Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Public Engagement

Mural Arts founder Jane Golden discusses public art, community outreach, and why they work so well together.

Autumnal mural, south Philly.
Philly murals are more than simply pretty pictures on a wall. They are the brick and mortar of the city’s community outreach and engagement programs. This Fall we've featured posts on the city’s amazing ensemble of people powered art champs. To top it off, Designer In Exile presents this exclusive interview with Jane Golden, founder of the world renowned Mural Arts Program of Philadelphia. Her ideas are compelling, her words inspirational - it's a pleasure and honor to hear her story. The recorder may have run longer than usual, but we think you'll thoroughly enjoy reading this post:

Designer in Exile: Thank you for spending time with our readers. A quick review: I've run a series of interviews this fall with some of your muralists. I'm not a muralist. I come from a design background, in architecture and product design. My blog covers design as it intersects with community outreach, social justice and environmentalism. That's what led me to Mural Arts. Being a transplant here in Philly, I'd never really seen anything as expansive as your program. I was so impressed that I've tenaciously sought to discover its essence. So this is a perfect summary for the series, and I'll start by asking you to explain your background and how you started Mural Arts.

Jane Golden: Sounds good. First off, I want to thank you for your interest. Your background sounds really interesting. So I really appreciate your reaching out to us.

I went to Stanford for my undergraduate work. I majored in political science and fine art. I've always been a painter. I was only really interested in murals, specifically work done by the Mexican muralists. I became more of a social realist painter. In my years at Stanford I was really interested in that nexus of art and social change. And I moved down to Los Angeles. There were many murals in the city, and I ended up applying to an LA mural organization called SPARC, which was the equivalent of Philly's organization, and got a small grant to do a mural in Santa Monica. The wall was about 20 feet wide and 100 feet long and I think the fee was $300. I just fell in love with mural painting, and I realized, standing on that corner at Ocean Park and Main, how I thought theoretically about murals, murals that were accessible - having conversations with people about politics and community issues.

"You Can Be Stronger Than Diabetes," Fishtown.
"Angel" mosaic wall motif, Kensington.

I continued to paint murals and then came back to Philadelphia and I read about the Anti-Graffiti Network in the newspaper. I sent my resume to [then] Mayor Wilson Goode's office. I was hired to run an art component for the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, and between 1985 and 1997 I worked mostly with graffiti writers - I should say "former" graffiti writers.

We did outreach to other kids. We volunteered a new program and we created murals in many neighborhoods in the city, and we were able to see the striking impact that art has in neighborhoods that have histories of behavior issues, so to speak.

I'm a believer in murals as public art, but I have to say that it was astounding to see the murals become catalysts of social change and see their ability to inspire, empower and transform. It was thrilling. It was absolutely thrilling.

And so all those years at Anti-Graffiti gave me a clue that art could serve many purposes - that art for art's sake is wonderful in itself, but if you could align that social power of art and put it to work in a way that was relevant and impactful to the citizens of Philadelphia, how wonderful that would be.

Then in 1996, when we heard that Anti-Graffiti was going to close because the former director had passed away, the mayor at the time, Ed Rendell, wanted to restructure Anti-Graffiti. I went to him and asked if he would reconsider saving [the new] art program. He agreed. And in late 1997 the Mural Arts Program was formed and I was made the director, and we immediately went into high gear because we realized we were a pro art program - not an anti anything program anymore - and we started working with emerging and established artists.

We began working with all kids in the city because so many kids didn't have access to art education. We assembled a wide range of programs, and, in essence, we've never looked back. It's been a real privilege.

It's wonderful what's been done. Was there a model you followed, or did Philadelphia take the lead in terms of the community-building process that goes with creating the murals? Does Philly shine on its own in that regard?

Classical styled mural, North Philly.
Yes. I absolutely think that Philadelphia shines on its own. But I give credit to people who came before me. When I was in LA, I carefully studied their program. I looked at the work being done in Chicago by the Chicago Public Art Group and the Precita Eyes muralists in San Francisco. So there were definitely other cities doing the work. It's not exactly what we do here in Philly, but I do want to acknowledge that there were people who came before that were doing very interesting work with murals, being really connected to people in different neighborhoods and with different community issues.

When I came to Philadelphia I was also aware of the fact that the Philadelphia Museum of Art had a mural program for several years. But the program closed down several years earlier. I knew two muralists, Don Kaiser and Clarence Woods, who worked for the museum. They were terrific and had really contributed to the city. I looked them up and met them and read about their work. So I've always tried to make it a point to study those who did work before us, and I'm very respectful of and thankful for the path that they created.

I think the big break for us and what makes our program unique is really connected to the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. I have a lot of gratitude for Wilson Goode and Tim Spencer for creating a program with opportunities for kids in communities throughout the entire city. They really tried to consult and allow access and equity and participation, and that is something that rings true with Mural Arts to this day.

I think that the groundwork that a city agency like Anti-Graffiti did, with the foresight to build an art component that then went on to accomplish a lot (in that we offered programs to thousands and thousands of young people during those years and we worked in so many different neighborhoods), gave us the ability to hone our craft. We partnered with community organizers, community leaders, activists. We've developed a process where we connect artists and the community in a way that is rigorous, in a way that is sustained and leads to real change.

We ask ourselves everyday: how do we move the needle? How do we use art to change something? What is it we want to accomplish? What are our outcomes? And Anti-Graffiti was a great training ground to figure out how you use art in the most strategic way possible to bring about change in the community.

Uniquely styled mural, museum area.
And so to get back to your question, I think those years with the Anti-Graffiti Network are what helped us become so unique, in that we had the privilege of working with organizers over a long period of time and then becoming a pro art program, then sort of evolving into the Mural Arts Program.

The other thing that makes us unique is we are part city and we are, in a way, part of the government. 40% of our funding comes from the city and the rest from private sources. It's really meaningful that city government is connected and people are able to see how government dollars can be leveraged and be effective.

From the interviews I've done with muralists, I understand that the program is evolving beyond just murals. I'm curious about events where you've done LED lighting. You seem to be striving to utilize new technologies beyond just painting. Is that the future of Mural Arts? Innovation on many levels?

Yes, that's really a great question because we're really looking at murals in the 21st century - how do you define public space? And that's an open-ended question. So we're working with new technology, in our own way, and we're working with light and sound. I feel like the sky is the limit because we're called the Mural Arts Program, but this is really about creating community-based public art.

Do you think you'll be changing the name because of that?

[laughing] Maybe. Really, it's thrilling to be working with different materials. And we have something now called Mural Lab, which is a new program where we bring groups from around the country to Philadelphia because we're trying to provide the arts community with a different look at what it means to work in the public sphere, and we are also willing to offer job development opportunities.

Sounds very relevant to this era.

Another thing we're doing is called the Innovation Fund, where artists can apply - and it's just a little bit of money - but they can apply to do something that's really innovative and imaginative and work with new materials.

That's really cool. Very encouraging.

Thank you for saying that.

Being from a product design background - specifically lighting design - I'm drawn to the innovation aspect, the experimentation you're doing with light, multimedia and murals and such.

Thank you. That's great. It's really exciting and I loved it when Meg Saligman did the Evolving Face of Nursing mural at Broad and Vine. She did a lot of research in her studio with light and then came to us and said 'I really want to do this.' I think it's really important that Mural Arts be open to the artist's voice and vision.

Do you export your knowledge to other cities?

That's a great question. There are about 100 cities in this country that are replicating our model to different degrees. And it's a lot about the capacity and sometimes we don't have the capacity to physically go to cities and start programs but we have several earned income streams. One is around our consulting services, so we give people handbooks and sell handbooks. People sometimes send delegations to Philadelphia. We sometimes send one or two people to other cities.

But this is really wonderful. I mean, this is not just in the US. There are cities in Canada, all over Europe and more that are calling us. And it's beyond being good for Mural Arts. I think this is good for the city of Philadelphia, because it shows that this is a city that really cares about community and art and young people.

I have one last question. You're doing all this project management, managing a whole program, involved in fund raising, public relations and stuff like that. Do you ever miss just being the artist?

Yes, I do, and I think that was difficult to let go of. I think I eventually came to peace because I see the whole program as a creative endeavor, and I derive tremendous satisfaction from all the different aspects of the work, from working with kids to prison work to the community work. And I have to say I really feel thrilled by the fact that we're able to offer employment to so many artists in the Philadelphia area. That makes me feel good. It helps take up that space that used to be immersed in painting murals everyday.

Thank you again for sharing such rich insight into your program.

You're welcome. It's been a pleasure.

(Video). Collaborative Mural Arts multimedia project with PIFA.


All images by D.A. DeMers, free to use via Creative Commons license CC-SA. Transcription by Jamie Sanders. More info on the Mural Arts Program can be found at www.muralarts.org. There's always a whole lot of movin' and shakin' goin' on there.
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  1. Not long ago, I was invited to attend a community discussion in Kensington for a mural project about work and careers. It was called something like "How We Fish." It was asking about different paths people have taken to get work (or to back to work). I sign up for many newsletters, but it was the first time I'd received a msg from an organization that seemed to speak directly to me and my life, and wanted to hear my story, and not just get a donation. I had to work during the time of that event (no pun intended), but I am impressed by this group and what they do for our city. They make us proud.

  2. Some of the newer installations, especially the multicolored light exhibit at Broad & Vine, are stunning. I'm a sculptor, recently moved back to Philly from Brooklyn. Public art there has a much different purpose. There are a plethora of very innovative, conceptual projects, especially recent ones run by the Guggenheim. They represent New York as an essential, ever evolving art epicenter. But they seem far less integrated with neighborhoods than here. Perhaps that's due to demographics and Philly being a real city of neighborhoods. Very enlightening interview. Nice read.