What’s With All the Mural Arts Hatred?

Jane Golden's exalted program is under attack.

There sure is a lot to complain about in this city. And we sure do like to complain about it. A lot. But one thing that you don’t normally hear people venting about are the city’s 3,000-plus murals, the public art works created by artists, students and ex-convicts as part of Jane Golden’s 27-year old Mural Arts Program. But in recent days, the normally immune-from-criticism organization has seen its fair share of it.

The first hit came less than two weeks ago, when the Daily News ran a piece juxtaposing Zoe Strauss’s “genius” billboards project against the city’s murals. “Until now, we have admitted this only to close friends,” it read. “But we can’t help thinking that the city is, to riff on a phrase from Councilwoman Blackwell, a little ‘muraled-out.’ We know the program run by Jane Golden is noble and good, but murals are only one dialect in the very rich language of public art, and for too long, our public art seems to have been dominated by murals.” It went on to question the value of the $1.5 million the city contributes annually (or at least that’s how much it was back in 2007-08, the last time the MAP provided an annual report) to the murals cause. Keep in mind that Mayor Nutter just announced a skimpy $500,000 to help in the pursuit of murderers.

Jane Golden fired back with a letter to the editor, titled “The City Needs Art in All Its Forms”, defending her program and explaining its critical role in the evolution of Philadelphia’s arts scene over the last three decades: “In the past 27 years, we have helped to show the dramatic impact that public art can have on neighborhoods, and we have demonstrated that Philadelphians across class, race and ethnicity want both beauty and artistic stimulation in their communities.”

But that wasn’t the end of it. On Tuesday, the February issue of Philly Mag rolled into the offices from the printer, complete with a riposte on page 14 by Dan McQuade, who asks, rhetorically, “Why Are Philadelphia’s Murals So Ugly?” He amusingly bashes some of the city’s most well-known murals (Dr. J and the poor double dutch girls!), while acknowledging some of the MAP’s social contributions.

Finally, the harshest blow came yesterday morning with a Daily News op-ed by artist Michael Macfeat, who states that the funding for the MAP (both the city’s contribution and the other $4.5 million in money it finds) “would be put to better use funding more viable and less aesthetically embarrassing cultural institutions and social programs … We do not need additional illustrations on the walls of buildings.”

Well then.

It’s no surprise that Jane Golden turned up at the Daily News headquarters on Broad Street yesterday to meet with its editorial board. Sandy Shea, the paper’s editorial page editor, tells me that the talk was “engaging and provocative.” “There’s been virtually no public conversation about public art in general and the Mural Arts Program in particular,” notes Shea. “And it seems the time is ripe for this. Based on the response on both sides we’ve gotten, it’s time for some pretty robust conversations about it.”

Last night, Golden called me at home to talk about the negative publicity. She went through a huge list of benefits that the program has brought to the city since its inception, and there have indeed been many. Kids off the streets. Blighted properties made beautiful. Graffiti prevented. Services to ex-cons.

As for the ugliness of the murals, she points out that every mural will have its lovers and haters, just like any piece of art. “Take the Rocky statue,” she says. “People tell me all the time how much they hate it. But then I ride by on my bike every weekend and see a long line of people waiting to take their photos with it. So what is that? Is it good?”

Before we got off the phone, Golden and I discussed the idea of getting McQuade and some other contributors on one of the Mural Arts Tours, which saw 18,000 participants last year. “I need to help Dan find some murals he doesn’t hate,” she quipped. This morning, I brought up the prospect of a staff tour with one of my colleagues. “Eh,” he shrugged. “I feel like I’ve kind of seen the murals.”