Brawl on the Square

Jane Golden built the Mural Arts Program into one of the city’s proudest achievements, a testament to the power of art to transform neighborhoods. Then a painting proposed for Rittenhouse Square ruffled the feathers of the city’s elite — and all hell broke loose

“Rittenhouse Square society is made up of people who are polite society and not-so-polite society,” says a lawyer who doesn’t live on the Square. “Paul falls into the latter category. He speaks his mind and has always done that. He’s the bulldog warrior you get to defend you or to prosecute when you have that kind of problem. But for people with long-standing wealth — those kind of people look at people like Paul or Joe Zuritsky or Allan Domb as different types.”

A number of people, either intimately involved in the mural fight or observing it with some remove, would describe it as an illustration of the tensions between Old and New Money on the Square. But it goes a bit deeper than that. In this new age of Rittenhouse society, it’s the perception of money — how it was accumulated, and how it manifests itself in one’s bearing and style — that is more important than exactly how much of it one has or how many generations it’s been there. In any case, all three self-made men — Rosen, parking magnate Zuritsky, and real estate salesman and developer Domb — would become intimately connected with the proposed mural.

In 2003, Rosen and his law partners started a foundation to give relatively small grants, usually in the range of $500 to $7,500, to support the arts. The foundation also created the ATTY Award, which it bestowed periodically on someone who’d created a positive depiction of lawyers. The Spector Gadon & Rosen Foundation gave its first ATTY to Harper Lee for her character Atticus Finch, the noble and quietly heroic lawyer in Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill A Mockingbird, who was made iconic by Gregory Peck in the Academy Award-winning 1962 film. A second ATTY was awarded this year to actor Robert Prosky, for his sympathetic portrayal of a lawyer in the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking.

Early this year, according to Rosen’s partner and foundation board member Alan Epstein, “We said, ‘Why don’t we do something in a very positive light by funding a mural with appropriate subject matter — a celebration of the role of civil lawyers in our society?’ We approached the Mural Arts Program, and they were excited.”

Since its inception in 1984 as an anti-graffiti campaign, the Mural Arts Program has grown into an award-winning arts training and social service group with a staff of 50 and a $7 million annual budget, much of it supplied by a Who’s Who of the region’s corporate and private donors.

Jane Golden has been with the organization almost since the beginning, rising from recruiting taggers off the streets to running the program, in the process becoming known as a relentless administrator with the soul of an artist. In all, Golden’s Mural Arts Program has tagged 2,850 walls with increasingly ambitious and sophisticated public art, gaining respect and renown both here (there’s currently a waiting list of 2,000 mural requests) and throughout the country and the world. Golden has recently been asked to consult for mural programs in Paris and Hanoi.

When she was approached about the Justice mural on Rittenhouse Street, she was excited, Golden says, but also a little wary. Golden was aware that there were people in the city who thought her organization’s murals were unsophisticated, dogmatic in their political correctness, and best left to their original purpose: covering graffiti in bad neighborhoods. “I remember thinking to myself, we don’t have work on Rittenhouse Square,” she says. “I wondered what this process would be like. I’ve been doing this work a long time and usually have a good instinct, and part of me feels almost anything can be worked out.”