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

Paul Rosen believes Golden was worried that her public funding might be jeopardized if she angered Diane Dalto. Golden says that while Dalto did call her before the meeting to discuss the mural, she never heard any threat, veiled or explicit.

“In this situation, it seemed the idea for a mural was stirring up too much dissent,” Golden says, “and we did not want to be involved with a project that seemed to be fracturing a community. … This had nothing
to do with a fear of losing funding.”

That’s not to say it wasn’t a crippling disappointment. “It calls into question your beliefs,” she says. “I take this work so personally that it’s hard not to be shaken.”

AS THE SUMMER turned to fall, tempers around the Square had cooled a bit. But resolve had hardened on either side.

It’s difficult to tell exactly what little nook of disaffection got exposed by the mural fight. Art itself may be the unexplainable X-factor that ignited smoldering tensions over style and taste. “It’s an interesting reflection of Philadelphia society,” says Alan Epstein. As a litigator, Epstein adds, “I get involved in fights every day. But I don’t understand this fight.”

Surprisingly, it’s the artist himself who seems the least temperamental. Michael Webb says he understands the opposition. While he maintains that “as an artist … I’m not interested in the battles going on between old and new money on Rittenhouse Square,” he appreciates residents’ wariness, and thinks it boils down to fear of losing control over their privileged domain. “The people who are resisting are upset that they even have to resist,” he says. “They don’t like being negative about a positive issue. I think they feel like they’re being backed into a corner.”

Carol Shanis proposes that residents start the whole process again, perhaps with the city’s Historical Commission. “The meetings we had were not big enough,” she says. “We need more people to be involved. It’s a precedent-setting situation.”

Hearing this, Paul Rosen moves into bulldog mode. “I’ve worked for her!” he shouts. “I’m shocked to see her leading the charge against the mural. I’m putting up Justice! The Historical Commission doesn’t have the power to say what art is. I’m a preservationist. And I’m a fighter for what I believe is right. I hope they take me on. Let ’em spend the money to fight me. Because I’ll fight them to the death.”

And though she says her decision had nothing to do with the mural dispute, Wendy Rosen resigned from the board of Carol Shanis’s Art Alliance late this summer.

It’s the kind of move that worries Allan Domb, who has established a position for himself in Rittenhouse society by selling apartments for all sides. “It would really be a shame,” he says, “if somehow this fight discouraged people from working for the improvement of the Square.” Domb even goes so far as to propose a kind of nuclear solution to end the dispute. “I’ll just build a parking garage on the lot,” he says half-seriously — thereby blocking the ugly wall that started it all.

Rosen is now going ahead without Golden, pushing Webb to have the mural ready for installation as soon as possible, perhaps even this month. So soon, passersby in those fabled eight blocks by three might be able to see what all the fuss is about. Somehow, the lawyer’s original well-intended idea to create a mural saluting Justice has turned into a very artistic spite fence.

“Paul can go ahead and do whatever he wants,” says Diane Dalto. “But I don’t think it’s good karma for the neighborhood. Nobody needs to walk around their neighborhood and be angry all the time.” After nearly two decades working at the nexus of art and politics, Dalto has seen her share of oddly bitter fights over seemingly inarguable issues.

“These kinds of bad feelings between friends are never any good,” she says, with irony in her voice. “Why can’t we save this sort of aggravation for questions like what people you’re sitting with at the Ball on the Square? Important things like that.”