September 2009

Transit Art Optimizes Form and Function

by Claire Atkinson, Senior Editor

Transit stations and stops provide the ideal venue for public art, but the process of selecting works to install is lengthy. This does not deter transit agency staff members, who share a common goal in picking artwork that reflects the local community and makes riding transit a more enjoyable experience.

Getting started

Harvey Berliner, a consultant with InfraConsult in Honolulu, gives a presentation called "Art in Transit" at transit association conferences; and as chief facilities engineer in the rapid transit division for the city of Honolulu, he is working with the local government to include art in the design and construction of the local transit system.

Berliner says that attention to budget requirements is a necessary first step in transit art planning. "Most cities require that a certain percentage of the station cost be allocated to art," he explains. The source of funding in some cases determines the scope and theme of art projects, but also plays a role in artist selection. Maya Emsden, deputy executive officer of Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (L.A. Metro) creative services department, says the agency maintains a database of about 3,000 artists from across the U.S. "If it's federally funded, we do a national call [for artist qualifications], if it's purely state funded, we do a California call," she says.

At TriMet in Portland, Ore., Public Art Manager Mary Priester says that every budget for transit construction includes money for art, as long as the project budget totals more than $100,000. "The real money for our work is generated through the large capital projects," she says.

Working with artists

In order to contact artists with art opportunities, Priester says she uses a mailing list maintained by the Regional Arts and Culture Council in Portland and posts a notice in their newsletter and bulletins. Artists can also sign up via the TriMet Website to receive e-mail notifications of any upcoming commissions.

Berliner has experience working with transit art projects in New Jersey, including the Hudson-Bergen light rail system and Newark City Subway extension. "What I've done in the past and hope to do here in Honolulu is have a lead artist for each station or station group, and that lead artist would be able to help guide the other artists."

Many transit agencies put together a committee to lead the art selection process, typically involving people from a municipal arts agency, transit staff and community members who support arts in the community. Berliner says that this committee makes the major decisions about art selected for each project, but that day-to-day organizational duties might be assigned to an art coordinator hired by the transit agency.

"A transit art project administrator would be responsible for writing up the program, working with the architects, identifying potential art projects and working on the budget," he explains. "The administrator would make sure the artists are proceeding according to schedule and work with contractors."

At TriMet, the committee process generally takes three or four years, Priester says. "We get together at the beginning of final design for the whole project, which is a year-long process. Then there are a couple years of construction, with art installation at the tail end," she says. "The people on the committee are our heroes because they're all volunteers and they're committed to the arts and their communities and making sure the work that goes in is of the highest quality."

MB Finnerty is the public art administrator for Phoenix's Valley Metro light rail system. Each city the rail line goes through contributed a percentage of funding for the project, as well as representatives to sit on the system's Regional Rail Arts Committee (RRAC). Community members and art professionals also served as committee members. "We divided the line into five sections and selected five artists to work with the architectural teams for each section," Finnerty says.

Together, the design team created a theme for their section and identified art opportunities at each station, such as designated sites for integrated artwork and stand-alone sculptural pieces. Following the same schedule as that laid out for the architects, the art proposals would go through an internal Valley Metro review for safety and maintenance, a review by the RRAC, then to a public meeting. Finnerty also made presentations on the art proposals to different city groups along the way.

Working with other agencies

Local agencies can guide artist selection and connect transit agency staff with art professionals and other resources. In his experience, Berliner has worked with both state and municipal art agencies. "In New Jersey, you have the State Council on the Arts (SCA), and we worked closely with the representative from the SCA, who helped guide us through artist selection," he says. "In Honolulu, they have a mayor's council on culture and the arts responsible for art on the island of Oahu."

As L.A. Metro's Emsden sees it, the expertise of both transit and art professionals is needed to successfully plan and install public art. "We as staff know what works in the transit system and what doesn't, so we're the ones developing the appropriate materials and locations for artwork within our system," she says. "We have hundreds of art organizations here in L.A., so we engage them either as part of our art advisory groups or our artist selection panels. So, the selection is done entirely by peer review with community input, not by staff."

Thus, transit employees are able to identify materials, location, and engineering and maintainability standards, while local museum curators, nonprofit arts organization staff and working artists provide input, along with community members to guide the creative and interpretive role of the artworks.

For agencies with dedicated public art staff positions, communicating with other departments within the transit agency is important, according to Priester, who keeps in contact with designers, capital project staff, maintenance, landscape and operations staff. "It's been important for us to be embedded and understand all the concerns of other staff, especially with the safety and maintenance issues that are unique to transit," she explains.


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