APTA | Passenger Transport
April 13, 2009

In This Issue

2009 APTA - TRB Light Rail Conference Issue


Art Projects Add Interest to Traveling on Light Rail
By SUSAN BERLIN, Senior Editor

Using public transportation, including light rail, most often is a means to an end—a way to reach a destination without worrying about traffic or parking. But when transit agencies showcase public art, then visiting the station becomes part of the trip.

Los Angeles Metro took its art program a step farther in 1999 with the creation of the Metro Art Docent Council—the first program administered by a public transit agency, according to a Metro spokesperson. After a tour of the public art at Metro’s Gateway Transit Center, Barbara Lashenick, office manager of the Neighborhood Youth Association in Venice, CA, was inspired to organize the project as a way to introduce more people to the art in Metro’s stations, and she serves as president of the council.

Lashenick began the program with 12 experienced volunteer docents from museums throughout Los Angeles County, who were trained by the Metro Art Department staff. Currently, 25 volunteer docents give both private and public tours of the art, discussing the works themselves, the artists who created them, and the processes it took to make them a reality. To date, more than 10,000 individuals have taken the tours.

Valley Metro Rail in Phoenix, which began operation late last year, is in the process of implementing a $6.3 million, system-wide public art program that incorporates artworks at each station and other sites along the line. The funding comes from ordinances in Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa that either require or recommend that a percentage of the construction costs of any capital improvement project be set aside for the incorporation of public art works.

For example, Seattle artist Buster Simpson worked with the design team to turn the new—transparent by day—METRO bridge over Tempe Town Lake into a constantly shifting rainbow of color. Simpson programmed his installation of thousands of LED lights in the steel mesh encasing the bridge trusses to display continuously changing colors and patterns that react to each passing train.

Rick Simonetta, chief executive officer of Valley Metro Rail, described the “communal effort” that went into the creation of the METRO project. “The public art that resulted from this process is a celebration of place and community,” he said. “Each station boasts its own unique character…As a whole, the METRO art program is a major example of how art can transform the landscape and enhance the public dialogue.”

More than 25 artists participated in the Phoenix area project, working in media ranging from cast bronze and carved stone to welded steel and aluminum and etched glass.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) incorporated a uniform platform artwork design to help create an overall identity for the stations of its T-Third light rail line, which entered service in 2007. The authority worked with the San Francisco Arts Commission to develop four types of art for installation at eight main stations: specialty metal sculptures mounted on tall apple-green canopy poles; laser-cut metal panels that cast shadows on the station platforms; paving artwork; and windscreen display case posters.

“The public art on the T-Third line conveys themes and highlights issues of importance to the surrounding neighborhoods,” explained Nathaniel P. Ford Sr., SFMTA executive director/chief executive officer. “The T-Third line connects these communities together and to the rest of the city, so it is important that they reflect the vitality and pride of the people who live around them.”

In Minneapolis/St. Paul, a work titled “Small Kindnesses, Weather Permitting,” created by artist Janet Zweig, consists of 39 interactive mechanisms in the I-beams and windscreens of 11 station platforms along Metro Transit’s Hiawatha Line. These audio-visual kiosks deliver ever-changing audio/video content produced for the artist by Minnesota residents.

Sound Transit in Seattle included an art program early in its history, said Barbara Luecke, art program manager. Each of the agency’s modes—Link light rail, commuter rail, and commuter bus—had its own lead artist, who helped get contracts and establish procedures.

“We were part of the team that worked with members of the community to address their concerns,” she continued. “We would form a partnership to design a system that would work to develop continuity among all the stations, but with distinctive elements for each neighborhood. The art is often a big player in that.

Luecke noted that Norie Sato, lead artist for the light rail line, selected “culture conversation” as the theme for Link art. One example is the “big mixing pot of cultures” in the Rainier Valley, home to many immigrants. “She wanted to acknowledge and celebrate that, but also tell what it means to have different cultures under the umbrella of one overarching culture,” Luecke explained.

By integrating art into a light rail line at the development stage, transit agencies establish rail stations as something beyond a place to catch a train; they become neighborhood anchors, gathering places with a special link to their location.

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