The Arts Garage: Still Steady Rocking But Up For Sale.
Nestled on a swath of property between the expanding gentrification north of Center City and south of Temple University, rests an old garage on Ridge Avenue that has hosted a variety of entertainment acts, art expos and performances.
The Arts Garage is the result of one man’s colossal effort to bring something novel to the city of Philadelphia.
When Ola Solanke’s job as a corporate risk manager at Cigna, the health insurance company, moved him from Wall Street in New York City to Liberty II in Philadelphia in 1990, the self-described house head noticed a void in the arts community.
There seemingly was no venue that could serve various artistic groups under one roof and provide professional caliber equipment for each element to be able to shine. The fragmentation and lack of support that he saw not only hurt each individual segment, but the community as a whole. He began buying and selling properties, laying the groundwork to open the Arts Garage.
“I don’t see myself as a pioneer,” says Solanke, sitting at the bar, long before his 11 employees or any patrons arrive. “I saw a need and rolled up my sleeves to fulfill that need.”
But like any explorer who blazes a trail and plants a flag, they don’t simply remain there. There comes a time when it is necessary to move on.
When Solanke first purchased the building, trees grew inside and they reached out through the roof. The first order of business was the brick and mortar building. Next was the choosing of a PA system and building of the DJ booth. Solanke received assistance and encouragement from the DJ crew and production team Illvibe Collective.
While according to the building codes of the city, Solanke may have a right to open an entertainment venue in a neighborhood, that didn’t mean the city wanted him to. At the time, there was a push from the city government to develop the nightlife along the riverfront. Solanke ran into the brick wall known as the City of Philadelphia and it was a costly experience, in both time and money.
After what turned into a long, arduous and costly process, Solanke secured all the proper permits and licensing to fully operate a bar, nightclub and restaurant in 2006.
But even getting his liquor license turned out to be bittersweet. As a result of the mountain of court costs Solanke endured, the day he received the license, he realized he had no money to actually buy alcohol. He then went home where he found mail from credit card companies he had ignored for weeks, assuming they were bills. Upon opening them, he found three credit cards, each with $7,500 limits. And the Arts Garage’s bar was shortly thereafter open for business.
Solanke eventually understood that the resistance to the Arts Garage from the city wasn’t personal. It was just business as usual. There are no lingering hostilities. Just last month, the Arts Garage hosted two major events booked by the city. In a strange turn of events, Solanke has gone from writing checks to the city to cashing checks from them.
City politics aside, it is easier for Solanke to recount the success and partnerships he has built that have been helpful and positive for the Arts Garage.
Early on, the Arts Garage expanded the reach of the Fringe Festival to North Philly. Early on, those at the Fringe Fest were unsure of neighborhood because at the time, that section of Francisville was only at the beginning of its transitional period. It is a relationship that has been maintained through the years. Other organizations and artists soon began making use of the 7,000-square foot venue including Tommy Up, Rich Medina, DJ Statik, Bo Bliz and Emynd, Brendan Bring’ em, King Britt and Questlove.
“It’s been about how these relationships have added up, making the Arts Garage into what it is,” Solanke states.
Since opening the Arts Garage, Solanke counts at least three other venues with similar missions that have opened. It is not something that he feels threatened by.
“Competition is good for business,” he quickly reminds.
His original vision – to bring people together, to unite energy and to give artists an outlet for their creativity – has been realized, from film screenings and karaoke, to open mic nights and showcases, to art openings and poetry readings.
He’s transformed this area, and not just with the club. He has demolished seven properties in the neighborhood as part of a personal anti-blight initiative. Each summer, he sends 10 kids from the neighborhood to camp. This has been Ola Solanke’s pet project for more than a decade and he made it happen.
And now it is time to move on.
Solanke is currently looking to lease or sell the Arts Garage to the right owner. It’s just time for him to move on, he says. He is 10 years older then when he started the project. He has a family he wants to spend more time with. What is required to run a performance venue is more then he is looking to give. But he is not just looking to cut ties and run. After what he has given of himself to build the Arts Garage, he wants to make sure it ends up in the hands of the right person who will carry on the tradition
“What I have to offer someone who may be interested is opportunity,” Solanke explains. “The opportunity to take it to the next level. We have the capacity and license and permits to be able to do indoor and outdoor events. The venue can accommodate 500 to 1,200 people, indoor and out.”
The area has certainly undergone a change since the Arts Garage first opened. And with the recent proposal to turn the nearby Divine Lorraine hotel into 126 apartments, it certain does not look as if the neighborhood is going to atrophy to the condition it transcended from.
Until he finds a suitable buyer, Solanke’s plan is simple. It is a line he often interjects throughout conversations.
“We continue to rock steady,” he says.