New Yorkers like to grumble about the MTA. Weekend changes, delays, rising fares, service cuts, subway rats — all are real concerns that should be addressed to keep our public transit system efficient, safe and affordable. But let’s not forget that conditions could be a lot worse. The subway system of the 1980s was famously rough. Trains were filthy, crime was high and service was constantly plagued by breakdowns and delays. This infrastructural decline was the result of budget cuts that led to a reduced maintenance staff and practices of “deferred maintenance,” which meant fewer inspections, less frequent repairs and replacements, and a general deterioration of system and service.
In 1982, the MTA launched a multi-billion-dollar capital improvement program to rehabilitate the transit system. During that campaign, in 1985, a program was created to introduce original and integrated artworks into MTA stations and spaces and to promote design excellence as part of the rebuilding effort: Arts for Transit. Today, Arts for Transit oversees a number of programs that bring visual art and performance to the MTA network. They are most well-known for the Permanent Art program, which incorporates commissioned works of art into capital construction or renovation projects throughout NYC Transit, Metro-North Railroad, Long Island Rail Road and NYC Bridges & Tunnels. But their work isn’t limited to the permanent, or even the visual. They showcase the work of photographers in rotating temporary exhibitions, fill unused advertising space with posters by illustrators and other visual artists, and present thousands of musical performances annually at 25 subway and train stations.
Last week, we had a chance to speak with Arts for Transit Director Sandra Bloodworth, an artist herself, who first joined Arts for Transit in 1988 as a manager, before becoming deputy director in 1992 and then director in 1996. While sitting in front of the newly-installed Sol LeWitt in the 59th Street-Columbus Circle station, we talked about the power of art to help turn a failing system around, activate spaces of infrastructure, and improve rider experience and quality of life. – V.S.
Tell us about Arts for Transit and your role there.
I am the director of Arts for Transit and Urban Design at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The role of Arts for Transit is really two-fold. One part is arts — visual and performing, the temporary poster program, the Art Cards, Lightbox, and the larger mission of commissioning permanent art for stations being rehabilitated under a capital program. We have over 230 works of art installed in MTA NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North, and MTA Bridges and Tunnels’ facilities.
The other hat we wear is that of urban design and promoting design excellence in the agency. We advocate that good design does not have to cost more money. In fact, really excellent design can save you money. The best example of how we work in that role is what happened when the MTA decided to implement vending machines for MetroCard sales. The MTA wanted to make sure riders not only accepted the new system, but saw it as a good option, a better option. In conjunction with NYC Transit, Arts for Transit worked with the designers, Antenna Design, to ensure the machines were user friendly, appealing, and not incongruous with the station environment. The machines were installed in 1999 and they have served us quite well. People like them and use them. And they showed that a government agency can change how it does business in a positive way.
In a way, the same thing is true with the art installations, though that’s a less definable topic. We started introducing art into the subway environment at a time when the system was on the brink of collapse, in the mid-1980s. The concept of putting art into that environment was a novel idea.
Around that time, New York City’s Percent for Art legislation was passed, which requires that one percent of the budget of capital projects is allocated for art. Even before that was passed into law, the MTA knew it was pending and used that momentum to advance the idea of dramatically changing the underground environment. Ronay Menschel, an MTA board member at the time, was the one who realized this would need to be managed internally and played a key role in establishing Arts for Transit. Wendy Feuer was hired as the founding director. Arts for Transit immediately engaged with the role of aesthetics within the architecture and industrial design of the MTA, and advanced the idea that if we’re going to spend real money on improving the system, let’s be sure to design it well.
What was the intent in installing quality artwork in the transit system? Did you want to enrich the community experience? Did you want to interrupt the routine commute and make people engage with the space?
It engages the public, yes, but it also sends a huge message that someone truly cares about this space and, accordingly, about the riders. People see the MTA as this big, anonymous agency. They might recognize some of the leadership from the press, but they don’t often think about the people that are behind the scenes, the architects, the engineers, the Arts for Transit folks, the designers, the rapid transit guys, all of these people that get up every day to make this all happen, or, in the mid-‘80s and ‘90s, were driven to turn this place around. Introducing quality art tells the public that there are all these people invested in the space.
These are works by the same artists you see in museums — Sol LeWitt, Roy Lichtenstein, Elizabeth Murray — but now you can see them on your way to the museums. Elizabeth was one of the first major recognized artists that did a project with us. She waived her fee and gave the public a phenomenal project at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue. When developing the collection, if you will, we don’t only look to the art world. We also look to who is riding the trains and using these spaces — and those worlds very often overlap. The real challenge is to select works that speak to the ridership, that have a relevance to the place where they are installed. And I mean that in a more conceptual way, I’m not talking about only pictoral images referencing the site, like Heins & LaFarge’s depictions of Columbus’ caravel over on the Columbus Circle IRT platform — it’s a myth, by the way, that the caravels were meant to provide station information to people who couldn’t read the name tablet. They were purely ornamental.
We’re sitting in front of the perfect example of how the art can be about the people and the place, Sol LeWitt’s “Whirls and twirls (MTA)” at 59th Street-Columbus Circle. LeWitt captured the movement of the subway, the flow of people through the station. When you look at this artwork, you feel the motion around you, the energy — and the riders get it, it’s intuitive, we don’t have to explain it.
We’ve always felt that it’s not our role to be a gallery. We are creating work that becomes a daily part of people’s lives, as they travel their same route every day — or, when they take a different route, we want them to be excited about seeing something new.
How do you identify the artists you want to work with? The commissions range from the renowned, like LeWitt, to the lesser known. What’s the selection process?
At 59th Street-Columbus Circle, we had the opportunity to invite Sol LeWitt to create one of his wall drawings for this station. However, the vast majority of our projects are the result of an extensive selection process defined by MTA policy, with the understanding that we’re procuring artwork.
Every time we do a project we invite artists to submit through an open call on our website. Now, because everything is digital, we keep a bank of entries and review all artists for every project, though we ask artists to notify us if they are particularly interested in any specific commission.
We then have two meetings with a selection panel, which changes each time and is comprised of arts and cultural professionals and community advisors. In conjunction with our government and community relations staff, we work closely with the local community boards, to help us understand what the community wants, and to help us communicate how our work relates to them.
We narrow down the field of artists to about four finalists, who then come in for an orientation on the project. We ground them in the space, the architects provide an overview of the design of the station, and we visit the site. Then, they come back to us with a formal proposal. The voting panel selects the proposed artwork they think is right for that location, work that speaks to the community and is of the highest quality.
The process has served us well. We have an amazing collection from a diverse group of artists, both emerging and established.
Given the quality of the artwork, which you talk about as a true collection, what is your approach to maintenance or conservation, especially considering the pieces are installed in highly-trafficked sites that are difficult to keep clean?
We have always known that there would be limited resources to maintain this collection. So we have been rigid in what we allow to be installed into the system, with some exceptions to allow us to reach beyond what we know. Mosaics, ceramics, glass mosaics, those are durable materials. We’ve seen examples where pieces have lasted for over 100 years. So that was a logical direction to take. Many of our works, certainly our underground works, are ceramics or mosaics.
We also work closely with our Stations Department on how they maintain the pieces, and if there’s ever any question, they call us and we work as a consultant. Arts for Transit maintains and repairs things that we can do ourselves. Beyond that, we just want to make sure that we’re keeping our eyes on everything we’ve installed. Staff members are responsible for visiting a portion of the collection bi-annually to do condition reports. We want to be sure that the art is always in the best shape it can be.
You mentioned that you make some exceptions in the type of work you commission, to learn new things and experiment with different materials and media. What are some examples of that? I know that Leo Villareal will be installing his LED light sculpture “Hive” in the renovated Bleecker Street station…
Leo’s piece is a very good example of the kind of exception I was talking about. We worked with our Chief Electrical Engineer Stan Karoly to make sure that the work is durable and can be maintained routinely. The engineers were very excited about his piece, because it really celebrates their field. So yes, we are trying it out as a pilot, to see what our limits are. We probably can’t have twenty projects like Leo’s, but we can have one!
Tell me about some of the temporary projects that fall under the purview of Arts for Transit.
We have a few special projects. For example, we just installed a zoetrope underneath Union Square that was designed by a group of Parsons students. In some ways it is a pilot for us to activate unused advertising space and illustrate how dynamic it can be, and to experiment with new media.
We also have a number of temporary projects that we do on a more routine basis. We have our Transit Poster program and our Art Cards that you see in the trains, which are often created by illustrators and graphic designers. Then we have our Lightbox photography project, which showcases the work of photographers that either relates to transportation, the system or to the local community. Those are on view on the lower level of Grand Central, at the 42nd Street and 6th Avenue station, at Atlantic/Pacific and Bowling Green.
How do you view the interface between the Arts for Transit works and station advertising? Especially as some ads, through technology or design, hover in a more ambiguous creative space — I’m thinking of things like the new 60-foot digital video wall on the other side of this station, currently being used by an Asics ad, or the large MoMA poster installation in the Atlantic/Pacific subway station in 2009.
Yes, advertising is blurring the lines. Those are both 100% advertising campaigns. Some of it is very exciting, but it can be a double-edged sword. We hope that we can capture some of that technology and energy and bring more interactive, video-based works to the public on a limited basis. And it’s no secret that the MTA needs to capture every dollar in order to provide the best service we can. And if any institution has the budget, the funds, to do a campaign, then we support the MTA capturing those dollars.
Also, the visual interface is more than just the advertising and the art. The MTA’s signage is so present in the world’s perception of New York City. If you ask people to visualize words of New York, they’re probably going to see them in Helvetica. We’re an icon of New York now, and it’s important that we keep that in mind when we think about how people interact with these spaces.
Tell me about the Arts for Transit music program Music Under New York.
There are a lot of myths about Music Under New York. We are not giving licenses or permits to people to play in the subway. Any musician — anyone, really — can go into a subway station and play music or do what they want, as long as they respect the rules of conduct. We are presenting a roster of musicians daily, over 7,000 performances annually, in 25 locations throughout our system, which we identified with our station personnel to make sure we don’t interfere with transit needs. We simply want to present quality music on a regular basis.
We hold auditions every May in Grand Central, and we hold a roster of about 100 acts at any given time. Once you’re in the program, you’re in. For many different reasons musicians move on, so every year we lose about 25 and add about 25.
What are some of the other projects in the works?
We have a number of projects coming up on the Pelham line in the Bronx, and in the Rockaways, either just installed or in the middle of installation. Jason Rohlf will be installing a piece at the Mott Avenue A station. Barbara Grygutis recently did the Whitlock Avenue 6 stop in the Bronx, which received an honorable mention from the Municipal Art Society’s MASterworks this year — it’s a remarkable project. Barbara designed sculptural furniture that exists within the windscreen. And, of course, the mega-projects: Jean Shin and Sarah Sze are both doing projects in stations along the new 2nd Avenue line, and Xenobia Bailey is doing a piece for the new 7 station at 34th Street. And James Carpenter collaborated with Grimshaw Architects to create a cable net to bring light into the Fulton Transit Center.
You are an artist yourself and you’ve worked with Arts for Transit for 23 years now. How do you define public art? What does it mean to you?
I started working, and still work, in public art because of the engagement between the built environment and the people who are in that environment — myself included. I’m an artist, so I was engaged with this environment before I worked for the MTA, but I felt it would be an incredible opportunity to be part of a team that affects the way your space looks.
People love to beat up on the MTA. But I’m still amazed to be part of an organization that has accomplished this type of change in the public environment. I believe public art changes the quality of life for everyone that walks through here. Maybe they are not aware of how or why, but ultimately it makes people feel good that someone makes this space a place where they might want to be.
And I think it has changed the perception of the New York subway. Plenty of people who ride the subway now don’t remember it when it was in really bad shape. But I remember when it was a sign of hope that if you could turn around the subway, you could change what was happening aboveground too. I believe that those went hand in hand. A lot of credit is given to a lot of different things for how New York turned around. But I believe there was no way it would have happened without the changes underground.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.