, you have to create your own space.

Glancing up and down Market Street, it’s easy to see that vacant space is something Wilmington has in spades.

So Kalmbach began working with the Buccini-Pollin Group, a developer that owns acres of under-used downtown footage, to open the buildings for art exhibits.

The developer would welcome the exhibits on one condition – the artists needed an insurance policy. So, 30 artists came together, chipped in for insurance, and the NWAA was born last August.

All For One

Photographs, 1977-2009

By Peter Capano

The collection of 50 gelatin-silver print photographs offer a visual document of a volatile period of Philadelphia history and the struggles of an urban adolescent.

Opening reception Sept. 4, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Closing reception Sept. 17, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Since then, they’ve held a downtown show every month and are expanding to twice a month.

There are challenges to exhibiting in vacant space, he said. The makeshift galleries could be leased out from under them at any moment, so the NWAA can’t plan shows more than two months in advance, he said.

The exhibits help artists get exposure to each other's work, he said, and that lets everyone feed off the creative energy the art creates.

But the artists bring more than exhibits to the buildings they temporarily inhabit, said Wilmington resident Ron Longsdorf, who coordinates the downtown shows -- they clean up the rooms and cover the blank walls with a fresh, white finish.

The group’s newest exhibit is a collection of black and white photographs by Philadelphia artist Peter Capano hung in an empty storefront at 5th and Market streets.

Stepping into the building is like walking into an unfinished gallery, with impeccably hung black and white prints over a floor of exposed wood and a ceiling that has yet to be painted.

The building makes a good gallery, Longsdorf said. It's almost too bad that it will likely be rented out as an office -- a place that shuts down at close-of-business so its employees can rush home, leaving a nearly empty downtown in their wake.

But bringing more artists downtown is a serious economic challenge, Kalmbach said. While many Market Street buildings are being renovated and rented, the space is just as expensive as in Philadelphia, he said.

And many part-time artists are having a tough time pursuing their craft at all because they are getting laid off from their day jobs, he said. Paying two rents – one for a studio and one for an apartment – is hard enough with steady income, he said.

Eventually, the NWAA plans to offer a shared downtown workspace for its artists, he said, giving them a dedicated space to be creative.

Kalmbach likes the idea, because the empty buildings around Market Street are almost like blank canvasses and letting artists play a hand in their revitalization will only make downtown Wilmington stronger, he said.

“The clay is so wet downtown we can make anything we want out of it,” he said. “Artists will change the landscape.”