Riding the rails to art
Deep in the catacombs of the New York City subway system resides a veritable museum of art. Amidst the expected hustle and bustle of the city, the works are a backdrop — calm and serene — that do not fade as quickly as the span of a New York minute. Each day, Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) customers view hundreds of carefully designed and crafted works installed in various subway stations as a result of MTA’s “Arts for Transit,” a program that promotes the placement of permanent public art throughout the city’s commuter rail stations and subway.
MTA commuters can view works from artists Roy Lichtenstein, Jacob Lawrence and others, as well as up-and-coming artists, says Amy Hausmann, assistant director of Arts for Transit. The elaborate mosaics, sculptures, glasswork and other pieces represent the communities in which they are displayed. “What we’re looking to do is tie the artwork to a sense of place,” Hausmann says. “That’s something that becomes very important, whether we’re installing a mosaic in Manhattan or faceted glass windscreen out in Brooklyn or a bronze sculpture in the Metro North New York State area. We’re really interested in place and the history of the place, the historical community, the current community and the future community.”
Even before the completion of the subway more than 100 years ago, the planners envisioned a system that was efficient, however, equally beautiful. But, by the 1960s, the city’s subway system had become plagued with graffiti-covered cars, insufficient lighting and other problems. Viewing art as a critical way to revive the system, the Arts for Transit program was created in 1985 to enhance the subway while simultaneously increasing public transit usage.
A Roy Lichtenstein piece, a modernistic mural of bold shapes and primary colors, is on display at the Times Square station. At the Lexington Avenue station, the program installed an Elizabeth Murray piece titled “Blooming,” an elaborate mosaic of a large steaming coffee cup. The image of a fallen pillar can be viewed at Penn Station, while three-dimensional birds appear to take flight on ceramic reliefs on the station walls at Dyckman Street. Each piece is constructed of durable materials — including mosaic tiles, terra cotta, bronze and glass — to withstand the system’s harsh environment. The Arts for Transit program works closely with MTA station personnel to perform regular site inspections and any needed maintenance.
Physical elements of the station are taken into account when planning for an art installation. “When we are talking about the fare entry ways, the gates, the subway cars [or] the vending machines, each element is something that we pay close attention to because they’re used by our customers, and creating an experience that’s pleasant for the customer is what this has been all about,” Hausmann says.
Arts For Transit, which is funded by 1 percent of MTA’s capital program, installed nearly 10 works in stations across the city in the last half of 2006, adding to the hundreds of pieces already in place. Each selection and artist must meet the program’s high-quality standards. “The thing that makes our program unique to other art programs across the country, or in the world, is we have such a wide range of well-known, well-established artists to newer artists who are just starting out,” Hausmann says. “You can go to [the Museum of Modern Art], and you see those same artists. It’s exciting that you can have that just for the price of your metro card.”