By Grant Moser
What started out as just a dream finally came to fruition as the Mt. Airy Art Garage opened for its first show on April 27 this year and dedicated its Solomon Levy Gallery of Art. Fittingly, it featured photos by the late Sol Levy, the organization’s founding board member, inspiration and the person who found the building on 11 West Mt. Airy Ave.
The interior of the building is a soaring space with wide-open warehouse-height ceilings supported by wooden beams and brick walls. The Levy Gallery is situated at the entrance; six artist studios line the left wall, and the back features a huge performance space. But this completed space is the result of years of work.
Five years ago, Mt. Airy resident Arleen Olshan was retiring from her work as an addictions counselor for Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. She was also a painter, photographer and leather crafter. She began to look around Mt. Airy for a space to work and meet other artists.
“My dream was to have a studio in the community that also had a gallery and performance space,” Olshan explained. “I couldn’t find that, so I figured somebody was going to have to create it.”
She drafted her partner, Linda Slodki, to the cause. “I was at a crossroads in my communications career in corporate healthcare,” said Slodki. “It was very unsatisfying to me, and she asked for help, and I said OK because I believe in her.” (When asked their ages, the partners answered that they are “mature and seasoned professionals.”)
The two advertised the idea around Mt. Airy to gauge interest and scheduled meetings at the administrative offices of Weavers Way for those interested. Over the course of four meetings, hundreds of artists turned up to voice support for the idea. Then Weavers Way let them use their garage [which is where their present name comes from] on Carpenter Lane to open a December art market in 2009, which was a success.
The two partners were even more determined to make this work, and they started a board of directors. It was in September, 2010, when Levy found the current space, though it looked much different then. “It was unusable,” said Olshan. “There were trenches dug in the floor, no water and no electricity. No one had occupied the building for 22 years.”
They don’t even know what the building used to house. “We think it was an ambulance company shortly, maybe even a stable at some point. When you’re a nonprofit, you’re not supposed to get a big space like this; you’re supposed to start small, but we’re just a crazy bunch of dreamers,” said Slodki.
Once they found the space, work began, though it wasn’t glamorous. City permits, architectural drawings, sealing holes, digging up the floor and lots of money spent still resulted in a big empty space a year later. So they held community meetings, drafted neighbor provisos and became part of the block association. Still, things were tenuous.
Andy Walker, a Philadelphia artist and member of the Garage, remembers working on the space in the summer of 2011. “I was painting the doors alone, and the place wasn’t fixed up, and I was thinking ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ But by the end of the summer, there were lots of people helping, and you could feel the buzz on the street.”
However, without running water and a bathroom, they could only have limited activities. It wasn’t until tey got those two things working in 2012 that they knew they were going to break through. “When we did that, it changed everything,” said Olshan.
Since its opening, the Garage has held monthly artist salons, quilting bees and jazz jams. They have 175 members. They have rented five of the six artist studios. They are arranging for art classes that the community can sign up for, and they are planning a holiday arts market for the weekends of Dec. 15 and 22.
The Garage has also become the Northwest’s community painting center for the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. They have held four gallery shows and have partnered with the Mt. Airy Business Improvement District to decorate 15 rain barrels from the city’s Water Department. They just received their first city grant to work with local Northwest schools this spring to create more rain barrels that will return with the students to their schools in an effort to teach about sustainability as well as promote the arts.
They have ongoing outreach to Northwest schools inviting students to come see their installations and arts. “Children have creativity that has no boundaries,” said Slodki. “You want to teach them what’s possible before they become disillusioned by what everyone else says they’re supposed to do.”
For the beginning of 2013, the Garage is planning a Black History Month show and a show revolving around International Women’s Day. They hope to focus on exhibits that talk about the quality of life in Mt. Airy and the world, specifically the idea of sustainability.
“We want to be a center for creativity in the arts. It’s a different concept than just a gallery,” said Slodki. “We want to be a resource that has citywide reach but with a Northwest focus.”
For more information about Mt. Airy Art Garage and their calendar, visit www.mtairyartgarage.org.