March 1, 2023
Philadelphia is a city of murals. Known as the "Mural Capital of the World," more than 4,000 of them color the cityscape. This is thanks in part to the nonprofit Mural Arts Philadelphia, the brainchild of artist Jane Golden who now serves as executive director. Mural Arts remains true to its local roots while influencing cities worldwide to fund and celebrate their public arts.
On a recent epsiode of the APA podcast series "People Behind the Plans," Meghan Stromberg, APA's editor in chief, talked with Golden about public art as a force for change, creating youth jobs, and what artists can teach planners about fostering a collaborative, co-creative dynamic between cities and their residents.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, but you can listen to the whole conversation at planning.org/podcast or wherever you get your podcasts.
STROMBERG: I had to laugh when I read that you learned to paint your first mural by reading a manual. What got you hooked on murals?
GOLDEN: My parents talked a lot about the murals created during the Works Progress Administration (WPA), so I was always looking at artists who painted large and had a social calling. After I graduated from college, I moved to LA. One day I read in the LA Times that there was this mural program called SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center). It was run by Judy Baca, who is one of my heroes, and I learned that they gave out 12 grants a year to artists. It's a long story, but eventually I received a grant from them to do this massive wall in Santa Monica.
I panicked because on my application, I said I did murals all over Stanford's campus — but I didn't. I just painted large. Some people suggested that I call the Chicago Public Art Group. When I did, they sent me a book that detailed all the steps of painting a mural. I hired a team and we got started.
I completely fell in love with mural painting because of the way it makes art available to everybody. I learned that public art has power and working in public space is totally thrilling.
STROMBERG: When you moved back east, you worked for the Anti-Graffiti Network in Philadelphia. What did that program accomplish?
GOLDEN: I give Mayor Wilson Goode a lot of credit because cities everywhere were dealing with graffiti through traditional means of just painting them out. The program's secret sauce was, first, that it had the backing of the mayor.
It was a visionary program because it gave over some power to people across the city, especially young people. I saw huge amounts of talent, but I also saw very few opportunities.
Wilson Goode could put a lot of money on the table that was used for jobs, so there was a real pathway for young people. We could offer jobs at a decent hourly rate. We had 3,000 kids painting murals in the summer, and those kids could then move on to a city job. The graffiti writers were natural muralists and good wall hunters. Suddenly, young people who had a lot of things going wrong in their lives were making their mark on the city in big, bold, beautiful, inspiring ways. Art became a lifeline.
STROMBERG: Why is Philly such a great place for murals? And why are murals so beneficial to the city?
GOLDEN: Philadelphia has a very close relationship with the arts. It's also a very diverse city, a gritty city, and a city of neighborhoods.
The art in our city is co-owned. Murals make people think a lot about their community and how it's defined. And murals have become a way of putting a stake in the ground and saying, "I am here."
In the mural-making process, we see people changing individually as they change the built environment of the city. We always see potential, [even] from the very first graffiti writers that I met when they opened their black books and I saw their glorious drawings. We're involved in a process of unlocking this potential and reminding people that the city does belong to them.
STROMBERG: You've helped cities like Portland and Louisville grow their community-engaged arts. Could a program like Mural Arts thrive anywhere?
GOLDEN: We have a Mural Arts Institute now where we're working with cities across the country, and as cities are learning from us, we're learning from them. [In so many of those places] there's this engine that hums with people who are dedicated community leaders, activists, and organizers. There's a belief that things can change.
STROMBERG: Mural Arts programs address a broad range of local issues. Tell us more about your environmental justice programming.
GOLDEN: We're doing a big climate justice project that has come out of the minds and hearts of hundreds of people. There's this acknowledgement that when environmental "bads" happen, they disproportionately impact people of color.
The work is contagious: it brings people along to be organizers. Our constituents are not passively involved in filling in squares of paint, they're actively engaging with policymakers. It's important that this work represent a cross-section of our city and that people can see themselves as change agents.
STROMBERG: Is there a project that stands out because it was so collaborative?
GOLDEN: We did a project many years ago called Philly Painting where we worked with two artists from The Netherlands and they painted a brilliant mural on the sides of probably 100 buildings. We worked with the planning department, the commerce department, and other city services, and together were able to leverage the art to build great excitement, including a lot of local and national attention. It was not perfect by any stretch, but I do think it had a catalytic impact on the community.
STROMBERG: Working in the public realm, muralists must contend with many stakeholders. If you could, what would you change about the way cities work with artists and groups like Mural Arts?
GOLDEN: If I were mayor and had a little magic wand, I would have artists involved in every single department. I think in a perfect city, one would not have to convince the powers to be that art has value.
We would like it if the planning department specifically would meet with the Mural Arts program four times a year to discuss what each party is working on. I would love to see that this just becomes a way of working rather than an aberration from the traditional model of meeting once every few years.
Together, we could think about how we can work with theatre artists or photographers or dancers for the betterment of a neighborhood. I think there's already an acknowledgment that we're all on the same side, that we both want to create a city that functions better on behalf of all the citizens, and we can work with that.
STROMBERG: What is the role of planners in creating cities where community-based public art can flourish?
GOLDEN: We're working now with the Philadelphia Housing Authority in a part of Philadelphia called Sharswood, and we had the benefit of working with a large group of people to create a plan that was submitted to HUD. Believe me, if we get the grant, we're going to continue to want to work with planners. We'll want to ask them how we can bring along the public and private sector, philanthropy, the mayor's office, and other departments.
In Philadelphia, gentrification is so real and so rapid that it sometimes feels unstoppable. Sometimes it feels like these market forces are going so fast, and I wonder, "How do you ever get ahead of it?" I think the way to get ahead of it is through smart policy, advocacy, and working collectively. Planners can help by sharing their foresight and collaborative skills.