Podcast: People Behind the Plans
Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Jane Golden: Planning and Public Art Ignite Change
Philadelphia is a public art epicenter — and not by chance. The city has long institutionalized investment in local muralists through programs like Mural Arts Philadelphia, a nonprofit created in 1998 by artist and executive director Jane Golden. Through more than 4,000 murals, the program has helped residents celebrate identity, tackle issues like environmental justice, and paint the change they want to see.
“We’re involved in a process of unlocking this potential and reminding people that the city does belong to them, that they have as much of a right to be here as anyone else. This is really about thinking about equity and democracy and who do cities belong to. . . . And how do we use art as a tool of reclamation of an individual life and space? We see people changing individually, and they’re changing the built environment of the city of Philadelphia at the same time.”
—Jane Golden, founder and executive director, Mural Arts Philadelphia
In this episode of People Behind the Plans, Golden shares the community engagement strategies that help Mural Arts reflect the creativity, concerns, and perspectives of its diverse city. We also discuss ways planners can partner with local arts programs to infuse their projects with public art.
This episode was sponsored by Nexus at University of Michigan.
Meghan Stromberg: This episode is sponsored by the University of Michigan. Register for the Scenario Planning for Urban Futures Certificate Course from Nexus at the University of Michigan. Attend May 17th through 19th remotely, or in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Explore early bird pricing on the course page, and sign up soon. Visit nexus.engin.umich.edu/sp2023 to learn more. That’s nexus.engin.umich.edu/sp2023.
Jane Golden: How do we plan our cities to center our humanity, to center justice? To think about equity? To think about what makes a neighborhood really function or a community — green space, certain amenities, certainly the arts — and so that we don’t lose the heart and soul of the city?
Meghan Stromberg: Welcome to People Behind the Plans. I’m Meghan Stromberg, editor in chief of the American Planning Association. Today, we’re talking with Jane Golden, the founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. Jane got her start managing the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, where she helped channel the talents and ambitions of young graffiti artists into mural making. Now she leads the largest program in the country dedicated to transforming public spaces and people through art. Since Jane founded Mural Arts as a nonprofit in 1997, Philly has added more than 4,000 new public works of art, earning it the nickname “the city of murals.” What is the key to their success? It all seems to come back to community engagement. This episode, we’ll talk to Jane about environmental justice, public art as a force for change, and what artists can teach planners about fostering a collaborative, co-creative dynamic between cities and their residents. Jane, welcome.
Jane Golden: Thank you for having me.
Meghan Stromberg: It’s so nice to have you. We all have to get our start somewhere, but I had to laugh when you told the “Philly Who?” podcast that you learned to paint your first mural by reading a manual. I’d love to hear about that experience. Did that get you hooked on murals, and where’s it taken you since?
Jane Golden: Yeah, that’s a great question. I grew up with a mural-friendly family. My parents talked a lot about the murals created during the WPA, so I was always looking at artists who painted large and artists who had a social calling. And when I was at Stanford, I sort of saw myself as a social realist painter. And when I graduated from college and when I moved to [Los Angeles], I saw all these glorious, beautiful, amazing murals. And my painting professors had told me just to get a job that was boring and paint. So I was painting, but I was like really unhappy at this job.
And then one day I read in the LA Times that there was this LA mural program — it’s called SPARC, it’s run by Judy Baca, who is like one of my heroes — and that they gave out 12 grants a year to artists. And so I was like, “Oh, maybe I could paint a mural. That’d be so exciting.” So I called them up. They told me I was past the deadline. And so I said, “Well, what if I wasn’t? What would I have to do?” So they told me all the things I would have to do. So then I just sort of did all these things. I found a wall, a really good wall. I didn’t realize that I was a wall hunter. I knocked on the door of this place. There was a paper maché cow outside this business. It said, “Love animals, don’t eat them.” So I’m like, okay, this is a good sign. I’m a vegetarian. So I went in, I just said to the person, “I’d like to paint a mural on your wall.” And they were like, “Okay.” It was so easy.
So I did a design. I went and talked to people from my neighborhood. I did all these steps and then I called the city of LA back. They said, “You’re still past the deadline. You’re not understanding. Apply next year.” I was like, “Oh, I don’t want to apply next year.” So I drove downtown. I dropped off all my materials on the executive director’s desk, and then I called them every day for months. And finally I got a call. This person said to me, “We hope we never hear from you again. You have the grant.” I was like, “I have the grant!” And the grant was like $300 to do this massive wall in Santa Monica. So I panicked because I had been sort of disingenuous on my application. I said I did murals all over Stanford’s campus. Of course I didn’t. I just painted large. So then some people said to me, “Oh, you should call the city of Chicago — actually, the Chicago Public Art Group.” I did call them, and they sent me a book that I still have on my bookshelf, and it took people through all the steps of painting a mural. And it’s underlined and I have notes in the margins, and I followed it really carefully.
I went back to my neighborhood, I hired the people. And so then I started painting this mural, and I completely fell in love with mural painting because of the way it makes art available to everybody. Strangers were stopping by. We’re talking about politics, social change issues, neighborhood issues. And then it was time to dedicate the mural. And people are like, “You need someone famous to dedicate it.” And I’m like, “I’m 22 from New Jersey. I don’t know anyone famous.” And they’re like, “Jane Fonda lives up the street.” So I like marched up the street. I’m totally covered in paint. So I knocked on the door and Jane Fonda answered. I was like, oh my God, it’s Jane Fonda. She goes, “Hello.” I said, “Hello, my name is Jane Golden.” She goes, “I know who you are. You’re painting the mural. I’ve been watching it. And you have all women on your crew, and you move scaffolding, and you’re carrying all that paint. I’m impressed.” I said, “Well, thank you because we would like you to cut the ribbon at our mural dedication.” And she said, “What else can I do?” I said, “You could bring friends.” And she did. She brought lots of friends. Anyway, so this mural changed my life because it was like an epiphany that, oh, public art has power, and working in public space is totally thrilling. And then I started doing one mural after the next, after the next.
Meghan Stromberg: I love the part of the story where you’re talking about going to the neighborhood, getting artists from the neighborhood, and the conversations that just happen during the course of the project. I mean, that is really community engagement.
Jane Golden: That’s right. Back then, I didn’t even know what I was doing, but it was so spontaneous and wonderful and enriching. And it was like suddenly I was in conversation with all these people, and every mural I did afterwards, it was the same thing. So eventually when I came to Philadelphia and I was hired to work for the Anti-Graffiti Network and started working in neighborhoods, that’s when I really sort of got a glimpse of what art could do.
Meghan Stromberg: You mentioned the Anti-Graffiti Network, and I’m just going to tell people a little bit about that. That’s really where Mural Arts sort of grew out of, right?
Jane Golden: Yes, exactly.
Meghan Stromberg: That was a program launched by Mayor Wilson Goode’s administration to nurture graffiti artists and recruit them for municipal beautification projects. So it was really a sense of taking artists who were already doing art and sort of re-channeling them to something more palatable to the city, maybe?
Jane Golden: Yes, exactly. In fact, I give Wilson Goode a lot of credit because cities everywhere were dealing with graffiti through traditional means of just painting them out. And Wilson Goode said, “I’m going to work with young people who are writing on walls, and together we’re going to help clean up Philly.”
Meghan Stromberg: And it was a really successful program. What do you think was the secret sauce?
Jane Golden: The secret sauce was, first of all, it had the backing of the mayor. This was a very exciting time in the life of Philadelphia. Wilson Goode was the first Black mayor, and it was like a really big deal. I mean, I hadn’t really spent a lot of time in Philly. I came back east because I was diagnosed with lupus. And I grew up in Margate, New Jersey, and I would spend time with my family. And I was coming up to Philly to go to the hospital here for treatments. And I read about the Anti-Graffiti Network and sent my resume to the mayor’s office and ended up getting hired for this little job to, just as you said, it was to re-channel the negative energy of graffiti writers to something positive. It was hugely vague. I was like, “Oh, this is so interesting.” It was like a visionary program because the seat of power was open to everyone from across the city, especially young people. And Wilson Goode put a lot of money on the table that was used for jobs. So there was a real pathway for young people. Kids came in, they took an amnesty pledge where they swore they’d never write on walls for the rest of their lives. We knew that wasn’t for real, but whatever. It was a beginning. And then they did some scrub time, and if they liked art, they came to me. Very quickly, I had to figure out what am I doing? So we started our programs, after school programs, programs during the day. But my carrot was that we had money for jobs at a really decent hourly rate. I mean, it was like he was ahead of his time then. We had 3,000 kids in the summer painting murals. We had our year-round crew, and kids could move on to a city job. It’s like now when we think about violence in our cities, we’re like, “What do we do? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a jobs program where people are doing meaningful work would really make a difference.”
And so we were doing it back then, and I think that was the secret sauce. But it was also, the person I co-led this little art division with, he had been a teacher, and so we were like, “Look, the graffiti writers are like natural muralists. They are good wall hunters. They don’t mind the outdoors. They like art. They’re going to love mural painting.” And so we introduced mural painting. And I think that just like I fell in love with mural painting, they fell in love with mural painting. And, you know, suddenly young people who are part of a cycle of not just graffiti — it was like a lot of things going wrong in their lives, their lives were pretty fragile — but then they started making their mark on the city in big, bold, beautiful, inspiring ways. And it was like art became a lifeline. And what I saw was huge amounts of talent. I also saw very few opportunities.
Meghan Stromberg: It’s an amazing story, and it’s an amazing program. The Anti-Graffiti Network, it helped to give birth to Mural Arts Philadelphia. So here we are. The program’s been going for … is it 30 years?
Jane Golden: Since 1998.
Meghan Stromberg: And there’s 4,000 public works of art in Philadelphia thanks to this program. Jane, I’m wondering if there is anything special about Philadelphia that makes it such a great place for murals. You’ve captured sort of the human and artistic factor and even how it can help rebuild lives and communities. So what is it about Philadelphia?
Jane Golden: Well, you know, Philadelphia has a very close relationship with the arts. When I look across the city and I think about the cultural sector, it’s really alive and vibrant and always has been. But I think it’s also a very diverse city, a city of neighborhoods. It’s a gritty city. You know, people here are just very interesting. I do love this city, but it is interesting, and I think some of my colleagues across the country were actually very surprised that Philly would lead the nation in a community-based public art program. But I think people early on — and I’ll credit the Anti-Graffiti Network, it was almost like getting three graduate degrees in how one works with community and with the city government and builds, you know, a cohort that sits somewhere between the public, the private, the social, the civic and the aesthetic — I think it sort of taught me how you have to be highly strategic in the work you’re doing, very respectful, really value and shine a light on the authorship across the city. That you have to very carefully build support for what you’re doing by allowing a lot of people into a civic space, right? So it’s in some way the most democratic form of public art, murals.
And so it was this conversation that started in 1984 with the Anti-Graffiti Network and is going on to this day. And there’s something really wonderful about that. So I think that it’s — people feel this great sense of involvement and connection and that the work is really theirs. The work in our city is co-owned, so we have a waiting list of several thousand people that want murals. And so I would say that there is an openness to people here. They early on developed an appetite for art that never went away. And that people think a lot about their community and how it’s defined. And murals became a way early on of putting a stake in the ground and saying, “I am here, this is my neighborhood.” And, in essence, almost a mirror that we held up to people and said, “Your life really counts.” So that the murals, the 4,000-something murals — whether it’s a huge community process or maybe a small, intimate one — there’s always something that’s resonant with the community. This is not work that’s parachuted down from the sky.
Meghan Stromberg: It’s really encouraging what you’re saying, because there are special, dedicated people and amazing neighborhoods and forces for change in every city and every place, which means, to me, that something like this program could happen anywhere.
Jane Golden: That’s right. We have a Mural Arts Institute now where we’re working with cities across the country. And honestly, it’s like a knowledge exchange. As cities are learning from us, we’re learning from them, and we’re thinking writ large about the field of art and social practice, art and civic engagement. What does it mean to look at art in a way that really sees it as something useful, that we can be both aspirational and pragmatic at the same time, right? And so it’s an infusion of beauty.
We deal with the most intractable problems in the city of Philadelphia, little ones. And then it’s just sometimes just for beauty we’re doing the work. And we have all these programmatic divisions. So we see art moving the needle, we see art inspiring people, we see everything in between. And as we look over the landscape across the country — and now we’re working in some cities internationally — there’s this engine going that hums of people who are, as you said, dedicated community leaders and activists and organizers and people who see things before they happen. And so there’s a belief that things can change. And art is a way of opening that up and saying, “I see potential.”
Meghan Stromberg: Coming up, we’ll ask Jane what planners can learn about community engagement for muralists and how they can work with artists to bring public art to cities. But first, a word from our sponsors.
Learn how to create a resilient and sustainable community with the three-day Scenario Planning for Urban Futures Certificate Course from Nexus at the University of Michigan. This course will run from May 17th through 19th and is available remotely or in person in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Visit nexus.engin.umich.edu/sp2023 to learn more and explore early bird pricing. That’s nexus.engin.umich.edu/sp2023. Sign up soon, and become a lifelong learner with Nexus.
Meghan Stromberg: I want to turn to the subject of environmental justice. I know it’s something that’s a core concern of Mural Arts Philadelphia. And of course, it’s something that’s very important to planners and to communities. I want to read something from your website. It says, “David Harvey defines the right to the city as a right to change ourselves by changing the city.” How does that definition guide the work of Mural Arts?
Jane Golden: Oh, I think it’s really central to what we do because within each person there is this ability to open up to issues, to change in some way, to move and bend. And I think of a lot of our constituents we work with — people who have been impacted by the criminal legal system, people in the behavioral health system, our art education program, some of the work we do in communities — and there is a feeling that somehow people will stay the same, that change can’t happen. So the stigma that is sort of hovering over people becomes paralyzing. And yet, within each person there’s genius and gifts and talents and something really extraordinary that’s gone unrecognized. And in the work we do, we always see potential. Like from the very first graffiti writers that I met when they opened their black books and saw their glorious drawings to today. And I feel that we’re involved in a process of unlocking this potential and reminding people that the city does belong to them, that they have as much of a right to be here as anyone else. This is really about thinking about equity and democracy and who do cities belong to. Is it just to a few people — people with means — or is it everyone? As public space gets increasingly turned into privately owned spaces, how do we think about that? And how do we use art as a tool of reclamation of an individual life and space? We see people changing individually, and they’re changing the built environment of the city of Philadelphia at the same time.
So our guild participants, people who’ve come out of prison or the county jail, when they’re out there in neighborhoods creating something beautiful, they’re part of the heartbeat of our city in very essential ways. I want them to really understand that. It’s sort of a mirror of something happening at the same time: individual change, communal change, civic change, the impact on the civic life of a city, as Philly is an outdoor museum, but one with resonance and meaning. It’s like a multitasker, right?
So when I read that quote, that’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking people are moving individually. They’re then inspired to impact our city. And that impact is touching other people, who then feel that sense of ownership and connection to the city. So the city sort of hums with people feeling connected instead of alienated.
Meghan Stromberg: I’m picturing some of the neighborhoods that you’re talking about, and I haven’t been to Philadelphia in a long time, but there are probably a number of them that are impacted by environmental justice concerns, right? They’re by a highway. They’re by a polluting factory, etc. And one of the things you said really resonated with me. You were saying both that participation in this program and the actual physical act of creating a lasting piece of art tells everybody else, “We’re here. We matter. See us, and see our needs, and see our right to the city.” At the same time, you’re talking about the growth and change that happens in the people themselves. Could it make them better advocates for driving the change that needs to happen?
Jane Golden: Oh, 100%. 100% it does. In our environmental justice division, it’s a flat structure: grassroots activists, advocates, organizers. And everybody is sort of creating together. And they’re talking about policy. They’re talking about how things change. They’ve created this great program called Trash Academy that helps people think about how do we clean up the city in non-traditional ways. We’re doing a big climate justice project that has come out of the minds and hearts of hundreds of people. And there’s this acknowledgement that when environmental “bads,” as we call them, happen, who’s being impacted? Disproportionately, it’s neighborhoods, people of color. And through the work that is, I would say, contagious, it sort of brings people along to be organizers and activists. This work is not didactic. It’s not prescriptive. Instead, it comes out of this very organic process of collaboration. And because of that, it’s sort of transformative in some way.
In our criminal legal work, I think that talking about probation reform or life without parole or the impact of prison on families, mass incarceration — whatever topic it is we’re taking on — suddenly our constituents become not just passively involved in filling in squares of paint, but their vision, their point of view, that really matters. And that gets taken into account in the design and the process. And then they’re engaging with policymakers, maybe people from the mayor’s office, commissioners, probation officers, whoever it is. But that’s important that this work be a cross-section of our city and that we build connections and empower people to really see themselves as a change agent.
I think artists are change agents. I think they’re amazing and make our world a better place. And that spark, that light that exists in artists, we want that spark to be in everybody and then to take that spark, right, as both a challenge and an opportunity to make our world a better place.
Meghan Stromberg: I love that. It really comes back to community engagement, right? And that’s something that planners talk about all the time. That planners who, of course, are our audience, are very good at. And I’m just wondering, what do you think planners — many of whom are policymakers or who influence policy or who help decide how the city is going to change and help lay that framework — what could they learn from this process, do you think?
Jane Golden: Well, I think that they could learn to see the richness that exists when art is centered. I feel that when I look at Philly, I love our city, but sometimes I feel woeful when I see, sort of, buildings just going up and not a lot of thought to the architecture. And neighborhoods that had a character, now, suddenly, that character is, you feel like, “Oh my goodness, what’s happening here?” And so how do we plan our cities to center our humanity? To center justice? To think about equity? To think about what makes a neighborhood really function or a community — green space, certain amenities, certainly the arts — so that we don’t lose the heart and soul of the city? And that’s what I think is so primary and why I think it’s so interesting when we do work with planners or architects and designers, and we can think collectively about what could be here. In fact, I always love it when we’re called in on the beginning of a project that we could really think together about this. If I were mayor, had a little magic wand, I would have artists involved in every single department because I think that when artists are at the table, they’re able to identify things that we often don’t see, and that is really an act of discovery and creativity that is very, very important.
Meghan Stromberg: Is there a project in your mind that stands out as one that was particularly successful because it took so many different people to bring it together, people at the government level, maybe people in the planning department?
Jane Golden: Yeah. I mean, we did a project many years ago called Philly Painting where we worked with these two artists from Holland, and they spent probably 18 months in Philadelphia, and they did brilliant color on the sides of probably 100 buildings. And we worked with the planning department, the commerce department, other departments that were also bringing in different city services because we were able to leverage the art and build great excitement for what was going on. I think there was also a lot of local and national attention for this project, and so I think it was a real spark. And if I were sort of to create a diagram of that project and then what happened afterwards, I think that — while not a perfect project by any stretch, it had lots of complications as many big public art projects do — I do think it had a catalytic impact on the community. And so I enjoyed working with such a large village of people to bring that project to life. We have a number of projects like that where we’ve had to work with many people and really be a bridge between the public and private sector. And I always find that really interesting.
Meghan Stromberg: I’m wondering how planners can help better enable the creation and the appreciation of public art. Who should they be making connections with, and what challenges should they be prepared for as they move forward in that effort?
Jane Golden: That is an excellent question. As planners are working, if they could reach out to, wherever they are, if there is a public art program like Mural Arts, an office of arts and culture. I think that working with the city’s planning department and trying to figure out who’s doing public art — be it sculpture or murals or other ways of working in that city — would be really critical. What’s happening now in Philadelphia is that gentrification is so real and so rapid that you feel sometimes like, “What could stop it?” And in some way, I think planners can really help. Like, how can we use their foresight and the way they think about cities to help us feel not so alone? Because I think sometimes you feel that these market forces are going so fast that how do you ever get ahead of it? And I think the way to get ahead of it is through smart policy, is through advocacy and through working collectively. I am really convinced of that. And so the more we could work with planners, people who are working on developing different parts of the city, I think that is like music to my ears.
In fact, we’re working now with the Philadelphia Housing Authority in a part of Philadelphia called Sharswood, and we had the benefit of working with a large group of people, creating a real plan that was submitted to [the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development]. Looks like we’re going to get the grant, and for the next two years, we’re going to be able to work there. We’ve also applied for some state funding around affordable housing to look at Southwest Philadelphia. And believe me, if we get the grant, we’re going to want to work with planners. We’re going to want to understand what’s going on here. What efforts can we tie into? Because when people in other cities ask about our efforts, the best way you can sustain your work is not to work alone. Because when you work alone, it’s random, right? Any city can do a mural. It’s different to be able to bring along the public and private sector, to bring along philanthropy, to bring along the mayor’s office and major departments and say, “Art has a value. It matters in the lives of people all the time, and we just need to understand it instead of marginalizing it.” So instead of putting it over to the side, put it in the mix, and think about how art impacts communities. And then if you, on the front end, can really be thoughtful about how a community can look and feel and be, I think we all benefit.
Meghan Stromberg: I think so, too. This has been such a wonderful conversation and I wonder if we could close it with a little bit of a thought exercise. So in a perfect city, what would a mutually beneficial relationship between the planning department and muralists look like?
Jane Golden: I think in a perfect city, one would not have to convince the powers to be that art has value. We’ve made it through five mayors, so there have been moments of great glory when people who have creativity, authority and a budget actually recognize the value of the arts — because you need all three, actually, to make the trains run in city government. And so you would have people at the top of the food chain who say, “Art matters! And the way the big departments should do business is that you should think about the role that artists can play in the different issues that you’re tackling all the time. And to the planning department, what we would like you to do is to meet with the mural arts program four times a year. Let them know where you’re working, how you’re working. Convene meetings for discussion, for discourse. Be open to a range of artists, from the self-taught artists to artists who have been doing this for a really long time. Think about: Could we be working with theatre artists or dance or photographers or print makers? Like the range of public art making is so vast now and so rich, and there’s so much talent in a city like Philadelphia. It’s just abundant. And how can we bring these groups together for the betterment of a neighborhood?” That’s what I would love to see.
I would just love to see that it just becomes a way of working rather than an aberration. Like once every five years we’ll get together, or we come in, and people are sort of baffled, and we don’t really know what to do, and it’s a chore. And do we really have to bring in those mural people?
I think there’s like an acknowledgment that we’re all on the same side. That what we want is a better city, a city that functions better on behalf of all the citizens. I think that the way to do that is to work together and to acknowledge in some deep way that the world that we’re creating today is the one that we’re passing on. And it should be a world filled with beauty and peace and art. At Mural Arts we have this saying about art igniting change, and when I say it out loud, I sort of wince for a minute and I think, oh, it feels like a cliché. Except I’ve been a witness to the profound power of art for 30 years. And so I can say that with great conviction, and I just want others to be able to hold it in their hands and understand that art is totally transformative.
Meghan Stromberg: You and everyone that you’ve worked with at Mural Arts certainly have transformed Philadelphia in visual ways that everyone can see and, it sounds like, in so many other ways that are not as visible to the eye. And I thank you for what you’ve done for the city and how you and artists everywhere can continue that work of sparking change in cities. Thanks very much.
Jane Golden: Oh, thank you. I get so excited when I talk about these things. I could become air bound.
Meghan Stromberg: Thank you, Jane Golden. It’s been such a pleasure to talk with you.
Jane Golden: Thank you.
Meghan Stromberg: This episode was sponsored by the University of Michigan. Register for the Scenario Planning for Urban Futures Certificate Course from Nexus at the University of Michigan. Attend May 17th through 19th remotely, or in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Explore early bird pricing on the course page, and sign up soon. Visit nexus.engin.umich.edu/sp2023 to learn more. That’s nexus.engin.umich.edu/sp2023.
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