“We work with the community to create the art, but art can build the community.”
Among all the “firsts” that Philadelphia loves to boast about, there is one that garners unanimous pride and enthusiasm: Mural Arts Philadelphia. Home to the nation’s largest public art program, Mural Arts continues to inspire, innovate, and push out the boundaries of what public art is and what it can do for a community.
Jane Golden, the founder and executive director, is a personification of the vibrancy and energy of the program itself. Her creative imagination has not only brought beauty to many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, but catalyzed community revitalization and transformation throughout the city.
An Evolution of Public Art
Golden has been a part of Mural Arts (and its precursor, Anti-Graffiti Network) since the beginning. “If you would have met me in 1988, I would have said, what we are doing is about beauty — everyone deserves access to beauty. I went in with ideas about beauty and working with kids who were graffiti writers. But in 1989 and the early 1990s, we saw that the murals were catalytic and were leading to all these other changes. We didn’t go in thinking the murals were going to lead to something else, but then we saw things happening and realized we were on the front lines of social change.”
Mural Arts’ work in the early 2000s was key to informing current practice and, in many ways, was Golden’s first shift into a Late Style. She stopped painting in 2002 but explains “I love artists and when I gave up painting, I saw Mural Arts as a creative endeavor so I could make that trade.” It was soon after that the organization began to explore expanded ways to impact the community.
Golden explains, “The Healing Walls (2004) project really started to enhance our social practice. We worked at Graterford Prison and they wanted to do murals outside, but they were all lifers so we started working on parachute cloth. And then they said they want to work with crime victims so we brought together victims, advocates, and the men in prison. And the project took on a life of its own and it started bridging these very profound gaps between people. It was so clear to me that it was a way of looking at our difference but couched in a notion of commonality. I think that public art can do that because it is working on different levels.”
From Art on the Wall to Community Transformation
Golden explains that it was one project in particular, the Love Letters Project (2010) with Steve Powers that was a pivot point for her in illuminating what Mural Arts could be and do in a community.
“We were in West Philly on the Market Street El where Septa had been working for a long time. Because of the construction, people had lost their businesses and were very angry. Steve came in and started talking about love and people were like, ‘Look, we hate the city, we hate Septa, we are not interested in talking to you. Go away.’ But Golden and Powers persevered and kept engaging the community in conversation. “It was kind of like group therapy and people worked through it and then got really excited about it.”
The Love Letters Project quickly went beyond painting 60 second-story murals along the train route. “Steve was committed that in everything we did we would acknowledge and shine a light on the neighborhood and the businesses… Steve took over this empty storefront as a neighborhood hub and made it a sign shop… Then kids started hanging out and we started hosting workshops. And then there was a docu-drama, and a book, and then Tours. And seven years later, these Love Letter Tours still sell out!”
Golden thinks that this project really put all the pieces together for her. “People started to see the potential of what public art could be. Because all those sayings on the walls…those came from the community. People started to talk about love and memory and history and things that they really cherished. It was a way of bringing Septa into the mix, and the community, and the artists…and we hired local people so people could see real economic value. And I started to see that if you were able to do projects in this multi-layered way, there is big potential there.”
The Visualization of Democracy
The potential for muralism in Philadelphia lies in its partnership model. In many ways, the actual painting of the mural is simply a visual catalyst for a more impressive goal: community transformation.
Golden continues, “The ability to integrate our work and have people work together to reclaim and rebuild the city is a visualization of democracy in my mind. The Mental Health commissioner said ‘Mural Arts is an alternative therapeutic model’. We can send bureaucrats into the neighborhood to say ‘we are from the city and here to help you’ or we could put up a participatory public art project and partner with therapists and social workers… and people start to feel more inclined to get help that they need and they see that recovery is an option. Art can do that! It is transcendent in its ability to lift up.”
Golden concludes, “We work with the community to create the art, but art can build the community.”
Exciting Things Ahead
The world is taking notice of Philly’s murals and the process behind them. “Philly is inventing a whole new way of doing public art. People are stunned at the breadth of our program. Cites are calling us from around the country and the world.”
As Philadelphia continues to be the learning laboratory for new and innovative muralism, Golden is excited about what lies ahead. “We are doing these major, huge scale projects right now: seven miles of color along the Amtrak corridor; working along the rail park with videographers and composers to do work that represents unseen histories; the Monument Lab coming up in the fall of 2017 which will challenge Philadelphians to think about what a monument is in the 21 century and how we as a city want to be represented.”
Golden is inspired by the energy and abundance of this late style season in her career, “There is really wonderful profound process that occurs with each mural project and these are the changes that I’m seeing…there is all this creativity and innovation percolating right now.”
An Unstoppable, Tireless Passion
One thing is certain; Golden has no plans on slowing down anytime soon. Her love and commitment to this movement she helped start is palpable.
“Everyone one here [at Mural Arts] feels like a public servant working on behalf of the citizens. That is our mantra. I feel like this unstoppable, tireless passion around the process of how we do work: we try and fail, we try and learn, we course correct, we evaluate, we are like a sponge soaking up best practices from around the world. We bring in good thinkers. And all this is an evolution that is taking place and as a result, the practice grows and expands and becomes deeper and richer.”
Golden sums it up well: “Mural Arts is like an engine and we are driven by the resilience and wonder of citizens in this amazing city. But there is a resilience in us too…a scrappiness and grit that comes from time and being tested, and inspired, and challenged. And those cumulative moments of inspiration that have occurred over these long period of years…that is the glue that keeps us going.”
The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.