Ola Solanke was an insurance company executive when he arrived in Philadelphia in 1990. Soon after moving to the city, he noticed a void in the arts scene.
“There weren’t that many venues that were offering performance space,” Solanke says. “People were working out of basements and ill-equipped restaurants and coffeehouses.”
By the early 2000s, he began buying property in the Francisville section of Philadelphia, about halfway between City Hall and Temple University’s main campus. The once vibrant area had hit hard times, so Solanke got a lot of property on the cheap. He renovated an old horse stable on the 1500 block of Ridge Avenue and turned it into edgy performance space, The Arts Garage, which opened in 2006.
“We took the concept of The Arts Garage and raised a flag,” he says. “We engaged a lot of artists, promoters and producers that wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to do shows in professional-quality venues in the city.”
The 7,000 square foot venue with an underground vibe—largely because of the rather sketchy neighborhood—began hosting crazy parties with renowned DJs like Rich Medina, King Britt and Questlove. Live acts from around the world performed before appreciative audiences.
He spent more than $500,000 of his own money transforming the neighborhood, demolishing seven adjacent, crumbling properties and building the performance space as the centerpiece of the next wave.
Solanke has been recognized by numerous politicians as an example of how citizens can fight blight and take an active role in the revitalization of the city. The Nigerian native was even deemed an ambassador of the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, which was then-mayor John Street’s program to revitalize decaying areas.
Since The Arts Garage opened, however, many other venues have arrived on the scene. There are now multiple places to see and hear world music, and many places retain that air of secrecy that The Arts Garage once owned. Francisville has also evolved. There is new construction all around and more is coming.
Last year, Solanke considered selling the whole operation. Of course, any sale came with the condition that the new owners would continue his mission of providing a professional space for world talents as well as community space for locals.
“That was a tough one,” he says. “I was very concerned about turning it over to people who might run it down the drain.”
Rather than sell the venue, he’s rebuilding the business. The Arts Garage will continue as a high-quality home for musical talent but they’ll also present comedy, jazz and film nights. And rather than only serve finger foods and bottled beer, as they had been doing, the re-launched facility will feature a full menu and locally-produced craft beers on tap.
“We need to catch up with the direction that the neighborhood is going,” says Solanke, who recently completed Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses program through the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
Massive construction is underway at the club right now, including increasing the overall size, adding a new performance area, building a new kitchen and creating outdoor areas for dining and entertainment. The soft launch will occur in November. By next spring, all of the new elements will be in place.