This September marks five years since Mt. Airy Art Garage cofounders Linda Slodki and Arleen Olshan held a series of meetings through Weavers Way Co-op to gauge locals’ interest in their idea.
“Everybody said, ‘are you out of your mind?'” Slodki remembers of people’s reaction to the notion of starting a new nonprofit community art center in the middle of a recession.
Those Sept. 2009 meetings are where Slodki and Olshan first met Chestnut Hill native and photographer Solomon Levy, who became an ardent MAAG supporter, a founding board member and MAAG vice president until he passed away in 2011.
“‘I met these two women that have this really crazy vision and I think they’re going to do it. I’m in,'” Slodki said Levy commented after attending one of those first meetings.
“It’s a testament to community strength,” Olshan said of how the group has endured and expanded since then, taking over the old warehouse just south of the corner of West Mt. Airy and Germantown avenues, before there was heat or even plumbing in the building.
MAAG doings actually pre-date the opening of the space itself. Slodki said their first official event was a pop-up arts market in the Weavers Way garage in Dec. 2009.
It’s been a big year for Olshan and Slodki, who recently had their one-year wedding anniversary after 16 years together.
And it’s been a little over two years since another major milestone for the couple: the spring 2012 launch of the space’s main gallery, dedicated to Levy.
Changing ‘no’ to ‘yes’
Slodki and Olshan sat down with NewsWorks in August to share what’s changed for the group since 2009, and what’s next for MAAG now that it’s about to celebrate five years.
2012 saw a major fundraising push that helped to complete the final renovations on the building, including rented studio space, a gift shop full of work from local artisans, and a new glass entrance made possible by a City of Philadelphia storefront improvement grant via Mt. Airy USA.
The latest major upgrade, finished this summer, is a new sound system, which will help MAAG hold more musical events and increase the venue’s appeal as a rental facility for a wide range of uses, from weddings to community meetings.
“Things we said no to five years or four years ago, we’re saying yes to today,” Slodki says of building MAAG’s visibility as a community space, beyond its art-centered mission, and growing revenue through rentals.
MAAG’s ‘market change’
Slodki continued that there has been a real “market change” in the kind of people who come in the door. They used to come in to ask what was going on in the space; now they come in because someone told them about MAAG, and they had to see it for themselves.
The space’s gallery exhibitions are already booked through next summer, and the founders said 2015 will bring highlights like an International Women’s Day textile arts collaboration with Moore College of Design, as well as a spring show at City Hall for MAAG artists.
They hope that exposure will continue to build momentum for the area as an arts destination.
Slodki noted that after Center City, the Northwest neighborhoods have the second-largest concentration of arts and culture consumers in Philadelphia, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at events like this year’s Fringe Festival, which offers just eight shows in the Northwest but over 30 in Center City.
Staying in the black
So how has MAAG flourished in difficult economic times?
“We’re in the black but not a lot in the black,” Slodki says, acknowledging that the group’s model of focusing on renovations, programming and events while relying so far on all-volunteer labor makes that possible.
Their dream is to own the building itself and have a salaried staff, which will take concerted efforts in development, marketing, and programming growth.
In the shorter term, they want to transition from their umbrella as a “service group” of Mt. Airy Community Services Corporation into a “stand-alone nonprofit.”
But they both said that the foundation of their success so far is simple: “passion.”
Olshan added that it’s about consistency, too: “You do what you say you’re going to do, you’re there when you say you’re going to be there.”
Also key is a personally welcoming vibe for everyone who comes in the door.
For now, it’s all eyes on MAAG’s biggest event yet: the 5th Anniversary Bash, coming up on Sept. 20 at 6 p.m. The party will feature musicians from the Dukes of Destiny and an arts-focused silent auction fundraiser.
Patrons will be able to bid on a wide range of experiences, with organizations like Piffaro Renaissance Band, Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia Theatre Company and many more donating tickets or memberships, alongside giftcards for restaurants and services like web design classes, framing and portraits.