For 25 years, Jane Golden has been the maestro of one of the city’s true artistic treasures, the Mural Arts Program. Since she debuted the project in 1984 to fight graffiti and gang violence, Golden has emerged as something of a phenomenon, sought after by cities throughout the world as an expert on urban mural development. But beyond the painting, she also represents a deep commitment to using art to restore neighborhoods and lives, with a passion that fosters hope. Might there come a day when Golden’s skills as a leader drive solutions to Philadelphia’s other problems? I sat down with her for lunch at the Museum of Art’s cafe to find out.
Sam Katz: Your Facebook photo is 80 percent mural and 20 percent Jane. Have you morphed into a mural?
Jane Golden: It’s the work that’s important. Mural Arts is a community process, and I’m a small part of it. I suppose the Facebook picture is symbolic. This work transcends me and, in some ways, even Mural Arts. Though, by the way, I don’t pay attention to Facebook.
SK: So where do the murals end and does Jane Golden begin?
JG: My identity is very tied up in the work. I feel driven by it. It’s become a moral imperative. But I won’t be here forever, so the best thing I can do is think about what comes next. I’ve created a COO position; we’ve gone through a strategic planning process. Mural Arts will do just fine without Jane Golden. My other interests are evolving. I’m teaching at Penn and Bryn Mawr. I was invited to be a guest professor in Toni Morrison’s program at Princeton next year. Maybe I’ll run for City Council someday, or play a different role in city government. I’m really interested in how to effectuate change and get large organizations to shift.
SK: What about running for mayor?
JG: Never while Michael Nutter is serving. Maybe someday, but City Council seems like a better place for me.
SK: Is this an announcement?
JG: Uh-oh. Let’s back up. I love what I’m doing now, and I have a lot to get done. I’ll think more about what’s next for me in city government in a couple of years.
SK: What does the immediate future hold, then?
JG: I’m giving attention and thought to the international possibilities of what we do. Paris, Hanoi, London, Rome, Bosnia, Sydney — these are places plagued with graffiti and fascinated by the role that art can play in economic development, the revival of downtowns and the impact of social services. And we’ve been called by dozens of American cities over the past six months.
SK: I see things in other international cities that might be imported to Philadelphia. Do you?
JG: Yes, and it’s really exciting. There’s a park in Paris — the Luxembourg Gardens — where a wrought iron fence holds an amazing display of photographers’ photos of scenes from all over the world. It’s spellbinding. We can do that here. Photography is a universal art — technology has made it so. And we have plenty of fences. The sky’s the limit. We can work with photography, sculpture, light and sound to do things that are extraordinarily creative while embracing those often left out. Everything is changing in so many ways—that has me excited, but it keeps me up at night as well.
SK: Do you sleep?
JG: Six hours a night. I wake up promptly at six, go the gym, then go to work. I work all day and into the evening. I guess I don’t lead an exciting life. I try to get out on the weekends — bicycle, movies. I get balance from my husband, who is decidedly less neurotic and hyper than I am. 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.