The Met in MetroJuly 28, 2010 by: Alex Bell
Art has historically been public, civic – both a product of and contributor to collective identity. From Egyptian glyphs to idealized Greek athletes, from Roman triumphal arches to intricate altar pieces, art condescends to tell us something about who we are, where we are, and how we relate to others both within and beyond our own society. Since the Renaissance, however, the locus of art and its relationship to its audience has shifted to more private arenas. Frescoes and grandiose statues in the public eye have been replaced in critical art creation by the painted canvas and bourgeois sculpture in private collections, galleries, and museums. Art and all things cultural seem to have become matters of personal evaluation and interpretation.
This is exactly the condition to which the minimalist art of the 1960s and performance pieces of the 70s responded, the latter especially aiming to restore art’s role in public life. In the past decade or so, as Americans have begun to return to urban centers, cities across the country have begun to emphasize the arts and undertaken high profile public art projects as civic amenities and marketing tools.
This bodes well for programs that incorporate public art into transit projects. The seemingly incongruous spheres of transportation and art find harmony in transit that is unattainable on highways. A person waiting for transit has the luxury of being able to take in and engage her surroundings; a person caught in traffic really ought to be watching the vehicle ahead.
The allocation of transportation funds to art in transit programs is justified by the mutualistic art-transit relationship and the benefits it conveys to cities. In a funding environment that focuses on cost-effectiveness and ridership, art-in-transit projects represent a small but significant departure into a realm less tangible. It is a realm that emphasizes narrative, identity, and relationship.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) provides funding and guidance for including art in transit projects. While artist selection and site treatments are left to the discretion of the local implementing agency, the FTA recommends that a defensible selection process be employed that ensures equal opportunity is granted to all applying artists or teams of artists. Moreover, the selection of the artist must be made by a committee of qualified art and design professionals with the participation of the local community.
For proposed artworks to be funded, the FTA emphasize the following criteria: quality of art or design; the impact on transit patrons; a substantive and/or formal relationship to the site and surrounding area; a fitting and safe scale suitable for the site; the use of durable materials; resistance to vandalism; and ease of maintenance.
In addition to the FTA program, many cities and counties also have Percent-for-Art programs established by ordinance that call for one percent of the cost of public building projects to be allocated to the provision of public art. Transit properties can coordinate with these entities to implement arts projects separate from or in conjunction with FTA.
Philadelphia adopted the first municipal Percent for Art ordinance in the country in 1959. One of the over 200 art projects funded by the Percent for Art program since its inception is found in the heart of the city on Chestnut Street. The broad, bustling sidewalks of this downtown thoroughfare are lined with custom bus shelters of stainless steel and tinted glass. Each shelter has a unique design that echoes the City’s architecture and history, from colonial motifs to art deco patterns. Artist Pablo Tauler sought to give the 11 shelters the same dynamic mix of styles as that seen throughout one of the nation’s oldest and most historically significant cities.
The steel friezes, crowns, and frames and one-inch thick colored glass create a stimulating visual environment and are intended to ensure the longevity of the City’s investment. The materials were selected to stand up to the elements and potential vandalism without creating a maintenance nightmare. However, if any damage were sustained – a shattered pane of glass, for instance – the costs to restore the shelter would likely be significantly higher than a similar repair on a stock shelter. The shelters were installed in 2000 as part of the City’s effort to revitalize Chestnut Street.
In Charlotte’s Cherry neighborhood, Susan Harbage Page created custom bus shelters that act as an archive of community history. Cherry is an historically African-American neighborhood adjacent to Uptown’s Second Ward. Page collaborated with the Cherry Community Center and collected photographs from local residents to incorporate into the shelter design. Five unique shelters were created with black and white photographs printed on the large panes that form the backs of the shelters. The pictures portray scenes of community life, family ties, and educational achievement and reflect the sentiments of local residents about their neighborhood.
The shelters were installed in 2008, about the same time that a prominent mixed-use redevelopment project called Metropolitan Midtown was completed. The juxtaposition of the historic-feeling photos and the cold, pristine gleam of Metropolitan gives added weight to the shelters’ significance in the community. They serve as a reminder to transit patrons and other passersby of the origins of this community, a sort of spiritual tie to the history and identity of the place that transcends the looming changes to be wrought by redevelopment. The title of the series emblazoned on each shelter reinforces this theme: “Coming Home to Cherry.”
Also in Charlotte, along the LYNX Blue Line light rail, the approach to Scaleybark Station feature conspicuous sculptural works that elicit an opinion from everyone who travels there. A series of discs, 18 feet in diameter, stand upright on either side of the tracks that run in the median of South Boulevard. Their situation seems precarious as the discs appear set to roll away, or be blown over by a gust of wind, or simply crumble since they look like they are made from the surrounding earth. In fact they are made of steel and concrete (and Carolina clay) and weigh 11 tons each. They are designed to withstand the elements, despite their fragile appearance.
The artist, Thomas Sayre, intended the sculptures to resemble harrow discs, agricultural implements towed behind a plow to cultivate the soil. The piece is called “Furrow” and was completed in 2007 as part of the light rail construction, paid for in part by Federal Transit Administration funds. They allude not only to an agricultural past but to the rhythm and character of the natural environment. Shadows shift on the ground and on the curves of the convex discs as the day wears on and it is hard not to feel the dirt in your hands as you study the texture of their surfaces.
While “Furrow” is not universally popular, it is universally recognized in Charlotte. One of its great successes is that it is instantly identifiable, giving the area a landmark and promoting a sense of place. Equally admirable is the fact that the piece almost compels anyone who sees it to explore the significance of these strange discs and thereby puts them in touch with the roots of the area.
The examples above demonstrate that art and transit share something deeply significant in common that makes them mutually supportive: they are both generally and most naturally public in their orientation. This would seem axiomatic for transit, but if the concept is expanded to include transportation as a whole, greater exploration is required.
For the motorist, gently nestled in her auto-cocoon, transport seems private, at least in the same way that an office or a living room is private, visible from the outside but only available to an accepted, intended few. The vehicle, however, occupies an explicitly public space, and the movement of people and goods has always taken place in such collective venues. Likewise, art is often considered to be private, with each individual brining a unique interpretation to a given piece. But as was noted at the outset of this article, art has a longer history in streets and squares than in contemplative museums and galleries.
A discussion of the philosophies and theories that impact evolving artistic conditions and reactions would probably have little practical relevance to daily operations in the transit industry. However, the notion that art and transportation share a common public character is pertinent, and the role that they play in public life is influenced by industry practices.
As transit and public space become increasingly important in daily urban American life, transit properties will have a significant impact on both. Beyond providing a service to move people from place to place, transit formally and culturally shapes those places. The industry has the opportunity and the fiscal capacity through art in transit and other public art programs to do so in a way that is relevant and constructive to the community.
Alex Bell earned a bachelor’s degree in Art History and a master’s in Urban Planning. He is a transportation planner for Renaissance Planning Group.