Jane Golden

Arlin M. Adams
Anne d’Harnoncourt

Jane Golden was born in Minnesota and raised in Margate, New Jersey. Her father was the owner of a chain of discount stores and her mother was an artist. After graduating from Stanford University, with bachelor’s degrees in fine arts and political science, Golden moved to Los Angeles in 1977, where she taught art to children in nearby Santa Monica for a few years. She won a $300 grant to create a mural. Thrilled by her experience as a community artist, Golden joined with friends to found the Los Angeles Public Art Foundation in 1981. Golden painted over 50 murals and became a sensation, heralded in the media as the best muralist in California.

H owever, sick with Lupus, and distraught by how often her murals were destroyed by graffiti, Golden moved back east in 1983 to be closer to her family in New Jersey. In 1984 Golden was hired as a field representative for Philadelphia’s Anti-Graffiti Network, led by activist Timothy Spencer and supported by Mayor Wilson Goode. She reached out to graffiti writers and worked to redirect their energies toward “something positive”—in particular, tossing their spray paint cans and picking up paintbrushes. The strategy worked. The graffiti writers were hired to work on murals, and the murals sprouted up throughout the city, generally unmolested by graffiti. Once she started “working with these kids from tough neighborhoods,” Golden recalled, “I realized I had never felt so at home. I knew this is where I belonged.”

In 1996 the Mural Arts Program became its own entity, when the Anti-Graffiti Network was restructured and the art program was transferred to the city’s Department of Recreation. Golden was named executive director. She opened the program’s doors to every child, not just graffiti writers. In 1998 she won the Philadelphia Award, which was, in her words: “a turning point both personally and professionally.” “We had come a long way from our time working with all house paint, big brushes and rickety scaffolding,” she noted.

The murals program had evolved. The community was systematically consulted so that the murals would reflect their wishes. After the permission of the wall owner was secured, a community meeting is held where those present decide upon the subject matter and general design of the mural. Consensus, usually achieved, is required before the project can move forward. Subjects range from autumnal beauty to labor history, and often depict inspirational figures, from everyday folks (heroic nurses or immigrants) to well-known success stories, such as Jackie Robinson or Frank Rizzo. Originally, Golden had been so focused on providing “opportunities for the kids,” that many of the murals had been amateurish. That changed – now an experienced artist is selected by the arts program to create the mural according to the community’s dictates. Inner city youths, community residents, church congregations, parolees and others assist in the painting and the removal of trash from the site.

By 2010 the Mural Arts Program annually served 1,900 young people. The program provides services (including art classes) to recreation centers, schools, libraries, homeless shelters and prisons. The program has produced about 3,000 murals, turning Philadelphia into “the city of murals.” The program’s budget has grown to $6.9 million, with less than a million from the city and the remainder from private sources. The fundamental objective of the program stayed the same throughout the years: to use mural making and art education as a means of saving individuals, preventing crime, spreading hope, and turning around devastated communities. As Golden often says: “Art saves lives.”

Kia Feindt

Sources: Jane Golden in an email interview, July 31, 2010; “Jane Golden,” biography, Mural Arts Program, http://www.muralarts.org/whoweare/j_golden.php; Hadley Groft “ Leaders of Mural Arts Program and the Museum of Art to receive 1997 Philadelphia Award,” PR Newswire Philadelphia. The following are from the Philadelphia Inquirer: Maciej Pawlicki: “A Phila. Artist and her Calling: Murals Transform Neighborhoods and Lives,” Aug. 20, 1989; Ralph Cipriano, “A Mural Idea, a Wall, and It’s a March,” Dec. 10, 1997; Tom Gralish, “Painting the Town,” March 10, 1999; Rusty Pray, “2 Women from Art World Share Philadelphia Award,” June 24, 1998; Alfred Lubrano, “Two Art World Women to Share Philadelphia Award, “ April 9, 1998; “Picture It Like This,” Nov. 17, 2002; Pauline Pinard Bogaert, “Moore College Tips Hats to Three Women of Artistic Vision,” Sept. 30, 2003; Julie Stoiber, “Mural Project, Director Have Colorful History,” Oct. 17, 2004; Melisssa Dribben, “Gracing the City – Jane Golden has made Mural Arts the Nation’s Top Public Arts Program,” July 27, 2008; Dribben, “The Art of Understanding – Film Documents Effort to Bring Offenders and Victims Together via Murals,” July 25, 2009; Dribben, “Philadelphia Team Repairs, Restores Murals,” June 21, 2010; Stephan Salisbury, “”NEA Chief highlights Philadelphia as a Model Arts City,” March 3, 2010, The following are from Philadelphia Award Records: Series 2 (Recipients and Nominees), Box 7, folder 23: support letters, newspaper clippings, biography; Series 4 (Miscellaneous), Box 20, folder 4: Miscellaneous press releases, 1996-1999: Susan V. Beresford, “Americans Must Reopen Minds and Hearts to Art,” June 23, 1998 (remarks made at the presentation of the Philadelphia Award). Photo: Image by Shea Roggio, courtesy of Philadelphia Magazine. Comment : Golden stated in a 2008 interview: “You start with the assumption that you’re not going to save everyone, but you are going to try. And when you fail, it’s so heartbreaking.” Elsewhere Golden has referred to the mission of the mural arts program as “saving the soul of the city.” Placing such a heavy burden on her shoulders is unfair and unrealistic, given how intractable the inner city’s social problems are. Yet, Golden and her murals arts program have brought art, joy, and inspiration to tens of thousands of Philadelphians.