Editor’s Note: With a recent spate of murals threatened by development, including David Guinn’s “Autumn,” which will be reinterpreted and repainted in Catharine Street’s Palumbo Park, we sat down with the Mural Arts Program’s Jane Golden to discuss her view on mural permanence, preservation, and relocation–and why she’s conflicted on the issue.
Peter Woodall: We were noticing an uptick in the number of murals–especially well-loved murals–that are being destroyed. And we started to wonder, “Are there more of these situations lately, or is that something that’s always been happening, and we just never noticed it?”
Jane Golden: I think that it has happened in bits and pieces. I remember when many years ago Tish Ingersoll’s tribute to Maxfield Parrish at 11th and Spring Garden, they built in front of it. Now another Tish mural on Spring Garden is being built in front of. I think over time we’re lost murals every year, a few murals have been torn down or people have built in front of them.
Over the last few years I think that a number of really beloved pieces have met a bad fate, and it’s also because the city is changing so much, and you know, you’ve got these neighborhoods where development is happening, or it hadn’t happened. I also think that over the last five years there’s been a heightened awareness and appreciation of our work. So I think the response seems to be quite profound. It’s very moving for me, and it makes me sad, to realize that we are also creating new work at the same time.
PW: How does Mural Arts approach a situation where there’s a plan on the table for the mural to be destroyed or covered over?
JG: I want to say from the beginning that I’m very conflicted about this whole issue. Because on one hand, I become attached, and the community becomes attached to the projects and the murals. On the other hand, I feel that the art isn’t here forever. And that myself, Mural Arts staff, and the artists need to realize that the city is dynamic and fluid and moving. And that I don’t think it would be a good decision to stand in the way of economic development because we would end up fighting all the time instead of creating.
And I see what happened to the mural program in the city of LA, where they spent a lot of time fighting. And I understand they were just causes, but it can really take the energy out of you. So it’s a balance. How do you pick your battles really wisely? For us, we’ve had to look at developers as partners. So our first approach is we go and ask if there’s any way to keep it, or keep part of the project. If not, then is there some way you could fund something new? Maybe something on the new building, or something somewhere else.
And if all of that fails, we document it and bring the community together to have a conversation. And with David Guinn’s “Autumn,” we’re going to redo it. Not the exact same mural, but something with the theme of Autumn will appear on the side of Fleischer. So we try to create a good situation out of something bad. And that’s our challenge. To make people feel that we are partners when things are going right, and when things aren’t going right, and that we will work with you to try to figure this out.
PW: How hard is it to raise money to redo a mural? Is it different from doing a mural the first time?
JG: Unfortunately, what’s going on now is that losing murals is coming at a time when there’s also really limited money. Every organization in the city is feeling the effects of no state money, no federal money, cuts in arts budgets. So it’s hard, it’s tricky. It means that we’ll do less new work. We’ll reroute some money into mural preservation, which we’re doing now, in a pretty robust fashion.
We had money in our budget for a project in Center City, and we found out that the site is historic, and it would take a lot of negotiations to get permission. So I was like, “look, let’s take that money and move it right over to a new ‘Autumn’.” We know people really want it, there’s the will there, the excitement. Everyone was in agreement, and even the homeowner, over at 1330 Lombard, she was sad but she understood that it could take us a year to negotiate in Center City with the Historical Commission, going back and forth. This made just really good sense. So we try to do that. And really, the truth is that we’re going to do less new work anyway. Because there’s less money, and the more we create the more we have to preserve. So for us to say, “we’re going to create another 3,000 murals,” I can be aspirational about that, but it’s really not wise policy.
PW: What does preservation mean for a mural?
JG: It means we’re going to build-in a clause to all our artist contracts that murals will be reviewed in five years. If a building is structurally sound, a mural can last 15-20 years. But the truth is that there are some colors–we have a partnership with the Getty Museum, to learn about new paints and sealers and glazes–there are some paints that are more lightfast than others. Some brands that deliver a better product when it comes to exterior use. And so we’re getting to be so much more knowledgeable. So preservation means you do really good research, you have really good partners, you know your materials.
And we have a really good work plan about what we restore every year for the next two years. We actually have that in place. We have a director of operations and preservation who has really put his heart and soul into creating a preservation program over the last few years. We’re really lucky. And he works with the Getty Museum and the University of Delaware, and both places are extremely knowledgeable, and put it to use in a very real way. They see us as sort of a laboratory. It’s not everywhere in the country that you’re restoring all these murals dating from the 1984 to the present. So it’s actually pretty exciting. But the other thing about mural preservation that’s really interesting is that sometimes what we do is very small, its fine tuning work. You do some scraping, you fix the flashing, you do some touch-ups.Sometimes we have to go in and glaze more, to pop up the colors. Because maybe the artist used a lot of titanium white, which is one of the colors that is not lightfast. We now get some of our paint from another manufacturer named Golden Acrylics (unfortunately no relation). We use different whites, a yellow, and a blue. So that’s made a big difference.
Sometimes the mural is in really bad shape, so we have to take it out completely. That’s a really difficult conversation with the community, because communities have become really attached to the work. We’ve had many organized protests over the last few years protesting against us, like they’re not sure we really are mural arts. People feel like “When I see that mural, it means I’m almost home. It’s like a beacon, part of the fabric of our community. These are all things that I love hearing, because it shows and underscores the value of the work. But we never want the work to become blight. So it’s important that we take out the mural if it was never really good, or it was painted mostly with house paint, or was anti-graffiti, or it was a south facing wall and we never sealed it. Up until we became Mural Arts, which was in about 1997-1998, not that long ago, we used house paint and didn’t seal. So those murals will fade.
PW: With all the new developments, has your decision-making changed as far as where to put murals?
JG: Absolutely. We’re much more judicious about how we select. We do a lot more detective work. We meet with the community. But even that’s not enough, because you can meet with the community and people will tell you “oh, it’s been there (a while) no one’s going to build.” But then we do research and talk to people. And in the end, we make a decision that people might not be too happy about. Like, for example, the decision to paint on the side of Fleisher. Some people in Bella Vista really wanted it in Bella Vista. But the walls we saw had these little lots next to them, and we felt like “wow, we learned that at ‘Autumn’.” I never thought anyone was going to build in that lot, I thought it was too small. And people were parking cars there. And I thought that this was the way it was going to be forever, but that was really naive. And so with Fleisher, there’s this beautiful park and it will have a whole setting. But also, to be honest with you, it’s coming at a time when we’re looking at muralism in the 21st century. So we’re looking at light and sound and technology and the web, and how we define public space has changed. So we’re thinking about new ways of working, we’re thinking about impact.
We believe deeply in community-based art. But we also need to be really relevant. That means that part of how we worked in the past is OK today, but not all of it. So we’re just trying to be smarter about how we pick where we’re working and how we work.
PW: Are you trying to manage people’s expectations? I think a lot of people don’t feel that these are temporary, they are there permanently. What do you do about that?
JG: Well, when we do a mural now, when we engage the community in the process, we talk about it. That there’s a chance that it may not be here forever. And so people go in knowing that. Unless it’s a site like the Fleisher, where I think it’s a good bet that it will be there a long time. We’ve been much more conscious about making it part of the conversation without trying to alarm people. The harder conversation is the one with the artist, because while rationally they agree that their work can’t be here forever, it’s still hard. It’s like two parts of your brain are fighting against each other. The one says “I get it, and isn’t it wonderful that this work is so beloved that I’ve got people organizing petitions and talking on the news.” It was fantastic because it was all about the importance of art. The sap was the subtext. It was really about how art works itself into the heart of this city, it’s wonderful.
But on the other hand, it’s like “This is a piece that I put my heart and soul into, I love it.” I’ve even talked to muralists who know when it’s not a great mural, it’s really fading, we got to take it away, they’ll give in, they’ll say “OK, we get it. We get it.” But you can tell it’s like their child. That’s what I felt from David Guinn. I think that once he was able to realize that we could recreate this, and it will never be like the original, but that’s OK because look at what you did at Locust and Sartain, between 11th and 12th that’s so beautiful. So he’s evolving as an artist.
And I sort of understand it, because way back in the day I used to paint murals, I painted murals in LA before I moved to Philly. I have one mural left in West LA. But I had a mural in Santa Monica that had become a landmark. I’m not going to say it was a great mural or anything, but it was a mural that people got attached to. It was there a long, long time and it started to fade and fall apart. The city of Santa Monica wanted me, just a few years ago, to come back and restore it. They were like, “we have no money, so you’ve got to pay your own way.” And I was like, “look, it’s just way too much trouble. Why don’t you just go over it?” Then they didn’t do it. And finally there was a new owner who sent me pictures of how bad it looked. And I had to sign a document saying that they could take it away. I remember looking at the document, knowing that I’m not going back to LA, I’m not doing it, it’s not getting any better and it looks awful. All those things rationally I knew, and I still had a hard time. It took me a few weeks to sign the document and get it back to them. I felt this ache in my heart.
PW: It’s about art, but it also seems to be that the mural becomes sort of a proxy. People who are opposed to development use the mural as an excuse. I’m starting to see that. Have you noticed that? You don’t want to question people’s motivations, but it does seem like the desire to save murals is mixed together with a dislike of the development being proposed.
JG: Is it that, or is it something else? Recently, I went by where “Autumn” was, and I was like “God, that house is so ugly.” It’s completely congested. “Autumn” gave us a little breathing room, and this visual landscape that you could lose yourself in. It’s also about habit, that people get used to that. And that’s not a bad thing. And in the city, I don’t know that it’s necessary to build everywhere. We need some green space. But there’s that competing need for economic development, houses, and people to pay taxes. I get it. But I do think that the mural has become the mural has become a symbol of a lot more, you’re right. It’s also that people want to control their own destiny. In Bella Vista people feel like they have no control over this.
There were many reasons people felt really attached to it. You know the Herman Wrice mural in West Philadelphia? That was really sad. I’m still really sad about that.
PW: One favorite of ours is the one on Christian, on the South side of the street between 8th and 9th. The lot there is being developed and now there’s only four feet between the mural and the first house.
JG: That one slipped under the radar. It was really lovely. That was really sad. I really thought that lot would stay there forever, but it’s really hard to know.
PW: You’ve had to think about what is possible for development in Philadelphia in a whole new way.
JG: Look at “Honey’s Garden,” at 4th and Brown, there’s another example. They built in front of it. I loved Honey’s. That mural was beautiful. Now it’s on my to-do list to talk to him about doing the other side. I just want that back. I’m going to win some and I’m going to lose some.
The other thing that I think that murals do is to hold onto a moment in time. As our city changes and gentrifies, the murals go away and the stories go away. So we struggle with how to hold on to these stories. There’s preservation, and also interpretation. That’s why we did the African American iconic images collection, with its audio tours. It’s why we now have a place on our website where you can look at collections of murals. Even for the murals that aren’t there anymore, you can hear their stories. It’s why we’re doing more writing about the work. That’s of great importance, because what they’re saying about us as a city is really important, and I would never want those things to go away.
PW: Sure. It’s like tattoos, they remind you of the time in your life when you got that particular one.
JG: People tell me, don’t cover up all the anti-graffiti ones, they remind me of that particular time. And I didn’t get that until recently. It’s an attachment we have to place and achievement and history, and I think all of that is really important.
Peter Woodall is the co-editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.