On October 15, I met Jane Golden, founder and director of the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia. In a 20 minute talk, she managed to inspire me enough to think about changing my major from paper to paintings conservation! Though I will probably stick with paper, I’ve become an advocate for the preservation of murals, and if you continue reading her story, you probably will, too.
Jane graduated with a fine arts degree from Stanford. From there, she worked in Los Angeles painting murals until 1984, when she took a job with Philadelphia’s Anti-grafitti Network. Armed with a little bit of money, some paper and markers, Jane ventured onto the streets of Philadelphia to become acquainted with the city’s most sought after graffiti artists. Fortuitously, she hired one of the big names in graffiti as her assistant; he was looking to turn his life around, and provided just the connection Jane needed to infiltrate the graffiti community.
One night, after dark, Jane heard a knock at her door, only to find the entire group of Philadelphia’s most-wanted graffiti artists standing on her porch. She didn’t know whether to call the police or invite them in. Hesitantly, she invited them in, and this event became a major turning point in her career. As an adult female, speaking to a group underprivileged high school drop-outs, Jane’s main goal was to avoid making them feel misunderstood. She described what she was trying to do with the Anti-Graffiti Network, and offered all of the young men paid jobs to create art in the place of graffiti. They didn’t say yes right away, but they did share their treasured sketchbooks with her, and asked her questions about contemporary artists that they admired. Jane was blown away by their knowledge of art, and decided to invite these men to art class as part of the deal.
The following morning, on her way to work, Jane turned onto Broad Street to find every corner covered with graffiti tags. They included all of the names of the men that she had met the night before, plus one more: Cool Jane. Jane was flabbergasted, and a little bit annoyed, especially when her boss wanted to know, “who’s Jane?” The good news is that the graffiti writers both liked and respected her…she just had to let them know who was in charge. Using their paychecks as leverage, Jane managed to get the young men to clean up their tags, sign an agreement that they would no longer tag illegally, and, finally, attend Jane’s art history class at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Begrudgingly, the young men attended Jane’s class at the Museum, and ended up having a great time. During a break, while Jane was organizing some supplies, a panicked security guard rushed into the classroom to fetch Jane. She, in turn, panicked, thinking that the graffiti artists had either stolen something or tried to tag the walls of the gallery! Nope, much better: they were in the museum cafe trying to sell their artwork to the affluent patrons. She just laughed.
From that point on, Jane and her newfound friends moved around the city painting murals and bringing communities closer together. The work that the group completed was truly amazing–the art and the outreach. Somehow, the murals were able to resolve conflict, while also beautifying the most run-down neighborhoods of the city.
In 1996, the funding for the Anti-Graffiti Network was pulled, so Jane moved her group to the department of recreation, and raised enough money to create the Mural Arts Program. Today, there are over 3,000 murals in Philadelphia, only six of which have ever been vandalized. The crew of original graffiti writers now work as a teacher, poet, professional artist, etc. At one point, their life expectancy was age 25, or a long-term prison sentence. Through the inspirational work of Jane Golden, art transformed them into thriving adults, able to contribute back to the city they once defaced.
What this means for the field of conservation: the preservation of the murals is vital in keeping this almost thirty year history alive in Philadelphia. The Mural Arts Program has happily upgraded their materials to include more stable paints, but the weathering of the murals is still an issue, so many of them have to be re-painted before they are lost completely. Amanda Norbutus, PhD candidate in Preservation Studies at WUDPAC, has been researching protective mural coatings as part of her dissertation. You can read more about her work on her blog, then follow these tips to become involved with rescuing public murals. The first step, though, is to see the murals by taking one of the many wonderful tours offered by the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia.
October is Mural Arts Month!