Mural Arts celebrates 30 years

Posted: October 15, 2013

WITH ALL that's going on in the city lately, it's hard to stop and pay attention to a giant mural painted on an old brick wall.

Especially the busy ones that take time to really decipher.

If we did, maybe we'd have more of an appreciation of the things around us that we take for granted: our city's rich history; its musical legacy; its unexpected beauty.

Last week, in honor of the 30th anniversary of the Mural Arts Program, I made a point to take a tour and glance at a handful of the city's 3,000-plus murals, including a massive new one honoring the Roots, in the 500 block of South Street.

I'm no art expert.

In fact, I don't take much notice of it, normally.

For instance, despite all the hours I've hung out at the outdoor tables on 13th Street, I'd never looked up to see the kaleidoscopic mural that looks out over the 100 block of South 13th Street, designed by the identical twin brothers from Spain who go by the names How and Nosm.

I don't have a clue what it's supposed to represent. Would I want something like it in my home? Probably not. But the profusion of red, black and white is a pleasant contrast to an otherwise drab scene.

Nearby on 13th Street there's a mural of the late visionary Philadelphia architect Ed Bacon, gazing down with a thoughtful expression, as if he were contemplating all the revitalization going on in recent years in Market East.

Or, could he be wondering what's up with these murals all around the city? Maybe asking himself when enough's going to be enough?

Because as one critic I spoke to pointed out, "The bottom line is that not everyone is in love with these murals."

The Golden touch

Most Philadelphians are familiar with the story of how Mural Arts got its start as part of an anti-graffiti crackdown launched by then-Mayor Wilson Goode.

The Goode administration hired artist Jane Golden, originally from Margate, N.J., to get taggers to redirect their artistic energies. Their first project: the Spring Garden Street Bridge, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which Golden and some wall writers from Mantua covered with a cityscape using regular house paint.

"Back then, it was more like, 'Do you think this can actually turn into an art program?' And, 'Do you think the Anti-Grafitti Network will really last?' Then, after a while it was, like, 'Oh, this program has really started to grow,' " Golden recently recalled. "But in the back of my mind . . . I thought eventually I would go to law school."

It was her brother who convinced her that she already was where she should be.

"I said, 'What? I got into law school. What do you mean? There is no art program,' " Golden said. "He said, 'Well, why should that stop you? Go talk to Mayor Rendell.' Then, I was just stunned and delighted and grateful that former Mayor Ed Rendell helped create Mural Arts." Back then, Golden never dreamed that the program, which in 1996 became part of the Department of Recreation, would morph into the public-private, quasi-social-services organization it is today, attracting more than $1 million in city money.

Coloring outside lines

Fast-forward 30 years, and Mural Arts has tentacles reaching into all kinds of areas, including art education for at-risk youngsters and restorative justice programming for ex-offenders. Last month, Mural Arts staged a free dinner for 900 to discuss issues surrounding food and consumption.

Last December, Mural Arts finished painting about 50 storefronts, from the 2500 to the 2800 blocks of Germantown Avenue, in vibrant colors. I'm talking pink and aqua and other colors you expect in a tropical environment. The revitalization effort got mixed reviews.

Golden defended the project, saying, "Did it solve everything? No, of course not. I would never say that what we do is a panacea for everything that is wrong with an urban center, but I do feel very strongly that murals and public art can show us the catalytic role that art can play in the life of a city, and I feel that to do nothing is unacceptable."

When I set out to see how others felt about the Mural Arts Program, practically everyone I spoke to, aside from a few of my cynical journalism buddies, was enthusiastic about Philly's being the "mural capital of the world."

"The murals increase our capacity to relate to other people," explained Maureen O'Connell, author of If These Walls Could Talk: Community Muralism and the Beauty of Justice (Liturgical Press, 2012).

"They increase our capacity for empathy," added O'Connell, who chairs the religion department at La Salle University.

Still, over the years, Mural Arts has attracted its share of critics, most notably Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron who, in 1999, raised the question, "Can Philadelphians really absorb so many of these images? Or, in their unending proliferation, do the murals become like the graffiti they were meant to combat, a visual noise?"

Mural Arts is used to second-guessing. Over the years, the program also has had to deal with push back from well-to-do neighbors, such as those on Rittenhouse Square who, in 2008, protested a mural, fearing that it would cheapen the area. Although it went up anyway, Mural Arts wound up disassociating itself from the project.

Moving forward, look for Mural Arts to broaden its artistic reach well beyond paint. Think temporary public-art displays. And projects utilizing photography as well as audio and video are possibilities.

"We don't want to create another 3,000 murals," Golden told me. "It's a really glorious and meaningful tradition, but I also feel it's important not to keep doing the same thing over and over again."

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong


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