by Sue Ann Rybak
Linda Slodki, president and co-founder of Mt. Airy Art Garage (MAAG), 11 West Mt. Airy Ave., told a multitude of members and residents on Aug. 20 that she was “stunned” when she realized MAAG had been given a non-renewable lease from its landlord Greg Bushu, who owns several properties in Mt. Airy, including FitLife gym.
Initially, Slodki and co-founder Arlene Olshan signed a five-year lease to build-out the dilapidated building.
A “before” photograph of MAAG sat on a table in the back of the room. It’s hard to imagine envisioning a bustling community center filled with brightly colored pieces of artwork after glancing at the “before” photograph of the building. The space was filled with rotted debris. It had wide-open trenches and bare, corroded pipes.
“By the time the lease will be over next year, we will have invested, including rent, over a quarter of a million dollars,” Slodki said.
Renovations to the building included putting in ADA-accessible bathrooms, artist studios, a gallery and a new glass front and doorway.
A while ago, they said they considered buying the property, and even had an appraisal of the property done last year, but Bushu’s selling price was almost double the appraised value. There was no way they could afford it.
Slodki added that all attempts to discuss the lease with Bushu have been unsuccessful.
“We have to this day not spoken to Greg Bushu about this lease,” she said. “At one point, he said to us ‘ you are being given 12 months notice to vacate the property.’”
She said after discussing it with the board, they decided they were not going to fight this decision.
“We don’t own the building, and at the end of the day there is nothing to fight,” Slodki said. “We’ve launched a search for a new home already.”
Susan Zipin, who has been a member of MAAG since its beginning, received deafening applause after she criticized Bushu for his decision to not renew their lease after one year.
“I am mad as hell and I am not gonna take it anymore,” she said.
Ziplin, who is a Philadelphia school teacher and a performance artist, called Bushu an “idiot for choosing money over supporting an organization that means so much to the community,” adding that “if you don’t have art, you don’t have a civilization.”
“Artists are the people you turn to instead of generals,” Zipin said. “Why am I here? I am here to tell you guys – to spur you on. To help anyway I possibly can.”
She said at a time when the Philadelphia School District is “obliterating art from schools” MAAG has worked tirelessly to connect children, seniors and other members of the community with art.
Dave Kutzik, of Mt. Airy, called the landlord’s decision “an assault on our community.”
“People brought their blood, sweat and tears to improvements, only to have it basically taken back by the landlord,” he said. “Until you have ownership and control of your space, you are at risk for this kind of behavior.”
He added that MAAG is more than just an arts center.
“This is an important anchor in our community,” he said. “This is what I think of when I tell people what my neighborhood is about.”
Tonyelle Cook-Artis, chief-of-staff for State Rep. Cherelle Parker, said Parker applauded Mt. Airy Art Garage’s work with Houston Elementary School and senior center HomeLink on its “Make Art, Grow Food” multi-generational project that included an exhibit, a new garden, and a mural on the outside of the building.
“You have been asset on this avenue,” Cook-Artis said. “Now, you are going onto bigger and better things.”
She added that “If you need us, we are only a phone call away.”
Larry West, a MAAG board member, asked the audience more than 100 people what they would like to see more of in the future.
Mike Zaikowski, a photographer and owner of Profiles Studio in Chestnut Hill, said one the things he believes MAAG should focus on moving forward is using art to promote social change.
Recent projects such as “My Son Matter!, The Gender Weave Project with Moore College and Make Art, Grow Food” used art to raise awareness and educate people about important issues.
Artist Mia Rosenthal also voiced her opinion about what she would like to have at MAAG’s new site. She said it’s easy to find pottery or painting classes for adults or children, but trying to find art classes to do together as a family is nearly impossible.
“It’s really hard to find a place where you can do arts with your daughter or son,” she said. “I am craving that kind of environment where you can have a family night – a place to celebrate the arts together.”
Niki Toizer, who recently started a photography club at MAAG, said she loves how welcoming the center is to “every art form there is” – painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, performance, dance and many more.
She said it’s usual for an art center to welcome all types of artists – not just visual arts.
“The Art Garage has been welcoming to every type of artist, and that is what I love the most about it,” she added.
Another MAAG founding member Donna Globus, who is an architect as well as a book artist and printmaker, said the community has put its “heart and soul” into this project. She added that the entire community has donated its “time, effort and money – and to have one person take it away is devastating.”
“I feel like we can do it again,” Globus said. “It was a lot of work, but now we know how [to do it]. Six years ago, we didn’t have this support.”
Slodki said this is not the end of Mt. Airy Art Garage.
“Shortly, we will be launching a campaign so we can raise money for programming and for hiring of paid staff,” she said. “With your help and commitment, together we can do this.”
For more information about visit mtairyartgarage.org or call 215-242-5074.
An earlier version of this article misspelled Larry West’s name. Updated on Aug. 26, 2015