For Phila.'s next mayor, think outside the usual canvases

Jane Golden, head of the Mural Arts Program, and artist Cesar Viveros on Germantown Avenue. Her can-do spirit can be seen in artworks all over Philadelphia and is exactly what City Hall needs. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Jane Golden, head of the Mural Arts Program, and artist Cesar Viveros on Germantown Avenue. Her can-do spirit can be seen in artworks all over Philadelphia and is exactly what City Hall needs. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 09, 2012

It seems as if we just had a mayoral election, but that hasn't stopped the band of usual suspects — the lawyers, lobbyists, union bosses, and political hacks who run this town — from beginning to buzz about the 2015 race. They're up to their usual machinations, discussing who's in, who's out, who's a pretender, and how the black vote will split among the assortment of presumed black candidates.

We've seen this movie before. If this crowd were as passionate about governing as it is about seizing power, maybe Philadelphia wouldn't be the most violent, least educated, and highly taxed big city in America.

Such dubious achievements ought to lead to full-throated calls for radical reform. But that's not happening. Maybe it's because even more than the violence, or the beleaguered public school system, or the sclerotic city government, Philly's greatest threat is that we're also among the cities that are most resistant to change. Amazing things are happening in Philadelphia. But our political culture is stuck in a transactional status quo that might be considered a charming anachronism if it weren't so depressing and dangerous.

That's why I got interested when I heard from two prominent civic leaders that Jane Golden, head of the Mural Arts Program, was thinking about running for mayor. Golden is not a politician, at least not in the traditional sense, which probably explains why she didn't even deny the notion when I called and invited her to lunch.

Golden is a force of nature: an outsider by temperament who knows how to play the inside game. She has built the Mural Arts Program into a world-class institution, mostly through her sheer tenacity, which is made all the more remarkable given her diagnosis of lupus 30 years ago.

Being told that you won't live a long life makes you not waste a day, she says. As a result, across the globe, we're now known for our public art. But Golden has also, as she puts it, "moved beyond the wall." In the last few years, she's transformed Mural Arts from a mural-painting operation into an agency of social change.

"I'm flattered that people have approached me about running," Golden says over lunch at St. Stephen's Green restaurant in Fairmount. "I'm so grateful to the Nutter administration for letting me grow Mural Arts in really interesting ways. I have always been interested in government. I majored in poli sci and fine arts at Stanford."

She describes herself as "intrigued" by the notion of elective office. But as our lunch goes on, I realize just how unfamiliar Golden is to the political game when she does something politicians don't do: She starts working the issue out in real time.

"I doubt I'll run for mayor," she says. "When I think of mayor, I feel like I don't know enough. Like, housing issues — I'm so not a policy wonk. I could see myself at some point running for City Council at-large. At the same time, I'm acutely aware of the needs in the city and very much driven by wanting to create solutions."

Years ago, when I first heard Golden talk about her program "saving lives," I rolled my eyes. Painting on some walls was fine and good, I thought, but spare me the melodrama. The more I learned about MAP's work, though, the more I became convinced how important it is. It has transformed neighborhoods.

Because communities partner with artists (sometimes the communities are the artist), where there are murals, there is incredibly little graffiti or debasement. (In the rare instances when there is, such as the recent attack on South Philly's Rizzo mural, Mural Arts is out there to clean it up the next day.) Econsult, the economic analysis firm, says that in on-the-fringe neighborhoods, murals increase property values and retail sales.

That's what's happening in the North Philly corridor at Germantown and Lehigh, where Golden secured city funding — then leveraged it with private dollars — to produce an 18-month program called Philly Painting. Two Dutch artists have moved into North Philly, and their canvas is the neighborhood itself. They paint buildings and public spaces while hiring community members to help. It's public art meets workforce development meets economic stimulus.

That kind of thinking is exactly what we need to change Philly's "can't-do" political mentality, something with which Golden is very familiar. Before Mural Arts became a nonprofit in 1997, it was the Anti-Graffiti Network, the brainchild of then-Mayor Wilson Goode. In the midst of a graffiti epidemic, Golden recruited the city's taggers and brought them to City Hall, where they were pitched on becoming real artists instead of hoodlums.

"I spent the first five years of my life in Philly being told that graffiti is never going away and the kids you're working with are going to end up in jail," Golden recalls. "So now, when those kids are in suits and ties and are software engineers and teachers and designers and photojournalists, I'm beyond proud. And when I get a call from the New York Times, as happened about six months ago, and a reporter says graffiti is going up in cities but not here, I'm just like: ‘You go, Philly!'?"

This is why I think she'd breathe some life into the mayoral race. She's a great civic cheerleader who is incapable of being deterred. At the same time, she's demonstrated an ability to make the maddening city bureaucracy work for her. She gets a mere $950,000 in taxpayer money from the city (almost half of what it once was), but she's used that to secure funding elsewhere; the return on investment of those city dollars has to be as high as any city agency.

Time and again during our talk, she heaps praise on Mayor Nutter, who has long been a friend to the Mural Arts Program. In fact, she doesn't have a bad word to say about anyone in a position of leadership in Philadelphia. It's clear that if she were to run for something — mayor, City Council — it wouldn't be to oppose any one man (and they're pretty much all men in this town) or to implement any set policy. It would, rather, be to experiment with what government can be. A long shot, yes, but maybe someone who has gotten big things done in the face of bureaucratic roadblocks is the perfect person to remake the relationship between the governed and those who govern in Philadelphia.

Our talk turns to the state of leadership nationally. "I'm reading the Steve Jobs book now," Golden says. "And it's got me thinking how much we need leaders with courage and clarity. Purpose-driven people. Jobs' notion of embracing innovation, his sense of merging science and the humanities — I am so inspired by that. Because when you think of the intractable problems we face — where are the solutions going to come from? They're going to come because we're fearless and because we embrace imagination and creativity."

I've long wondered how bad things need to get in Philadelphia before we find someone courageous enough to risk being a one-term mayor. Is Golden that person? I don't know, and I have my doubts — as she does — that she'll actually take the plunge. But I say run, Jane, run. The city, and the race, will certainly be better for it.

And yet, before I can go any further fantasizing about a Golden mayoralty, she's back to being charmingly self-deprecating, telling me stories about her hyperactivity, such as how she tried meditation once — only to immediately open her eyes and ask: "Is that it? Are we done?"

A sense of irrepressible urgency that matches our moment. We could do worse.

Larry Platt's "Town Square" column will appear regularly in Currents. E-mail him at larry.platt@gmail.com.

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