The Subterranean Scene

The Subterranean Scene

To see great art in New York City, all you need to do is take the subway.
Original 1904 Mosaic Times Square

Original ceramic mosaic signage, circa 1904. New art commissioned for the MTA uses many of the same materials as the original decorative touches: ceramic, glass, and metal. 

David Lubarsky

The New York subway – love it or hate it, the city couldn’t function without it. 

Carrying almost 6 million people a day, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority keeps Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island connected by 660 miles of bustling mainline track. 

Although most New Yorkers board its trains out of necessity – few own cars, and many want to avoid stop-and-go traffic on the bus – the MTA offers another compelling reason: Some of the world’s best contemporary art by the likes of Milton Glaser, Maya Lin, and Roy Lichtenstein can be found at its stations. 

That’s thanks to MTA Arts & Design, which commissions art for New York’s subway and commuter lines. Director Sandra Bloodworth took a moment to tell us about the program and how artists, both renowned and emerging, have been enriching the journeys of New York commuters for more than a century. 

How did MTA Arts & Design come to be? 
By the early 1980s, the New York subway was virtually on the brink of collapse, so efforts were made to begin rebuilding the program. By 1985, Arts & Design was founded to include art as part of the rebuilding effort, with 1 percent of construction costs allocated for art. 

That was not a totally original thought, because the first stations were built at the turn of the century around the time of the City Beautiful movement, which espoused the idea that if you created these beautiful spaces, it would bring out the better nature of the people.

As we were trying to rid our system of graffiti [in the ’80s], leadership felt that that if you included art, people would take good care of the stations. 

So art helps people to better appreciate public spaces.
I think it’s more that the public realizes that someone is thinking about them and trying to create a space that is inviting.

At the turn of the century, when the subway system opened, it included some of the finest Arts and Crafts terracotta of the time: Grueby of Boston, Rookwood of Cincinnati, to name a couple. They were included in order to invite people underground. The idea of traveling underground was novel at that time in this country, though Boston’s system was already in place. But the idea of including art was to entice New Yorkers underground.

So in 1985, that idea was revisited, this time to improve existing spaces that were looking a lot worse for wear.
Yeah. I think the idea was that if you included art, it was sending the message that someone cared. And in caring about these spaces, the hope was that the people using them would likewise care about them. And it pretty much came true.

Is that the goal of the Arts & Design program?
I will say that we are trying to improve the journey. The nicer a place is, very often, the better you feel in it. Who wants to be in a space that people don’t care about? Those who use our system can know that the art that’s included in here was created for them, for those who use that place, and those who either live near that station or travel through that station.

We’re just a small part of these very large teams rebuilding stations, which involve planning, design, and construction, architects and engineers. But what we do is very visible. It’s sort of in reverse proportion: We’re a tiny part, but we have a big impact.

How does the MTA commission artwork for its stations? 
We create a process by which artists are selected and ground them in the place [the work will be installed]. We orient them to the location, and we talk about the people; we ask them to spend time in the station that we’re redoing, to understand who uses it. The idea is that the artists will come forward with their vision. 

How long does it take to realize a project, from the moment you put out a call to artists to when the work is installed? 
It depends on the scope and scale of the project. It could be as short as less than a year to something like the Second Avenue subway, which was a number of years. We selected two artists in 2009, one in 2010, one in 2012, and we installed in 2016. 

What are some of the ways studio and public art differ? 
With studio art, an artist’s mission, their goal, is to create art that comes from them, that’s about what they have to say. And they show that, most often, in a gallery-type setting. 

When you come into a gallery, you’ve made a choice to go there, and you’re very often coming to see the work of a particular artist. You may have a background in art or not. Or you may be just walking into a gallery to see what’s there. But you’re experiencing the vision of the artist, the work of an artist that is personal to them. 

When you encounter art in the public realm, you discover it, very often. You’re going along your journey, and then you become aware that there’s art there. I like to think it’s very successful when you do discover it. Of course, what happens is people may take the same station, the same route, for their entire lifetime, so sometimes the works become an experience that is familiar. 

Should public art please everyone? 
Art should speak to the community, of the community. We don’t know that we can speak to everyone, every time. What we try to do is to reflect the ridership in many, many ways: in the artists that we include, of all ethnicities, and in a diversity of materials and a diversity of styles. 

New York is the melting pot. It is a place that is made up of many different pieces, many different types of people, and they all come together in a really beautiful way. And the art should, overall, reflect that. 

We’re not going to speak to every person at every station in every project, but collectively, it speaks to everyone in some way; there’ll be many works that different people enjoy. Sometimes it’ll have a particular meaning to one person or one community more than another, but it doesn’t mean others don’t enjoy it in their own way. 

What role do color and scale play in art designed for the MTA? 
Works cannot be too timid in our environment. They are bold, and often that is done with color, but not exclusively. We’re working on a project right now that is a white-on-white marble mosaic for the Ann Hamilton piece that will be installed under the World Trade Center at the No. 1 train. 

If an artist’s work in their studio is bold, most often [their design for us will] be bold; if their work is subtle, it will be subtle. But it is true there are a lot of colorful works in our system. 

What about materials? 
We use materials that were inherent to the original system and that have stood the test of time, which are most often clay, glass, and metal. We have some lighting projects, but the bulk of materials used are ceramic and glass. 

How does a studio artist – say, a painter – translate their work into those materials?
They use fabricators. In mosaics, that would be Mosaika, out of Montreal; Miotto, out of Mahopac, New York; and Mayer of Munich, which is located in New York and Munich. You know you have a good fabricator [by] how close they come to interpreting the artist’s work. You should see the artist in the work, not the fabricator. Nowhere was that more evident than in the Chuck Closes at 86th Street on Second Avenue. They were so much the works of Chuck, and yet they have a sort of luminosity from the inside. They’re luminous, but there’s no doubt: You walk in there and see right away that they’re a Chuck Close.

So fabricators play a key role in the production of works for the MTA. Do architects also play a role?
The architects design stations, and most often, our program is part of a station rebuilding project, sometimes new stations. But, for example, at Fulton, the art and the architecture very much meld together with Sky Reflector-Net, which is very architectural, by artist James Carpenter, his design studio, and Grimshaw Architects [see “The Illuminator,” Jun./Jul. 2016]. When you’re there, you experience above you an oculus, an opening, where light comes in and bounces off the net and reflects the sky and light down into the center.

Do you ever commission performance art?
We have our Music Under New York program, MTA Music. We present [at least] 7,000 performances annually in our system, predominantly in the subway. And we have auditions every year in May. We have about 300 individuals and acts that perform, in 30 locations; we are programming them every day. It’s predominantly musicians; occasionally there’s someone who may have a form of dance.

What’s on the horizon besides the Ann Hamilton piece?
As part of the governor’s enhanced station initiative, we’re currently working on 31 commissions. We’re selecting the first seven artists, and we will be selecting [the rest] over the next couple of years.

Do you have a favorite work? 
I never will say what’s a favorite, because each is unique. It’s like naming which is your favorite child. 

But right now, everyone is talking about the art on the new Second Avenue line. And they are remarkable projects: the work of Sarah Sze at 96th Street, called Blueprint for a Landscape; at 86th Street are Chuck Close’s Subway Portraits; and at 72nd Street, Vik Muniz has captured the characters you might encounter on the subway. Then at 63rd Street, Jean Shin’s Elevated [captures] when the Second and Third Avenue els were taken down, the sky that was revealed when those heavy structures came down. Each is unique and different, yet all four have been phenomenally well received by the public. 

Yes, the opening of the line in January – and the art commissioned for its stations – got a lot of press. 
I think the most remarkable thing was the overwhelming response of the public. They came. They treated the stations as if they were in a museum. They walked around; they would reach out and touch the work. They very much were connecting to each other and to the city and to the subway and to their fellow passengers in a way that’s highly unusual in New York. 

A lot of it was that the line was so long awaited. Then they got there, and there were columns, there were spaces and high ceilings and clear sightlines. And when you did look, you saw incredible art. They knew, just as we said, that this had been created for them. It was in their neighborhood – or every New Yorker sort of felt like it was their neighborhood. Everyone was anticipating the arrival of the Second Avenue subway, and it was a remarkable experience to see that reaction. 

And we still see it. When we launched this work, Governor Andrew Cuomo talked about how a child who never goes to a museum still experiences high-quality art simply by being in New York. He was referring to the Second Avenue subway and the New York subway system, the art there. 

And it’s so true. Throughout our system, through the more than 300 projects we’ve done, you’re experiencing artists who are emerging, mid-career, and established, and work that has been created by artists who are often world-renowned. You’re experiencing it on your journey. 

Vik Muniz said that he grew up poor, and his parents didn’t go to museums and galleries; the first time they ever went to a gallery was to his show. He talked about how having art in these very public places creates an environment where people understand that art is for them. By having this experience in a public place, it will often give them a sort of comfort level that might entice them – that art is ingrained into our cultural life. 

And I don’t know anywhere that’s more true than in New York, particularly with the volume of art that’s underground. 

So would you say that art in public spaces makes people more curious about the arts in general? 
I don’t know that I would say “curious,” though I think public art might make some people curious. But it connects them to the place where they are. It builds a nexus – particularly when there’s been an incredible amount of publicity around the art, and it’s sort of like an entire city experiences the same art at the same time, all in a great big museum, in this very public place where you can go and experience it yourself. It grounds them in that idea that art is not something “out there”; it’s something immediately in their realm of experience.