Mt. Airy arts hub in search of a new home after ‘punch to the gut’ news

 Mt. Airy Art Garage cofounders Arleen Olshan and Linda Slodki. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)

Mt. Airy Art Garage cofounders Arleen Olshan and Linda Slodki. (Alaina Mabaso/for NewsWorks)

A little less than a year ago, Mt. Airy Art Garage co-founders Linda Slodki and Arleen Olshan were gearing up for a fifth anniversary party. A month ago, Slodki took a close look at their new lease, effective on August 31, and got what she called “a punch to the gut.”

The arts and culture hub is going to have to vacate its extensively renovated space near the corner of West Mt. Airy and Germantown avenues.

MAAG doesn’t own the space that it’s been working on for the last few years. Greg Bushu, who owns multiple nearby properties, including Mt. Airy’s FitLife gym, owns the building at 11 W. Mt. Airy Avenue, and Slodki, MAAG’s president, along with Olshan, signed an initial five-year lease for the build-out of the space. That lease expires this month.

No renewals

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“We were told that we were going to have a one-year lease, and we were fine with that,” Slodki said of their plans to renew yearly going forward. But when she looked carefully at the new lease, she said she got a big surprise.

“We noticed that the lease said it was non-renewable,” she said. This was a big change from their former lease, and throws the six-year-old nonprofit’s future into uncertainty.

“We still don’t know why he’s not renewing the lease,” Slodki said of her efforts to speak with Bushu about the change in language. She said he grew angry over the phone and refused to meet with them to discuss the matter.

When reached for comment by NewsWorks, Bushu hung up the phone.  

A $250,000 investment

“You couldn’t have better tenants than us,” said Slodki. She said the duo paid the rent on time, and invested close to a quarter-million dollars in the space they thought would be their home for years to come. They looked into buying the building for themselves, and in fact had an appraisal of the property done last year, but Slodki said Bushu’s asking price was nearly double the appraised value, leaving MAAG with no chance of making the mortgage.

Over the last few years, MAAG’s improvements to the building turned it from a vacant, chilly warehouse without plumbing to a vibrant modern space, with ADA-accessible bathrooms, resident artist studios, a gift shop featuring local artisans’ work, a welcoming new glass front and doorway, and gallery space.

Programming has grown beyond art shows to include “quiltapaloozas,” poetry slams, rain barrels, and photography, drawing and writing clubs. Most recently, MAAG launched its “Make Art, Grow Food” multi-generational project in partnership with nearby Houston elementary school and senior center Homelink. The initiative involves an exhibition, a new garden and the installation of a mural in the space MAAG shares with Homelink behind the building.

‘Why should we give up?’

Slodki said she’s seen an outpouring of questions and support since community members got the news that MAAG will have to find a new home by next August. Representatives from many local community organizations, including Mt. Airy USA, were among the first to reach out once the news become public on MAAG’s site.

Slodki said it’s defintiely not the end of MAAG. 

“If this place is as important to you as you all say it is, why would we give up?” she said of a “multi-faceted” campaign they’re launching immediately to find their new home. That means going back to the community roots that made MAAG possible. Already, many new financial commitments and donations have been made since the news broke. The nonprofit has had several new members sign up, too. 

Next steps

“Our biggest challenge as a board was to sit down and say what are we doing next?” Slodki said. They are not fighting the new terms of the lease, since the building owner has the right to make such decisions. A search committee for a new home is next on the agenda, as well as expanding the board.

“We’re open to any possibilities,” Slodki said of what the future home of MAAG could look like. Concerned locals can hear the latest and learn more about how to help at a community meeting at MAAG on Thursday at 7 p.m. 

“We really can’t dwell on the past. We have to look to the future.”

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