If you left Philadelphia 25 years ago and haven't had a chance to return, you might not recognize it today. Rather than City Hall being the tallest building, with William Penn towering above, a host of skyscrapers jut into the air; to the south, Veterans Stadium has been replaced by a pair of newer sports facilities; and many street corners and neighborhoods once blighted by graffiti now showcase vibrant, multi-colored murals that span the lengths of entire buildings.
These days — no matter where you go in the city — there's a mural nearby, whether it's the "Tribute to Jackie Robinson" on Broad Street, with its photo-realistic black-and-white depiction of Robinson sliding into home plate; or the pastel hues and Hebrew lettering that adorn a wall at the JCC Klein Branch in the Northeast.
All of this is largely the work of Jane Golden, whose Mural Arts Program has overseen the creation of more than 3,000 wall-size murals, and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
But even at such a major milestone — significant in and of itself, but perhaps even more so for a public art program — Golden said that "I feel like it hasn't really been 25 years," pointing out that, although the program technically started in 1984 as part of Mayor Wilson Goode's anti-graffiti efforts, it didn't become the program it is today until 1997, under Mayor Ed Rendell.
Expanding Educational Elements
With that transition, Golden's job "changed dramatically," as the program was put under the city's department of recreation, headed by Michael DiBerandinis (who now leads Philly's recently merged department of parks and recreation under Mayor Michael Nutter). Among other things, it enabled Golden to expand the program's educational element, which includes not just art, but a refresher on many of the basic fundamentals of schooling, including geography, history, writing and even a citizenship component.
Golden noted that "hundreds of kids annually" participate in such extracurricular schooling.
Yet of all the program's nuances within the past quarter-century — including its transition from being part of the anti-graffiti campaign to a public art program in its own right, as well as currently working toward its first "green" wall and incorporating digital projection into one mural — one of the most subtle shifts has been the increase in its Jewish element, whether through community participation, people behind-the-scenes, artists or content in the work itself.
At the same time, much of the work in recent years, said Golden, has become quite spiritual.
"I think that doing my job has actually put me more in touch with my Jewish faith than almost anything else has, because it's so much about giving and charity, and when I think of Judaism, that's what I think of," said Golden.
The arts concern has also been more Jewishly involved in recent years, including creating murals for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's "Mitzvah Mania" day with Jewish muralists at or near Jewish sites — specifically, the JCC Klein Branch in the Northeast and at the John H. Taggart Elementary School, near the JCC Stiffel Center in South Philadelphia.
Much of that, she said, is tied to Judaism's notion of giving back, instilled in her by her parents: "For me, the notion of Judaism and how we live our lives and really trying to live your life with integrity and purpose, it's all very much connected."
While Mural Arts has long been an established presence in Philly, Golden said that the group is pushing to expand beyond the City of Brotherly Love.
The program now provides consulting services nationally and internationally, to public arts programs in cities from Pittsburgh to Paris, and Reading to Rome. Exchange programs also exist for students, such as a recent one with kids from Ireland.
Studies the group has commissioned, said Golden, show that students involved in Mural Arts programs have high rates of graduation, and she said that countless developers have approached her with gratitude for revitalizing neighborhoods that only 10 years ago seemed lost for good.
Golden is also hard at work on a proposed mural honoring Jewish history in Philadelphia — she'll meet soon with leaders of the city's National Museum of American Jewish History to discuss the project. Discussion is also in the works about developing a mural tour around the theme of Jewish heritage.
While any number of murals around town have been created by Jewish artists, few have specific Jewish content.
Yet while not all the murals "directly speak to the Jewish faith or culture in a literal way," explained Mural Arts public engagement officer Amy Johnston, the involvement of Jewish artists "is a contribution that's been made by the Jewish community through them because of their heritage."
But for all the cultural musings and messages in Philadelphia, it's nothing compared with Israel, and Golden mentioned that it's a dream of hers to do some sort of work in the Jewish state.
The group has had internal discussions on possible projects there, but — due, in part, to the current economic situation — talk has not progressed much beyond generalities. Any work to be done in Israel is probably years away.
'A Complicated Process'
No matter the locale, it's no small process for a mural to get made — there's consultations among the city, the artists, the community and more to determine the artwork's content, design and execution.
"It's a complicated process," said Golden. "I think in my next life, I should work for the U.N. because in this one I spend so much of my time negotiating."
Still, she said, all that input gives people a stake in the art and in their community, "and I think our process allows for that to happen."
Having spent much of her life in the service of public art, Golden isn't ready to rest on her laurels just yet.
"When people say to me, 'Oh, you must be so proud of the work,' I say, 'Only for a few minutes.' Because then I go on, and I think: 'What's the next problem, what do we have to deal with, how do we overcome this obstacle? But I think that I remain optimistic and energized because the work is so great."
In part because of the way her role has changed within the organization — shifting from working principally as an artist to now also being an executive — Golden said that she remains invigorated by her work.
Even after 25 years, she said the program remains true to its original mission of providing citizens with art, in addition to promoting art education for young people.
Because it's stayed so close to that vision, she summed up cheerily: "I actually look forward to the next 25 years."