Mt. Airy Art Garage grapples with loss of space after $250K in renovations

 Arleen Olshan addresses the crowd at MAAG on Thursday night. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)

Arleen Olshan addresses the crowd at MAAG on Thursday night. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)

A stormy evening didn’t deter a crowd of about 50 concerned locals who gathered at Mt. Airy Art Garage on Thursday night for a community meeting to discuss the nonprofit’s big news: it will have to vacate the building by next summer after putting in nearly $250,000 in renovations and updates.

MAAG co-founder and president Linda Slodki said property owner Greg Bushu still won’t speak to or meet with the nonprofit about why he is doesn’t want to renew their lease. Their rent for the upcoming year, she also noted, has been raised by 20 percent.

“We have no idea why this happened,” MAAG explained in a statement to meeting attendees. “We have done nothing to precipitate the loss of this lease. We are financially solvent, we have paid our rent on time, every month.”

‘A neighborhood kind of viral’

“The news of the Mt. Airy Art Garage went viral in the neighborhood kind of way, not the YouTube way,” said Slodki in her welcome to the group. She and co-founder Arleen Olshan, as well as the organization’s five current board members, “have been deeply touched” by the many offers of support they’ve received since the news broke earlier this month.

She said they immediately received calls from supporters like the Philadelphia Cultural Fund and Mt. Airy USA.

Mt. Airy USA executive director Brad Copeland was among those in the audience.

That group’s initial reaction to the news wasn’t the shock that many in the neighborhood have expressed, he said.

“Our reaction was more, they need some support — how can we help them to go through this transition?” he said. Copeland said the neighborhood development group may be able to lend a hand with its real estate expertise and network.

“It’s very Mt. Airy-like,” Copeland added of how many people have offered help or ideas in the wake of the news.

‘Nothing’s off the table’

The meeting included an overview of MAAG’s six-year history, including its beginnings in the garage across from Weavers Way, the finding and two-year build-out of its current space, and nods to the wide range of programming that has taken place just in the past year.

Questions included whether MAAG will look to rent or buy a new space, and whether the group will stay in Northwest Philadelphia, or find another home base.

“Nothing’s off the table at this point,” Slodki answered, though she emphasized that MAAG’s goal was to stay in the Germantown, Mt. Airy, or Chestnut Hill neighborhoods.

Any hope of redress?

Several of those who spoke up expressed anger at the building owner’s decision to terminate the lease, and wondered if MAAG leaders have any plans to fight back.

Attendee Dave Kutzik also spoke up, calling the termination of MAAG’s lease after their extensive build-out of the long-neglected space “exploitation” and “an assault on our community.”

He said he worries the building owner will force MAAG out of the space, only to let it sit empty when it could be a major social and economic anchor for the whole Mt. Airy business corridor.

“This is what I think about when I tell people what my neighborhood is about,” he said of organizations like MAAG.

“We’re not looking to pursue with [Bushu],” said Slodki, since it is within his rights to terminate their lease. “If we’re not wanted, we will go.”

Some wanted to know why MAAG had invested so much money into the space without ensuring their future there.

“I can’t tell you how many different ways we tried it,” said former MAAG board member and architect Donna Globus of attempts to secure ownership of the space.

Eyes on the future

Slodki took a positive tone. 

“This coming year is going to be one hell of a year…We are going to turn it out like never before,” she said of events planned through the next 12 months. She ended the meeting with an appeal for expert help on real estate, fundraising, and marketing committees, and general volunteers as well as an expansion of the board.

Another community meeting at MAAG is planned for Sunday, Aug. 30 at 2 p.m.

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