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The Role of Art in Transit System DesignZolna Russell

Leo Villareal light sculpture at Bleecker St.StationThat transit hub you use to switch from train to subway, from bus to train, that’s not just a pit stop along your journey. It’s the place where you finish the best novel you’ve ever read. It’s where you go when you’re lost in the city and need to find your way home. It’s the place where you look down the platform, or through the car, and catch the eye of your future spouse. It’s a special place, and because it plays an important role in your life, why shouldn’t it be beautiful?

One step in making it more so occurred in 2012 when President Obama signed the MAP-21 act. The act outlined a transportation program for the 21st century, but it also included new stipulations about artistic features that transit administrations could add to public spaces. While each transit project would dedicate from 1 percent—up to 5 percent in some cases—of its budget for art, there would be some new restrictions. To receive funding, new art could no longer be art created independently of its surroundings, simply “plopped” into the setting. New art would have to be integrated into the existing transit features.

The program is producing some nice results. In Portland, Oregon, the TriMet light rail stops have incorporated windscreen panels constructed of decorative glass: the etched glass patterns relating physically and culturally to surrounding neighborhoods. In Philadelphia, SEPTA has sponsored “Walking on Sunshine,” an installation of undulating benches and flower-like lights that tower over the 16th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard station. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the LA County Metro officials say that they support everything “from photography installations to onboard posters, art tours, and live performances.”

Jill Anholt - I-70 with creditHere in Maryland, the MTA has included Art in Transit on both the Red and Purple lines, and Floura Teeter recently had the privilege of working as Art-in-Transit staff for Baltimore’s Red Line. The Red Line Art-in-Transit process consisted of two phases. The Phase 1 Master Plan identified opportunities and locations for the art and developed two themes: “Charm City” and “Eco-Visibility.” Working closely with artists Jann Rosen Queralt and Nobuho Nagasawa, Floura Teeter facilitated the development of the Master Plan with these artists, the design team, and the MTA. In Phase 2, the Red Line Art in Transit team wrote the Call for Artists, worked through procurement issues with the MTA, coordinated the design architects who would have the art incorporated into their designs, and worked with the selection committee who would choose the artists. The Call for Artists went out, and MTA received over 530 national and international submissions. Of those, the selection committee awarded 18 commissions.

WMATA Gallery Place StationIn many respects, a program like Art in Transit may not be right for all artists, especially those who don’t wish to comply with restrictive guidelines. But with the success of such projects throughout the country, and as shown by the number of design entries for the Baltimore Red Line, it appears that many artists enjoy the challenge. And for commuters who use transit facilities, the most interesting thing to come out of the program, other than a more pleasant commute, might be seeing what happens when so many creative minds bring their talents to the tasks of turning supposedly utilitarian objects—handrails, fences, light posts, and bollards—into art.

More and more, Americans are demonstrating that they appreciate their cities, especially the older ones—like Baltimore. Both college grads and retirees are moving in or moving back, taking advantage of what cities have to offer: the cultural amenities, the increasingly convenient shopping, the pleasure and opportunity for frequent social interaction. These city lovers know, as even the most ardent car lover knows, that a great way to experience a city is either on a bus, light rail, or train. Art in Transit renews and expands these experiences. By integrating functional architecture with artistic expression, Art in Transit makes urban life not only more enriching but simply more interesting.

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