Beyond the Paint
Led by the unstoppable force known as Jane Golden, the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program has been revitalizing communities and inspiring art lovers for more than 30 years—and that’s just the beginning
by Bill Donahue

The City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program began life as a vehicle for turning blight into beauty, its roots having grown out a cure to eradicate the “social epidemic” of graffiti. Ask Jane Golden, the Mural Arts Program’s chief architect and longtime executive director, and she’ll say the program’s triumph over graffiti represents just one chapter in a story that has been evolving for more than 30 years.

From a macro perspective, the Mural Arts Program beautified some of Philadelphia’s grittiest neighborhoods, contributed to higher property values and helped the city become known as one of the world’s preeminent destinations for public art. (A recent Huffington Post story ranked Philadelphia No. 20 on a list of the world’s best cities to see street art.) On a more intimate level, the program has, in Golden’s words, become “a lifeline for people who were getting pulled into that dangerous whirlpool of drugs and crime, and opening up their eyes to another world.”

The Mural Arts Program owes its beginnings to the grassroots Anti-Graffiti Network, which was started in 1984 by the administration of then-Mayor Wilson Goode to stem the outbreak of graffiti marring neighborhoods throughout the city. At the time Golden was a Stanford University grad with a double major in fine art and political science, who had been honing her skills in mural-rich Los Angeles. When a bout with lupus knocked her flat, she headed back east to recover and reboot, trying to decide whether to apply to law school or go to graduate school for art education. By chance, she read an article about the Anti-Graffiti Network, which urged her to send a résumé to the mayor’s office.  

She began working there part time but earned a full-time position after completing an ambitious month-long project, leading 100 would-be artists in creating a mural on the graffiti-riddled Spring Garden Street Bridge. She remembers the project as chaotic and intense, yet wonderful. (“We painted with flashlights at night, painted on the weekends, and people were literally stopping their cars on the bridge, thanking us,” she says. “Saturday mornings we would go to the Art Museum and then we would come back and continue painting, so this became my whole life.”) The Mural Arts Program’s 1996 reorganization under the City of Philadelphia Department of Recreation coincided with Golden being named its director. She would then establish the Philadelphia Mural Arts Advocates, a nonprofit to raise funds and generate support to the program. In the years since, the program has evolved and expanded in ways that not even Golden could have imagined.

“When I first started working with the Anti-Graffiti Network, it was obvious to me that in order to have success I would have to infiltrate the graffiti world,” she says. “I had to meet graffiti writers, and I had to understand why they were writing on walls. … When I started talking to kids, what they wanted to talk to me about was art. Their dream was to go to the Museum of Modern Art [in New York] to look at Picasso and Matisse.

“I often think we expect kids to change in our society through a four- or six-week program,” she continues, “but for kids who have fallen through the cracks and have had a lot of trauma in their lives, we have to understand it’s going to be sustained programming that’s substantive and rigorous that’s going to make a difference.”

The Mural Arts Program enabled young people to do just that. Through advanced art education programs, for example, the program serves as many as 1,800 at-risk young people per year, by way of internships, apprenticeships and entrepreneurial opportunities aimed at placing participants on promising career paths.  Many of the earliest artists came into the program as volunteers, and stayed for five to seven years, with remarkable success, according to Golden.  

“They are a software engineer, a teacher, a well-known poet and collage artist, a guy who owns a barber shop in North Philly, a senior account executive at a big advertising firm, an architect in New York, a designer,” she says. “These were young people who had failure etched in their foreheads, who society had low expectations for, and instead we were able to see the glass half full and see kids for what they could contribute and their talents that had gone sadly unrecognized.”

Of the nearly 3,800 indoor and outdoor murals throughout the city, many have emanated from the hands and minds of some the world’s most talented professional artists, including Vincent Desiderio (“The Pathology of Devotion” at the corner of 12th and Morris streets), Sidney Goodman (“Boy with Raised Arm” at 40th and Powelton), Steve Powers (“Love Letters,” text-based murals throughout North Philadelphia), Meg Saligman (“Common Threads,” her best-known work, at Broad and Spring Garden) and Kent Twitchell (“Dr. J” at 12th and Ridge). The most recent artist to link arms with the program is Berlin-based Katharina Grosse, whose “psychylustro” was completed in mid-May. The temporary installation adds bright, bold passages of color to a stretch of the Amtrak corridor, between 30th Street Station and North Philadelphia stations.

“People used to say, ‘You’re wasting your time, Jane Golden; those walls are going to get graffitied, and those kids you’re working with are going to end up in trouble,’” she says. “So I would say to them, ‘So what are you suggesting—that we not do anything? That we just stand still? Or do we take on these problems?’”

The Mural Arts Program has evolved to address other underserved populations. Alliances with the Philadelphia Youth Violence Reduction Partnership and the Philadelphia Prison System have helped newly freed prisoners find work and purpose through art, to help them “find a way out of the morass,” Golden says, and reduce recidivism. Also, the program has worked with remorseful inmates at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford who wish to make amends for their crimes and give back to the city by creating murals on parachute cloth. These murals are then installed at schools and community centers that would otherwise remain bleak.

“I’m a big believer that when it comes to society’s most intractable problems, we can never discount the role of innovation and creativity to make a difference, because sometimes our traditional interventions fail us,” she says. “So we have to consistently … break new ground. That’s when change occurs. You have to push forward and be fearless and understand that you might fail, but if you do, you fail forward, you do so in the smartest way possible, you ‘course correct’ and you move on.”

Golden continues to lead her staff of 48 in finding new ways to not only beautify the city but also enrich the lives of those who need it most. Golden estimates that the program contributes as much as $2.2 million to the city’s creative economy each year, through the employment of emerging artists, mural-themed tourism and the revitalization of communities.

Fishtown native John Galster has witnessed this revitalization firsthand. He and his family were scouting locations to open a restaurant and thought they had found what they were looking for in Levittown. Their plans changed when a property became available for lease in the city’s Callowhill section, complete with a mural on the building’s exterior, “Memory of My Life” from Haitian artist Frito Bastien, commissioned by the Mural Arts Program. “The mural made us love the place,” Galster says. So in 2011 he and his family opened Llama Tooth, a 36-seater known for its “new American” cuisine, sangria and selection of craft beer, though it is likely best known for its spacious outdoor patio, with Bastien’s mural as the vibrant backdrop.

“Strangely enough, when I was 21 years old, I house-sat an apartment a couple doors down from here,” he says. “I can’t believe I’ve seen the neighborhood change the way it has since then. Sure, there are 100 organizations claiming responsibility for the revitalization of the city, but I believe Mural Arts has played a key role. It’s like ‘build it and they will come’—you bring in the arts, you bring in the people who are interested in supporting a clean public area, and it inspires everyone.”

As many as 100 new permanent or temporary projects come to life throughout the city every year, and each project tends to leaves an indelible mark on the community in which it is based and each person involved in its creation. Also, Philadelphia has become a model for using public art as an agent of change around the country and across the globe; more than 200 U.S. cities, as well as international metropolises such as Paris, London, Hanoi and Dublin, are in different phases of reviewing the Mural Arts Program’s work in hopes of replicating it at home.

“We’re going 100 miles an hour, and we’re shifting the paradigm about how public art is made,” Golden says. “If you’re having a conversation about the paint, that’s OK, because we want people to be moved by art, but that’s a small part of what we’re doing now.”

"Peace Wall" mural by Jane Golden; photograph by Jack Ramsdale for the Mural Arts Program