In 1984, Jane Golden launched a six-week summer program sponsored by the Anti-Graffiti Task Force. The idea was to provide opportunities for graffiti writers to reinvent themselves as mural artists. It worked.
After a long sojourn away from my hometown, I returned to Philadelphia last year to see a city transformed by public art. Our city has become a model and a leader for other urban areas. While art may not be a universal curative—we still have a long way to go in redirecting destructive energies into creative outlets—there is no doubt that the arts are a source of healing, community-building, and empowerment. As the late Citizen board chairJeremy Nowak wrote in Mural Arts @30 in 2014, the Philly murals open windows “through which we can see things differently and glimpse other possibilities.”
October is Mural Arts Month, honoring the more than 4000 murals created by Mural Arts Philadelphia. On September 28, Jane Golden, celebrating 37 years of leadership, dedicated the first trans mural, “We Are Universal,” to gender non-conforming people. Philadelphia’s poet laureate Trapeta Mayson recited her poem, “We’ll Make Something Out of This, Too,” linking the visual and verbal arts in the spirit of inclusivity.
Mural Arts Philadelphia has long been a generative force in Philadelphia public schools. Just one example is the Powel School, where my daughter teaches and participated in a project involving elementary students creating their own mural. Children’s involvement in mural creation goes beyond school walls. As you read this article, parents are working with their children under the auspices of artist Chenlin Cai on renewing a massive Chinatown installation—one that encompasses a large play space—at 10th Street Plaza:
The arts—visual, theatrical, and musical—are essential to human life and development. It is noteworthy that the Girard Academy of Music Program (GAMP) has been named one of only seven Philadelphia schools (and one of only 325 nationally) as a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence by the US Department of Education.
Why are so many colleges and universities across the nation eliminating arts programs based on the false notion that the arts are “frills” and that cutting them is a reasonable way to balance the budget? Quite simply, they are wrong.
Enlightened philanthropists committed to improving life on this planet understand that the arts rank in importance with “clean air to breathe, land on which to live and move and find food, water for the hydration of all living things,” as Lori Waxman writes in the Chicago Tribune. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation celebrates its fortieth anniversary of giving “genius” awards with an exhibit entitled, “Toward Common Cause: Art, Social Change and the MacArthur Fellows Program at 40.” (By the way, I hereby publicly nominate Jane Golden for a MacArthur genius award.)
In addition to major foundations, enlightened private donors understand that the arts are fundamental. Recently, Tessa Ader donated $50 million to the University of Virginia to build a performing arts center.
So why are so many colleges and universities across the nation eliminating arts programs based on the false notion that the arts are “frills” and that cutting them is a reasonable way to balance the budget? Quite simply, they are wrong. What they should be doing instead is expanding appreciation for the arts across the curriculum.
In my years leading three underfunded public universities, I was proud to support the arts. At Arizona State University West Campus, every student majoring in business was required to take a studio or performing arts course. Initially, students resisted, but at graduation many of them, as they walked off the stage, hugged the theater instructor who stimulated their creative thinking. At Governors State University, home to the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park, we promoted the idea that every student, professor, and staff member had the privilege of “living in the midst of art.” When we were building the first student residence, I put on a hard hat and toured the dorm rooms to make sure that students had views of at least one of the sculptures.
My return to Philadelphia has motivated deep pride in my hometown and its understanding that the arts are fundamental. Philadelphians have the privilege of living in the midst of art. In addition to leadership in urban murals, Philadelphia has been the home since 1987 of Philly Young Playwrights, a group founded by my John Bartram High School classmate Adele Magner and long supported by her husband Alan. As kids, Adele, Alan, and I developed our own commitment to the arts through helping to create high school productions of “Carousel” and “Damn Yankees.” Adele’s legacy lives on in the strength of Philly Young Playwrights and its power to bring the magic of theater to young lives.
I’ve long said that my success as a professor and university president had much to do with early education in theater arts. Stage experience has much to teach about the classroom:
I’m proud to see that Arcadia University (Beaver College in my day), where I taught and administered from 1973 to 1986, has sustained its deep commitment to the arts, even in this period when other private liberal arts colleges are making cuts. Arcadia has expanded its arts studios, built a black-box theater, and hosts significant arts events.
After many years away, I returned to the campus for the opening of the Larry Day retrospective, “Absent Presence.” Arcadia is also sponsoring an avant-garde opera, “Sun and Sea” at the Fringe. It’s important to note that Arcadia offers nationally regarded programs in health, education, and business. The arts commitment is in the context of arts as essential for all. Kudos to Arcadia University President Ajay Nair.
As Philadelphians, let’s be proud of our metro-area’s leadership in the arts and commit to supporting what we have and committing to further development. As we consider ways to reduce violence and to improve our city, let’s keep in mind that once ugly graffiti posed a problem that Mural Arts Project used as a vehicle for creating beauty and an active sense of community. From pre-school to graduate school and through cooperation with community-based projects, the arts can perform miracles. And we need miracles.
What you can do:
- Support arts education in K-12 and higher ed.
- Encourage schools and colleges to participate actively in Mural Arts Philadelphia and in Philly Young Playwrights.
- If you are a student, no matter what your major, enroll in universities that understand the importance of the arts—and take those classes while you can.
- Contribute to the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, Philly Young Playwrights, and to educational institutions that are committed to the visual and performing arts.
MORE ON THE ARTS IN PHILADELPHIA
Header: Our Wayfinders by @okdehmurals, 3718 Mantua Avenue | Photo by @steveweinik