Gracing the City

Jane Golden has made Mural Arts the nation's top public arts program. Her mission: To save the city's soul, one wall at a time.

Posted: July 27, 2008

The chauffeur waits in a white stretch limo for the two women, both artists in their 50s, both named Jane.

One is glamorous, with camera-ready makeup, lustrous curls, and impeccable figure.

The other is '60s-hipster plain. Thick shoulder-length hair, T-shirt and dark trousers, slouchy socks and black suede desert boots.

They're laughing as if they've been friends for years, but they met only the night before. That was at the Wall Ball, the annual fund-raiser for Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, widely considered the premier public art agency in the nation.

Jane Seymour, the actress, she of the multiple Golden Globes, was staying at the Loew's hotel. An artist herself, she was heading to the Jersey Shore the next morning for a one-woman show of her paintings.

When she walked into the ballroom, filled with the city's glitterati, she created a small buzz. But the star of the evening was Jane Golden, who for the last 25 years has served as fierce mother to Mural Arts, one of Philadelphia's most beloved, and sometimes vilified, organizations. Where some see inspiration, others see polemics.

Mayor Nutter, Golden's longtime friend, took the microphone in tribute, calling her - affectionately - a pest. Everyone laughed, knowing that her idealist's zeal makes her inexhaustible, and at times irritating.

Trying not to panic, Araceliz Heredia, 17, a high school junior from Kensington, spoke movingly of how Mural Arts had given her confidence, a scholarship, and a way to help her community.

Seymour, who also funds art programs for inner-city kids, was impressed. Golden's response - would she like a personal mural tour? - was as reflexive as Ty Pennington asking to show the TV audience the finished house.

Now the limo driver crosses the Vine Expressway and the two Janes come upon portraits of immigrants Golden and a group of teens painted over a graffiti wall in 1994.

"Look at that one!" Seymour gasps.

They zigzag through Fishtown and Fairmount, over to Girard, then Ridge, guided by the map in Golden's head of the city's nearly 2,800 murals.

All along, Golden's warm hazel eyes light up as she tells stories. About Mrs. Hodges, the grandmother who made lemon cake for the muralists painting the side of her rowhouse. About the portrait of Herman Wrice, an activist in Mantua. About the 3,000 kids MAP works with every year and the school where students welded a fence of lovely metal flowers.

Seymour listens, rapt.

Golden beams. "There's just so much to show!"

Invitation to Hanoi

For two decades, through four administrations, Golden has led the Mural Arts Program (MAP), tending to its needs, fighting for its survival.

Her collection of awards includes the city's highest civic honor, the Philadelphia Award, and several honorary doctorates, the latest from Villanova in May. Her reputation only grows. The month before, the Ford Foundation invited her to consult on an ambitious mural project commemorating Hanoi's 1,000th anniversary.

But she balked at traveling to Vietnam, reluctant to leave her work in Philadelphia, the more than 40 ongoing projects and a waiting list of 1,000 communities and groups asking for murals.

For weeks, she told no one about the invitation and tried not to think about it.

Lately, the 52-year-old artist and "social entrepreneur" hears from other cities all the time. Two weeks ago, the mayor of Paris called about a growing graffiti problem. Dubai and Madrid have been in touch.

They want to know how to reproduce her program.

Tall order, says Phil Goldsmith, former managing director of Philadelphia. "Because you can't replicate Jane Golden. You can copy some of what we've done, but you can't replicate her leadership."

Golden's tireless advocacy is more than just the liberal leaning of a nice Jewish girl with a talent for painting. What Golden does puts her way beyond that, deep into the land of the frankly obsessed. She works six, even seven days a week, from early morning often until past midnight. And no matter how much time and energy she puts in, it is never enough.

"You start with the assumption that you're not going to save everyone, but you're going to try," she says. "And when you fail, it's so heartbreaking."

She didn't initiate Mural Arts. That was the work of the late Tim Spencer, a troubled young activist Mayor W. Wilson Goode tapped to deal with graffiti gangs. Golden took his subversive little experiment - persuading nocturnal wall writers to trade spray paint for real brushes - and turned it into what it is today: a $6.9 million urban force that trains mural artists, provides after-school programs in painting, sculpture and metal work, and enlists at-risk kids, community groups, churches, businesses, truants, juvenile delinquents and convicted murderers in producing art for the public good.

Reformed graffiti writers have gone on to careers in art, education, business and the ministry. Teddy Harris, the former tagger "Knife," is now a poet. She couldn't reach all of them. "Spel," whom Golden tried to recruit, now works with her on projects in Graterford, where he's been a prisoner for 24 years.

Scores of articles and several books have been written about Golden and her work, but little has been published about her personal life. How she came to sustain Mural Arts and be sustained by it.

Or how, even after all her success, a single mean-spirited critic can still wound her deeply.

The city pays Golden $80,000 a year and gives her a budget of $940,000, which she supplements through fund-raising. She also hunts for walls, the blank canvases, throughout Philadelphia. Once a wall's owner agrees to a mural, Golden's troops distribute flyers to everyone within several blocks of the site, inviting them to brainstorm about what the art should convey and how the muralist, recruited from among the most accomplished in the country, will translate that idea into a design.

It is a delicate negotiation. Not only does the entire community have to reach a philosophical consensus about its image, but residents must then agree with the artist's creative interpretation.

Among the several thousand murals - and now sculptures - gracing Philadelphia, most are beloved, and many, exquisite. Autumn, for example, by David Guinn, at Ninth and Bainbridge, is a shimmering landscape of late October trees bursting in orange, gold and cinnamon. Common Threads, by Meg Saligman, at Broad and Spring Garden, celebrates characters alive with personality and posturing.

Detractors, however, fault the program, and Golden's leadership, for producing work that is insipid or didactic. Some murals, they say, elevate the wrong people to near idol status or, by portraying up-from-the-ashes struggles, brand a neighborhood as a home to drugs and violence. Others complain that not enough artists of color are hired to do the work.

"None of this is easy," Golden says. "Often I think to myself, I should have gone to law school."

Hurtful criticism

Funded by a generous Knight Foundation grant, Mural Arts has worked for the past three years in five North Philadelphia neighborhoods, creating writing workshops, mosaic classes and a mural for each community. The last was to go up in Strawberry Mansion. But in April, after months of planning, the project came to a halt when a few activists accused Golden of ramming through an ill-conceived design.

"We have been critics because of the lack of community participation," said Al Alston, president of the African American Business and Residents Association. Alston said his members didn't learn about the mural until it was a fait accompli, and some found the design historically inaccurate and insulting. One accused Golden of racism.

The bitterness of the attacks sent her reeling.

All MAP murals require compromise and consensus. Most projects go smoothly, she says, but once or twice a year, they get tangled up in debate. When that happens, Mural Arts often becomes the target for the frustration. And since Golden is the director, inevitably some darts are thrown at her.

"Yikes," she says. "You'd think after all these years, I'd be equipped not to absorb it."

But it hurts.

"What I don't understand," she says, "is why Mural Arts is the lightning rod for these huge social issues. . . . We could go away tomorrow and these intractable problems will still be there."

The day after that bruising meeting, Golden sat in her office with her head in her hands.

She'd been on the phone all morning and was now talking to Patricia Coyne of the city's Commission on Human Relations. Pressing her thumbs to her eyes, holding back tears, Golden said, "I want reconciliation. I know that sounds corny, but I do."

Several of her advocates in City Hall tried to reassure her that the criticism was unwarranted. Any problems with the mural design could be remedied; she didn't need to subject herself to more personal attacks.

She was determined, however, to meet with the group at least once more. As the date approached, Golden worried herself sick.

"I was walking downstairs in my house and thinking, if I trip and fall, I won't have to go to this meeting."

Just another tour

Golden met her husband, Tony Heriza, in Philadelphia when they were in their mid-30s, in 1989. An antiwar activist who studied history at Antioch, Heriza recalls, "I immediately liked her intensity. Her energy."

Golden asked if he'd like a personal tour of the city's murals. He was flattered, thinking she wanted to do something special for him. "Then I learned she offers to take everyone on a tour."

They were married in 1991 and moved to what Heriza, a documentary filmmaker, describes as "a complex neighborhood." "There was a liquor store across the street and drug dealers on the corners," he says. "We called the police at least once a week. That made Jane's parents nervous, but it was by no means rougher than the neighborhoods where she worked."

Her parents, Gloria and Sandy Golden, say that growing up in Margate, N.J., Jane was always adventurous and competitive.

"She had to be first and best at everything," says her mom. "We sent her to day camp when she was 5. She couldn't swim, so she asked to take lessons. By the next summer, she was the best swimmer. At 10, she entered the boardwalk art show and won first prize for her watercolor landscape. The competition was for high school kids, but she was so talented . . . "

Golden transferred from Mount Holyoke to Stanford to study art. When she graduated, she followed her boyfriend to Los Angeles.

"It was smoggy and everyone was blond and had a manager and an agent," she says. But then she discovered the city's mural arts program. She applied, but was told she'd missed the deadline.

Undeterred, she found a perfect wall and knocked on the door. A hippie, one Ronnie Bruce, answered. She recalls the conversation:

"I'd love to do a mural on your building," she said.


"Would you like to see samples of my work?"

"Not particularly," Bruce said.

Golden came up with a design, enlisted local residents to work with her, and went back to the mural program to appeal for the grant.

"You're still past the deadline," they said. So she called them every day for months.

In December, her phone rang. "Is this Jane Golden?"

"Yes. Who is this?"

"We hope we never hear from you again."

"Excuse me?"

"This is the L.A. mural program. You have the grant."

The $300 paid for some rickety scaffolding, old paint, and a stipend for her crew.

Halfway through the project, the Los Angeles Times wrote about her mural. The next day, a man in a suit came by, and introduced himself as Herb Bolger.

"That name isn't familiar, is it?" he asked.

"No," she said. "Should it be?"

He laughed. "I'm the owner of this building."

"What about Ronnie Bruce?"

Bolger said Bruce was his tenant, and behind in the rent.

Golden let the seriousness of the situation sink in. Then asked, "Well, do you like the mural?"

Bolger smiled. "Very much."

"Oh, good," she said, and got back to work.

Brush with mortality

When she was 27, Golden fell ill and spent a year trying to find out what was making her hands stiff, giving her sores and fevers, and draining her energy. Hospitalized after a particularly bad bout, which produced a telltale butterfly-shaped face rash, Golden was finally diagnosed with lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that can be fatal when it attacks the kidneys.

The doctor told her bluntly, "You aren't going to have a very long life," she recalls. Frightened, and 3,000 miles from home, she broke down.

"But then a nurse came in and said that she had lupus, too, and that she was healthy and fine. She told me . . . if I took care of myself, I could live a perfectly normal life."

Golden was so grateful for the reassurance, she says, that in Philadelphia she made sure to dedicate a mural to nurses.

Still, from that moment, she has felt as if she's in a race against time. Sick and struggling to cope, she returned home to her family.

"When I came back to Philadelphia and joined the Anti-Graffiti Network and started working with these kids from tough neighborhoods, I realized I had never felt so at home. I knew this is where I belonged."

Her dad, who founded a successful discount chain that sold housewares and food, taught her that art was a form of social commentary. "He would give me plays and poetry written during the WPA."

She may have inherited her social conscience from her parents, but the intensity with which she acts on it derives from something more visceral: the pain that is her constant companion.

She rarely complains, but her suffering shows in the wince when she hoists her laptop, the awkward tilt of her shoulders as she shifts her weight off one hip, or the drift of her hand down to squeeze an aching knee.

"I don't like to give in to it," she says. "There are moments when I cry. I think I just can't do it any more, push that boulder up the hill. But feeling sorry for myself is pointless, so I find ways to get energized."

Her disease made having children impossible. She had five debilitating miscarriages, until she was 42 and her doctors told her to stop trying.

"She is the favorite aunt among her nieces and nephews," says her brother, Jon, a Florida lawyer. And through her work "she's been a mother to thousands." (Plus her beloved cats, Larry and Mazy, and Ruby, her big German shepherd mix.)

Her Fairmount house is decorated with several landscapes she has painted, but it has been years since she has found time to do her own art. "I'm not very good at balance," she confesses.

Most of the time, Golden tucks away her regrets in one of the "compartments" she keeps in her head. When illness intrudes, she makes visits to a lupus clinic - where she always finds perspective.

"I see people on dialysis at my age and I say, 'Snap to it, Jane! You've got nothing to complain about.' "

She responds the same way to the daunting problems of the inner city. When she starts to despair, she says, "I get angry - and inspired."

This determination to subdue pain with work combines with her perfectionism, making her indomitable in the pursuit of her mission. Nothing can shake her belief that art saves lives.

It saved hers.

'A madness to her'

Mural Arts staffers accept that Golden sets impossible standards, and an unmatchable pace.

"There is a madness to her," says Kathryn Ott Lovell, director of development, "and a brilliance, too." When Lovell was hired in 2005, the program had had three development directors in three years. "The last woman in the job," she laughs, "runs an organic farm now."

It took Lovell a week to identify the problem. "It's like a political campaign the day before the election, only the election never arrives."

The organization was growing so quickly, adding programs, receiving new grants, training more artists. "It was a matter of catching up to ourselves."

The staff had grown from nine in 2001, to 30 when Lovell was hired, to 50 employees today. And with few exceptions, Golden is on top of everything they do.

"Jane is high anxiety," Heriza says. "She's driven by unrealistic notions of what she can or should achieve."

No matter how much she's accomplished, "there's always another mountain to climb."

Which made the prospect of visiting Hanoi a problem. It meant weeks away from Mural Arts.

"She didn't even tell me about it for awhile," he says. "When she finally did, I said, 'You don't want to go? What an incredible opportunity!' "

The moments in Vietnam when Golden seemed happiest were those working with Nguyen Thu Thuy, the artist leading the Hanoi mural project. Pulling a van into a narrow alley, on a day of wilting heat, Thuy and her husband, Cuong, showed Golden and consultants from Chicago and California the studio where children were making mosaics for a four-mile-long mural along the city's edge.

Thuy learned about Golden from Michael DiGregorio, the Ford Foundation's program officer for arts and culture in Hanoi. During a visit to Philadelphia, DiGregorio had gone with Golden to see the Mural Arts program at Graterford Prison. He immediately thought of her when he was helping Thuy obtain a foundation grant.

"Hanoi has become a city of migrants," DiGregorio explained during a meeting in his office. "The problem for many is that they have no sense of place."

Thuy's project could help new residents feel part of their community.

Golden nodded. Philadelphia faces a similar challenge, getting the disenfranchised to feel they have a stake in their neighborhood.

Thuy and Golden are kindred spirits with the same warmth, passion for art, and foxhound tenacity. In the foundation's offices, they discussed strategies for raising money.

Thuy had 200 volunteers and a promise of government support, but costs were still an issue.

"We started out as a government program," Golden told her. "People were resistant, but because it was getting rid of graffiti, they went along with it. When it crossed the line into creating art, however, they started arguing that the money should be spent on fixing potholes. . . . People ask, 'Shouldn't we be providing jobs or feeding the homeless?' But when it comes to saving the soul of the city, how do you not fund that?"

At the end of the 10-day trip, Golden visited a village known for its pottery. The visitors were asked to sculpt a clay tile for Thuy's mural.

With a tiny blade, Golden carved a long, thin curve, then paused. She told Thuy she was thinking of all the Strawberry Mansion drama.

"We encourage people to participate. That integrates art into life. It's a process," Golden said. "It's incremental."

"Step by step?" Thuy asked.

"Exactly," said Golden. "Step by step."

Then she turned back to her tile. Her shoulders dropped. Her face relaxed. And she gave herself over to the blissful respite of art.

Back home, at work

Although the jet lag after her return from Hanoi was hobbling, Golden went right back to work. The day after she landed, she went to New York with a group of kids who were exhibiting their art at a foundation. The following day she met with Mayor Nutter to discuss MAP's finances.

"May I put in my requests now for fiscal 2010?" she asked.

He laughed. "You have the honor of being the first one to do so."

Last week, Jane Seymour's agent got in touch to say the actress wanted to work on a small mural project. She also asked Golden to recommend an artist to paint a mural in her Malibu home.

Golden has heard from her new friends in Hanoi as well. The Ford Foundation will be sending Thuy to Philadelphia to observe the Mural Arts Program in action.

And there has been movement on the Strawberry Mansion project.

The meeting Golden dreaded turned out to be a civil discussion. More than half the people who showed up were Golden's advocates, testifying about how murals improved their community's aesthetics and morale. The critics offered constructive suggestions, asking MAP to do a better job of reaching out to the whole community before settling on a design.

"We've developed new policies," Golden said. "So a lot of good came out of it after all."

On Thursday, she got a call from one of her harshest critics. "We had a good conversation," she said. Golden assured the woman that the project wouldn't go forward until everyone was happy.

"Then," she said, "I invited her on a mural tour."

Jane Golden's Favorite Murals

Common Threads (1998)

By Meg Saligman

Broad and Spring Garden

Tribute to Jackie Robinson (1997)

By David McShane

2803 N. Broad St.

Autumn (2001)

By David Guinn

Ninth and Bainbridge

Peace Wall (1998)

By Jane Golden

and Peter Pagast

Restored by Peter Pagast, 2006

1308 S. 29th St.

Artsolutely Awesome North Philly (2007)

By Marcus Akinlana

1516 Parrish St.

Healing Walls: Inmate's Journey (2004)

By Cesar Viveros-Herrera & Parris Stancell

3049 Germantown Ave.

Healing Walls: Victim's Journey (2004)

By Cesar Viveros-Herrera & Parris Stancell

3065 Germantown Ave.

Holding Grandmother's Quilt (2004)

By Donald Gensler

3912 Aspen St.

Urban Horseman (2005)

By Jason Slowik

and Keir Johnston

3222 W. Montgomery Ave.

A Celebration of Poetry (2004)

By Parris Stancell

1531 W. Girard Ave.


See videos and Jane Golden's favorite murals at

Contact staff writer Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or

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