BY Jane Golden, founder and executive director, Mural Arts Philadelphia

At Mural Arts Philadelphia, we believe deeply and passionately that art can ignite change.

We create art with others to transform places, individuals, communities,and institutions. Through this work, we establish new standards of excellence in the practice of public and contemporary art.

We are a unique public/private hybrid organization—part city agency, part nonprofit. We have worked in partnership with the City of Philadelphia since we became Mural Arts in 1998, but more intensively since 2002, when we started working with major city departments, doing social service work that uses art as a point of access and a tool for people who may not have other avenues to tell their stories.

Our process empowers artists to be change agents, stimulates dialogue about critical issues, and builds bridges of connection and understanding.

This work is created in service of a larger movement that values equity, fairness and progress across all of society. Every day we ask ourselves: How do we move the needle? How do we make change happen? We leverage City resources and match them with the private sector to maximize our impact.

Our work with the City has inspired great innovations in areas such as restorative justice, art education, trash reduction, behavioral health, and work in communities. But we have also noticed that other cities around the country and around the world are—based on our model—creating city artist residency programs. We want to advocate for this type of program right here in Philadelphia.

We want to redefine the role of the artist working within city government.

In Saint Paul, Los Angeles, and New York City, to name just a few places, artists are integrated deeply in the daily and long-term workings of the city. The central pursuit is to create art out of the major systems of the city.

As a result, we see artists building new and highly creative social and civic practices through innovative public-private partnerships; they advise on major city initiatives, lead their own artistic and curatorial projects, and have dedicated workspace within specific departments. They are given the space and creative freedom to collaborate across city agencies and to be as inventive as possible.

Why is this type of opportunity important? Artists are thought leaders and change agents. They live and breathe creativity, and when they are tasked with thinking about major civic issues and intractable, complex problems, they often come up with ideas that no one else ever could. As a result, things can and do change.

We’ve seen the evidence in these other cities: examples include artists and scientists working together on new projects; amazing new rain gardens rising amidst the existing urban environment; and pop-up public art projects in places where hate crimes once were committed.

In Philadelphia, Mural Arts has spearheaded similar projects in conjunction with city departments. We have wrapped city recycling trucks in brilliant color to harness public imagination and interest in trash reduction.

A newer project, Trash Academy, provides immigrant and refugee communities in Southeast Philadelphia with tools and guidance to learn about their rights and responsibilities regarding trash—information they might not be able to get elsewhere, due to real and perceived cultural barriers.

Our Porch Light program, a continuing partnership with the City’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, puts artists in the driver’s seat, leading workshops in mental health facilities and working directly with populations that need social services and creative outlets, including workshops in community hubs that are open year-round.

In The Guild, a paid apprenticeship initiative of our Restorative Justice program, formerly incarcerated individuals and young adults on probation work on creative projects in local neighborhoods, while also developing job skills for the future.

Guild members work every day on creative projects like mural-making, carpentry, and mosaics, guided by artists and other skilled professionals, transforming neighborhoods while increasing their own chances for future employment. The Guild’s recidivism rate is marginal at 16 percent, versus a 35 percent average across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania—proof that when you put the right tool in a person’s hand, things can change. And that tool may very well be a pencil or a paintbrush.

The work must continue. We must ensure that art is an integral part of every civic discipline: parks, planning, public works, and libraries; from the early conceptualization of the city’s urban future, all the way through planning studies, capital project design, ongoing street and sidewalk maintenance, and the programming of public spaces. We have seen strong evidence of how art ignites change and now, it’s time to ask: What else can we do here?

With an artist at the helm, only the sky is the limit.

Jane Golden is the founder and executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia (Mural Arts). Under the driving force of Golden’s direction, Mural Arts has created morethan 3,800 works of public artthrough innovative collaborations with community-based organizations, city agencies, nonprofit organizations, schools, the private sector, and philanthropies.