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Jane Golden Responds to Inga Saffron's Critique of Murals

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Yesterday we asked, "Will Jane Golden and Inga Saffron simply throw down one day?" The question was prompted by Saffron's latest column in the Philadelphia Inquirer, for which she's the architecture critic. The column was about "Philly Painting," a celebrated project from the Mural Arts Program, which is led by Jane Golden. In response to the optimism surrounding the Germantown Avenue project, Saffron questioned the role of mural-making in building healthy commercial corridors:

It's a feel-good strategy being passed off as an economic development one...It's not impossible to resuscitate a dying shopping street, but there are proven strategies, best articulated by the National Trust's Main Street Program - and none of them involve murals. We asked Jane Golden what she thought about Saffron's contention, and she sent us the following statement. Interestingly, like Saffron, Golden invokes late developer Tony Goldman—who reinvigorated Philadelphia's 13th Street—to make her point. If nothing else, that says quite a bit about Goldman's proficiency.

"I have to respectfully disagree with many of Inga Saffron's comments about murals being a boondoggle as an economic development strategy. Having just returned from Wynwood Walls in Miami, I was energized by Tony Goldman's vision of using murals to transform not a Center City commercial corridor but an outlying warehouse district into a thriving street museum of galleries, shops, cafes, and performance spaces that attracts thousands of people to the neighborhood each year.

"It's a real and inspirational model for the potential in revitalizing communities, and for me it underscored and reaffirmed the nexus of art and economic development. Over the years I have seen firsthand and, frequently, how art, shared by the community, and co-created with artists who invest time, compassion and creativity, can stop decline and alter the way a neighborhood sees itself. My anecdotal experience was confirmed by a 2009 E-Consult study commissioned by LISC & funded by William Penn Foundation that studied the city's investments on commercial corridors. They found that mural projects were one of the top five investments a city can make on a commercial corridor—with attendant increases in both property values and retail sales.

"One of the young men who worked on the Philly Painting project, Keenan Jones, is both a community advocate and a believer in the power of art to change both external perceptions and internal capacity along Germantown Avenue. We hired him to be the official tour guide for Philly Painting, and he has seen tourists on trolleys, film crews, and curious SEPTA riders engage merchants on their color choices, peruse their merchandise, and buy lunch at local eateries. What's more, these people bring friends and colleagues back to see the Avenue, give the complex design a second look, and check out the store windows too. This phenomenon is exactly what we saw in West Philadelphia with the Love Letter project in 2010. Fifty murals, created out of a storefront that doubled as a sign shop to promote local businesses, resulted in employment, increased and sustained tourism, national press, and joint advertising resulted in a palpable shift in attitudes among residents and merchants about what was possible.

"We have never suggested that murals could supplant an economic plan. We designed Philly Painting as a focal point for a community process—one that reflected the artists' intense observation over time of the architecture and cultures of the neighborhood. We hoped it would be a catalyst, and build on the vision of local politicians, organizational leaders, and city government both to remember what Germantown Avenue once meant to North Philadelphia and what it might be in a part of Philadelphia adjacent to the Avenue of the Arts North, Temple University and Medical School.

"It is our responsibility as a city agency to be involved in Philadelphia's major social and economic issues. This is why we work in prisons; it's why we train former inmates with real employment skills in communities and find jobs for them, and why we provide robust and rigorous project based learning experiences for almost 2,000 young people in our after-school programs, and why we continue to clean graffiti, clean lots and plant trees—in all of Philadelphia's neighborhoods.

"We know more work and investment, from the city, local institutions and residents are needed to fulfill on the promise of Philly Painting. Our staff, and artists Haas and Hahn, have found Germantown Avenue to be full of people with commitment, creativity and integrity. And we want to be part of its reclamation and vibrancy. The completion of this first phase represents far more than the dollars spent or the jobs created or the square footage of the murals.

"Neither we nor the city's Commerce Department are so naïve that we think "that putty and paint will make it what it ain't." It takes long-term commitments, faith in one another, solid planning using the best thinking possible, and time. Sometimes I think Mural Arts is ill served by creating slender layers of paint on vast surfaces, because that's where critics like Inga Saffron get stuck.

"Nothing that Mural Arts does is superficial. Our staff, whether we are employed by the City of Philadelphia or the Mural Arts Advocates, view ourselves as public servants dedicated to improving the quality—and qualities—of life in this city. We don't know what will happen in the long term, but to stand by and click our tongues at decline, and not use what we have and what we know in the service of Philadelphia is totally unacceptable.

"We look forward to completion of final details for the first phase of Philly Painting this winter and spring at Germantown and Lehigh. We are determined to expand the impact of the project in a second phase. And we will continue to bring hundreds of visitors to Germantown Avenue weekly; we will return with our students and re-entry workers to show them the scope of what can be done, and we will continue to encourage everyone we can reach in Philadelphia to visit Germantown Avenue—by car, trolley or SEPTA's venerable Route 23. Germantown Avenue is ready to welcome those who believe in it. And we will be there too, to keep up the momentum of transformation."