Jane Golden: Now is the time for a public conversation about the Rizzo mural

The mural of former Mayor Frank Rizzo looms over festivities at the Ninth Street Italian Market.

The images we saw last weekend coming out of Charlottesville, Va., were truly painful, and proof of how frayed our country is. The violent and horrifying neo-Nazi gathering that descended upon that city began over the decision to remove a monument to Robert E. Lee — a divisive symbol of an era we have clearly not fully left behind. We are seeing Confederate monuments come down in cities throughout the country: New Orleans; Gainesville, Fla.; Lexington, Ky.; and even Baltimore, less than two hours from my own front stoop.

In Philadelphia, where I have worked for more than three decades in many neighborhoods as executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, we are having our own conversations about monuments to the past. A growing chorus of voices is raising questions about the statue and mural tributes to Frank Rizzo, a larger-than-life figure with ardent admirers and passionate opponents.

The Rizzo mural in the Italian Market has been both beloved and reviled since its creation in 1995 by artist Diane Keller. It exemplifies how personal the response to public art can be. For any given artwork, some may feel strongly represented by its symbolism, and some may view it as a reminder of a painful history.

Mural Arts has a long history of responding to community voices. Now is the time for a public conversation about the Rizzo mural. Should it remain? Or should it be replaced by a new mural, one that recognizes our past and that can be embraced by the whole community we’ve become today?

Monuments have power, looming large in our public spaces, and it is plain to see that in Philadelphia, murals are monuments, too. Our evolving collection is a map of human experience, including monuments to neighborhoods, to local figures, and to our shared struggles and aspirations, all driven by the input and voices of our citizens.

Next month, Mural Arts will embark on a huge public art and history project, Monument Lab, which will ask people to consider what makes an appropriate monument for our city today. The project will ask us to mine the range of our experiences, to share what is most important to us, and to consider how we want to be represented. Our curators and artists will ask questions about what should be a monument and, more important, who gets to make those decisions. We will invite the public to engage with these questions as well, through programming and research labs where people can submit new ideas and proposals for their own versions of Philadelphia monuments.

During this challenging time in our country, when there is a great debate over our beliefs and values, it is imperative to ask these questions and to think critically about the power and legacy of monuments. As James Baldwin once said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

By doing this work, we — Mural Arts Philadelphia and the Monument Lab curators — hope to demonstrate our deep faith in the authenticity of people’s voices and our deep belief in everyone’s right to be seen and to be heard. Truly, this is an opportunity for Philadelphia to show thoughtful leadership around this issue. I look forward to hearing from people throughout our city, and to kicking off this significant conversation.

Jane Golden is executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia. jane.golden@muralarts.org