Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A conversation with the head of MTA's Arts & Design program.
Earlier this week, New Yorkers got their first look at Fulton Center, a new $1.4 billion transit hub that New York magazine describes as "a sort of Grand Central for downtown." Aside from giving riders an easier way to connect between eleven subway lines, it's also a piece of art unto itself.
The oculus and spiraled dome that architecturally define the project is called "Sky Reflector-Net". Assembled with nearly 1,000 reflective panels, it gives users a dramatic look up into the sky as they pass through the facility.
It's one of the most ambitious artistic additions to the transit system since the advent of the MTA's nearly 30-year-old station art program. Coinciding with the opening of Fulton Center is the release of a new book this week that catalogs the entire system's art collection: New York's Underground Art Museum, by Sandra Bloodworth and William Ayres (Monacelli Press).
The book itself is an update of Along the Way, written by the same authors back in 2006. Since then, nearly 100 more works have been installed, putting the transit system's permanent collection at 250 pieces.
Launched in 1985, MTA Arts & Design (originally known as "Arts for Transit and Urban Design") has helped the city and its subway ditch their reputations for being dirty and crime-ridden. Setting aside one percent of the capital budget for every new station or renovation, over the years the MTA has invited over 100 individual artists, from Roy Liechtenstein to Xenobia Bailey, to liven up commutes along the subway system, Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North Railroad.
We caught up with Bloodworth, who is director of the Arts & Design program, to discuss how the program has evolved since its first commission, her vision for its future, and the impact Arts & Design has on the rider experience:
What was your perception of the MTA and its stations before you got involved in Arts & Design?
By the early to mid-1980s the system was on the brink of collapse. In general, the system and service had deteriorated. There was a high crime rate, the trains were dirty and constantly breaking down. I joined the MTA in 1988 as it was beginning to rebuild the system through a multi-billion dollar capital improvement program. I wanted to be part of the team that was beginning to bring the system back and I was thrilled that art was going to be part of its rebirth.
Did the city's financial problems leading up to the creation of the program make people question the value of investing in station art?
MTA leadership understood then, as it does now, that including art and focusing on good design is a good investment. In 1982, Percent for Art legislation was passed in New York City and some projects were being commissioned for the subway through the Department of Cultural Affairs.
The founder of MTA Arts & Design, Ronay Menschel, (a former Deputy Mayor and MTA Board Member at the time) knew that the system-wide rebuilding program to come was on such a scale that the best practice would be to establish an office within the MTA to oversee visual and performing arts and to be advocates for good design.
What the first commissioned piece under the program?
“Open Secret” by Houston Conwill at 125th Street, on the 4,5,6 lines.
Can you tell us about the typical process behind commissioning a piece for a transit station?
We issue a "call to artists" on our website. We assemble a selection committee. From the digital portfolios that are submitted for a particular project, the committee selects four finalists. The selection panel is made up of arts professionals. The community has representation and serves in an advisory capacity, with the charge being to select the best art for this particular place.The finalists submit proposals and one artist is selected for the station.
How much do the outside surroundings of a station or the existing design of a station matter when selecting an artist or a piece to install?
Place is at the heart of the philosophy of Arts & Design. We don’t give an artist themes, we ask them to be grounded in the place. We hope the artist proposing explores the station and the community and understand fully who uses this place. Once they have absorbed that, we ask them to propose the art they would create.
Has there been a piece that experienced a surprise amount of negative feedback or just didn't have the effect everyone initially expected?
Our gigantic audience is diverse and smart. Overall, we mostly hear positive responses. We focus on what these works mean to our riders and that has served us extremely well. There are still New Yorkers who remember what the subway was like before there was art and they are the most appreciative audience around.
How about a piece that ended up being way more successful than originally expected?
The “Sky Reflector-Net” at Fulton Center. I think that we had very high hopes for it. Did it fulfill those hopes? Yes! Does it exceed our expectations? Absolutely! It is a truly amazing work of art.
How important is durability or permanence when commissioning a new piece?
All of the works we create are done so with durability in mind. All are created with maintenance issues as front and center. This attention to durability has been extremely important and the works overall are holding up extremely well.
What kind of impact did Sandy have on art at the affected stations?
We regularly survey our collection and immediately after Sandy, the staff split up and inspected every permanently installed artwork. We were very pleased to have found very little permanent damage because the works have been designed and built to be durable. Even recently installed projects in the Rockaways remained in good condition. At the South Ferry terminal, the station was flooded by the tides and much of it was submerged for several days but the artwork itself was designed for durability and was not permanently damaged.
Ironically, on the mezzanine level of the station, a high water mark was left on the the Starn brothers’s mosaic map that almost coincides with the area of Lower Manhattan that flooded, and there is still a faint reminder.
How has your vision for the Arts & Design program evolved over the years?
This is a particularly interesting question and one that I could talk about for a long time. There has always been a very strong vision and philosophy of this program and it has served us well. However, you must constantly push against what you know and listen to new ideas around you. In addition to the permanent artwork we have commissioned, we have developed other award-winning programs—photography, graphic art, poetry, performance and music.
We have an incredible staff and they have embraced and challenged the vision of the program. Rather than just doing more of what we've done in the past we are impacting more and more of the station, such as Sarah Sze’s proposed project for 96th Street on the Second Avenue subway. Sze’s artwork will be fired directly into the porcelain wall tile in three different but related palettes of blue, violet and lavender; among the imagery are depictions and suggestions of energy fields, architecture, wind vectors, and everyday workaday objects.
Are there types of art or artists that you'd like to see more of at MTA stations?
The New York subway is one of the most diverse artistic eco-systems on earth. It has been our philosophy that the artworks we create reflect that diversity and we believe the collection does just that. It's diversity at its best—there are mosaics, terra cotta, glass, bronze and metals. There's a mixture of styles, realistic, abstract, conceptual—all created with the installation site in mind.
The artists themselves are multi-disciplinary and there's a plethora of concepts and ideas. While I believe our collection is extremely broad-based, we strive to increase this variety as a reflection of the riders who use our system.
Is there an upcoming station art installation you're especially excited about?
Of course, we are particularly excited about the opening of the new Fulton Center. We probably said it the best in the book, “It creates a renewed sense of place for Lower Manhattan in the wake of the World Trade Center tragedy of September 11, 2001. The site will engrave itself on the memory—a place like nowhere else in the world.”
We are also very excited about Xenobia Bailey’s project at the new 7 West station and the new projects along the Second Avenue subway. We're working with many artists and we’re very excited each time we get to introduce new artwork to local communities.
What's the most underrated impact Art and Design has had on the city and/or the transit system?
I invite you to close your eyes, travel through the MTA system and start erasing the 250 permanent artworks or the poetry or the graphic art or the music and photography. That's the best way to understand the impact we have been able to have. These works have fundamentally changed the underground landscape, they're treasures you experience daily in your commute. The scope and scale is a little mind-boggling.
I don’t know if I would say the impact is underrated because the MTA gets it. The MTA got it from the beginning. Everyone saw the value in having well-conceived, well-executed art created with its location at its heart. The message is that it's there to make this place special for you, the rider. It's an incredible accomplishment by an incredible number of dedicated men and women.
I have always believed the rebirth of the subway in the '90s was the rebirth of New York City. I believed, and still do, that people saw that the subway could be transformed and that included beautiful and important artwork. It was the phoenix that rose from the ashes and people could not help but embrace the fact that if the subway could turn around so could the city. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.