Global Conversations With: Jane Golden, Director of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program

Jacob Colon and Zabeth Teelucksingh, for GPA -- Jane Golden began creating murals with Philadelphia’s youth in 1984, when Mayor Wilson Goode chose her to run the city’s Anti-Graffiti Network. The Mural Arts Program started as a component of this initiative and in 1996 Mayor Ed Rendell made the Mural Arts Program an official city government agency, with Golden as its director. Since its inception, Mural Arts has produced over 3,600 murals, earning Philadelphia the popular title “City of Murals.” Global Philadelphia’s Executive Director Zabeth Teelucksingh sat down with Mural Arts Director Jane Golden to speak about how she got to where she is today and what Mural Arts’ plans are in the future.

The Mural Arts program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this fall. How did you come to be where you are today and what does this anniversary mean to you?

I double-majored at Stanford University in political science and fine art, as a painter. When I moved to Los Angeles for a job in a studio, I felt disconnected from the world and the arts. I drove through L.A. and saw its murals, which inspired me to apply for a grant to do murals there, with kids on probation for several years. Soon after, I got lupus and I came back east to my family. When I recovered, I didn’t want to go back to the West Coast.

I got hired in 1984 to run the Anti-Graffiti Network created by Mayor Wilson Goode to reduce graffiti by involving children in producing murals. Goode used non-traditional intervention when other cities were just painting graffiti out. He worked with kids who were writing [graffiti] and included them in graffiti eradication. During the program, a young person would come in and pledge to never write on walls ever again - which probably wasn’t true, but we had to go with it. Then was scrub time, and then they came to me if they wanted to paint murals. We also held programs after school, at recreation centers, churches and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Art became a lifeline for the children, pulled them out of the whirlpool of drugs and crime. And there’s a lot of unrecognized talent out there. Much of what happens in our world depends on opportunities that come our way. I see our program as being about access, equity and justice. My philosophy from the start was to offer kids every opportunity and option possible, to run the program with rigor and love. Anything less was irresponsible. It’s an incredible challenge because there is no blueprint for such a program - it’s like flying blind. I only had a bachelor’s degree at the time, and no degrees in urban planning or sociology or education. But I had extraordinary access as a white person from New Jersey and California, which I’ve never taken for granted. In Philly, because of the mayor, my former boss, Tim Spencer [late director of the Anti-Graffiti Network] and the kids I worked with, I had access to every neighborhood in city. I also thank block captains and community leaders - who are often unrecognized - for their amazing work.

The Anti-Graffiti Network was like getting three graduate degrees in politics, urban planning and working the city government to create social change on the ground. There’s no handbook for that.

The young people and I began to deliver art as a city service. We’re the only other visible city employees besides the police. I knew that if this was to be a success, there could only be working with people, not for them. We always ask people, “What do you want?” and there was a lot of power to that which went far beyond the imagery. The first murals we did were often pastoral. People asked me, “Why all of these country pastoral images?” Because the community wanted it. We talked about what could surround the mural and what the block would look like. Why should someone who doesn’t live on that block decide what goes there? It must be a respectful discourse if it is to work.

For a few years, graffiti stopped on anti-graffiti walls. Young people spread the word not to touch murals because of their sense of ownership. The late ‘80s and ‘90s murals were about struggle, triumphs, aspirations, dreams, giving people a voice and representing them with dignity. Diego Rivera’s murals consistently represent people as heroes, large and dramatic figures. So it was very exciting to feel like part of that movement.

Mayor Ed Rendell agreed to transfer me to work under Department of Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis in 1997, so I became the director of Mural Arts. I finally felt then like we were a professional art program. I opened the doors and started hiring young people of all backgrounds. Mayor John Street and Estelle Richmond raised Mural Arts’ budget and made us part of the Department of Social Services, attending meetings with commissioners leading big-budget departments. I created partnerships with them to expand the program. In the Mayor Nutter era, our work has quadrupled. We are now a city-wide institution collaborating with the departments of justice, education and of behavioral health on community murals, public art and civic engagement. We now try to produce work with a great product and a great process. I want to stretch the social power of art as far as it can go, to become a model for this social practice.

Have you had conversations about public art with others cities and countries worldwide?

Other cities come to us for downtown development or graffiti problems. Parisian suburbs are trying to mediate their new immigrant populations with art. Hanoi is building a three-mile-long ceramic mural history of the city. London and Dublin did exchanges with young Philly students. The Israeli city of Netivot, by the Gaza border, has Ethiopian and Moroccan communities and it wants to emphasize cultural entrepreneurialism and get young artists to stay. A person who runs a Lyon mural program invited me out there just recently.

One goal of ours is to start a formalized line of consulting services that builds on national and international interest because we’re not able to keep up with the current demand from international cities. Urban centers can utilize murals in different ways.

Tell us about working with prisoners and the social justice aspect of Mural Arts.

We work with some people spending life behind bars who contribute to Philly’s social fabric by helping to paint murals for communities. They might never get out but they have kids and grandkids and they can transmit the notion, “This may be my life, but it doesn’t have to be yours.” Breaking the cycle of crime requires both traditional and nontraditional, which is our sweet spot. Our work with prisoners and ex-convicts has yielded an extremely low recidivism rate. We’re transforming individuals and building skills. Why not encourage people to contribute to the city and change the built environment? This hopefully ripples into breaking the stigma surrounding incarceration and mental illness.

As an Eisenhower Fellow, what are you asked to speak about?

I was just at an international women’s leadership conference with 60 other women, on a panel with a high court judge from Kenya and an engineer from Indonesia bringing sustainability to millions of people. The moderator was from Buenos Aires and she wants me to come there next year. The panel wanted me to talk about art and social change, how I was using art to move cities, individuals and communities forward.

Ten years ago, the Eisenhower Fellowship brought me to Dublin, Belfast and Derry in Ireland. I talked to muralists in Northern Ireland and spoke to prisoners in Dublin’s Mount Joy Prison. The prison had an amazing theatre program with a well-known Irish playwright, raising $50,000 for the Special Olympics through their shows. They were really embracing people’s humanity. We can do that through art.

Where, in your mind, does Philadelphia stand right now? There is a terrific education problem among others. Where do you see the needle right now?

Philadelphia has a thriving arts and culture sector, good leadership under Mayor Nutter, it has embraced innovation and it is attracting young people through higher education. However, the next mayor will have to strategize how to combat poverty. How do we have neighborhoods that don’t go from zero to 90 miles per hour? Does a struggling neighborhood immediately have to become a gentrified neighborhood? And regarding education, I work for the government and I understand its need to support education balanced against its need to run a city.

What Mural Arts is doing is not a solution, but it can contribute to providing young people with a rigorous arts education program. We have developed programs that merge math, science and art in schools around the city. Students can stay in the art program for five or six years, where we train and consult students on studying art in college and provide scholarship opportunities. This pathway is critical.

I feel an imperative around criminal justice, behavioral health, community development work, we need to be aware of issues on the desk of the mayor and city council. What we do is not a solution, but community art shows us the catalytic role of art in the city.

I’ve been to two of your events recently: the Psychylustro Tour and The Meal last year. How do you bring global artists to the table and on board?

We always ask our project managers which artists they would like to work with. First we reach out and see if those artists are interested. If so, we set up a work program with them and then execute it. I try to make time for my staff to attend conferences and hear about different artistic practices around the world. Somebody asked me about psycholustro, “Why an artist from Berlin and not a local one?” Why shouldn’t we bring an artist from Berlin? Ninety-five percent of the artists we feature annually are local. That German artists Haas and Hahn can work with our kids in Philly neighborhoods is in the direction of sustainable practices. We have muraLAB speakers from around the world. Mural Arts has benefited from being open to what’s going on and soaking up information and culture.

GPA is working to make Philly a World Heritage City. When we met with the board of the OWHC, the chairman said he loved that Philly uses its past to look forward. This reminds me of the Mural Arts Program, which creates spaces that are meaningful to people out of sometimes rundown infrastructure.

It’s so unusual that Mural Arts has lasted as long as it has. We’ve made it through four mayors, which speaks to the leadership in this city. They’ve all been open to this kind of alternative thinking about problems. Many people at the top of the food chain have opened the door for us, and I think that says a lot about Philly and the culture here. People in L.A. are shocked that we’re able to accomplish the number of murals and projects we do. We’re certainly looking at how we use the past to think about the future. The repurposing of so many buildings and the art scene that is bubbling is fantastic. This city is full of assets.

What do the next few years look like for Mural Arts?

We have some big projects lined up. An international street art exhibition in the fall of 2015 and I’m hoping to do a major work of public art at Bartram’s Garden. We also have some fabulous visiting artists coming in the next year and we just announced a formal partnership with the Moore College of Art and Design to bring muraLab to some of its graduate programs. We’ll also be expanding our school day work. And finally, we are going to unveil the results of a four-year intensive study with the Yale School of Medicine looking at the impact of our work on individuals and communities. I think that our strategy over the next few years is to keep our program robust and running and to expand the number of constituents we’re serving.

Photo courtesy of Eisenhower Fellows.