I was shy growing up, and I’m still that shy person. My daily companion is an ever-present angst. I hear, “Oh, you should be so proud” or “You should really enjoy this moment,” but I don’t have those feelings. I expect so much more.
SK: Is there a dark side to Jane Golden? Do you ever do anything bad?
JG: I’ve been called pugnacious, tenacious and opportunistic. But those are traits that people I admire have. Being opportunistic … what should I do, sleep?
SK: It works. You’re one of a certain group of women in Philadelphia who have managed to execute hugely successful projects without the benefit of significant institutional power.
JG: We all have a calling. We’re ambitious, but we’ve balanced that with a clear spirit of service. In times of great stress, I talk to these women. Sister Mary [Scullion] told me once that I need to think like a long-distance runner, not a sprinter. Women like Sharon Pinkenson, Estelle Richman, Meryl Levitz, Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, have the ability to stay on track. They’ve raised the bar, created a new role model, and are really inspiring a generation of younger women.
SK: Playing the devil’s advocate, why spend money on murals as opposed to the dozens of other things that people in distressed communities need, like housing, job -training, shelter, social services?
JG: City leaders have to make choices and think about not putting all of our eggs in one basket. These basics are critical, but for people to lead fulfilling lives, they need their spirits tended to just as much. Frankly, I don’t hear that type of question often. I think it’s the wrong question. We should be doing more, not focusing elsewhere. I do think Mural Arts may have worked too fast in the past and perhaps sacrificed quality of the work. These past two years have been very self-reflective for us. We’ve instituted a rigorous design-approval process. We have a waiting list of 2,000 projects — people who want murals in their communities. I never wanted to say no. But that’s not how great art is made. We’ve established a steely resolve to deliver great art through a great process.
SK: You’ve also made the case that mural arts are good for the economy. How does that compute?
JG: We employ 350 artists per year, spending $2.2 million on their salaries. We’ve got 2,000 kids in our after-school programs, with more than two-thirds of them making money through stipends. Only 13 percent of the people out of prison and participating in our program are getting back into trouble. This is real workforce development. It’s allowing local communities to think beyond the hand they’ve been dealt.
SK: As the numbers expand, can you keep everything fresh and relevant, so it doesn’t look neglected?
JG: We realized that what matters most is preservation and interpretation, so we started a mural restoration program. We were trained by the Getty Museum, and we’re restoring about 50 murals each year.
SK: You operate in lots of places that have experienced the most difficult problems of decline, yet you exude such great hope about them. How do you manage that?
JG: Václav Havel says that hope is when you are thoroughly convinced something is moral and right and you fight for it regardless of the consequences. I try to live my life this way. Hope is really generated by the longing for something better. The more we give expression to people’s concerns and aspirations, the more we hear inspirational stories and build connections with communities, the more that hope has a chance to emerge.