Five million…that’s the number of people that pass through New York City’s subway and commuter rail stations every day. Although they may not know it, these passengers have access to one of the world’s foremost public art collections.
Hosted by Paula Zahn, Treasures of New York: Art Underground features interviews with artists such as Faith Ringgold, Tom Otterness, Milton Glaser, Bill Brand, Andrea Dezsö, and Elizabeth Murray, along with master mosaicist Stephen Miotto and current and past Directors of MTA Arts for Transit, Sandra Bloodworth and Wendy Feuer.
Check out the Arts For Transit App to find out about all the artwork throughout the subway and rail system in New York.
Mosaics were a major part of the New York City Subway when it first opened to the public in 1904. Although later design concepts have often opted for cheaper or more modern materials, Arts For Transit is making sure to keep the mosaic tradition alive by commissioning artists to create permanent mosaic installations for the subway. But, since these commissioned artists are usually not mosaicists themselves, they have to turn to an expert.
Stephen Miotto is one of the mosaic craftsmen who has been responsible for the creation and installation of many of the subway art mosaics. Like many other master mosaicists, Stephen has a special ability to interpret the unique and often complex visions of artists from all different disciplines. Here’s a look at some of Stephen’s best work.
Bill Brand’s iconic subway tunnel “zoetrope” has been wowing riders for over 30 years. His clever exploitation of the subway’s architecture has been an inspiration for advertisers and other artists all over the world.
When and where did you first see an advertisement or artwork that seemed to be inspired by Masstransiscope? What was your reaction to it?
There was interest in commercializing the idea from the beginning in 1980 but I guess it didn’t become cost effective until recently. I haven’t actually seen any of the displays. Joshua Spodek, who started Submedia, contacted me early in his process and he has been very generous in crediting Masstransiscope as a precedent.
Bill films Masstransiscope, November 26th, 2008.
Has anyone ever approached you to do another Masstransiscope-like work? Would you consider it?
I’ve never had the chance to do another but I would certainly be interested if I were asked. Of course, I wouldn’t want to do it exactly the same way again. A lot has changed in 32 years!
You are also a film preservationist. What got you interested in film preservation and how does it relate to Masstransiscope?
My films in the 1970’s and ‘80’s extensively used the optical printer – a device for special effects – and I acquired a reputation as someone who could copy home movies and archival footage. Eventually this led me into the world of film archiving and preservation. In 2004 I gave a talk at the annual conference of the Association of Moving Image Archivists where I mentioned Masstransiscope as a “film” in need of restoration, and this opened the door to actually restoring it.
HD animation of Masstransiscope.
In the trailer for the blockbuster documentary The Art of Rap which premiered in theaters last week, there is a short clip of Masstransiscope in a New York City montage. Why do you think your installation might have made it in the trailer much less the film?
While Masstransiscope is not graffiti, I think it has long been adopted by young people – and no longer so young people – as a secret cousin.
Artist, Tom Otterness, told Treasures of New York that sometimes when he’s depressed he visits his subway installation on 14th Street because seeing people react to his work can cheer him up. Do you by any chance have a similar relationship to Masstransiscope? Do you at least like to see it every once in a while?
I am always happy when I see it. It looks and feels very different live from the train than it does from a video. Sometimes, I’m the only one on the train who notices it. At other times, it gets a big reaction and that feels good! When I was restoring it in 2008, I wondered how it would be understood now that moving image billboards have saturated the city’s public space. I was gratified to discover that it still works like a secret artwork and that no one mistakes it for advertising.
THIRTEEN spoke with Amy Hausmann, Assistant Director of MTA Arts for Transit & Urban Design to learn more about the program and it’s variety of initiatives, from music to poetry to permanent art, and what we can expect from Arts for Transit as the subway continues to expand.
Treasures of New York: Art Underground focuses on the MTA’s permanent artwork, but there is a lot more to the Arts for Transit Program. Can you talk about some of the other initiatives?
Absolutely! Arts for Transit is charged with enhancing the transit environment for commuters with all kinds of visual and performing art. In addition to the permanent work we commission, we run several programs including the Lightbox Project, where we curate the work of photographers at six different locations around the subway system. The work often touches upon transportation or upon the communities in which the work is installed. Currently we are presenting work by the artist Jeff Liao, that is a gorgeous panoramic view of the number 7 train as it winds its way through Queens. That’s installed at the Bryant Park, 42nd Street station (B,D,F). We also have an incredible work by photographer Jim Dow, who was actually one of the last photographic assistants for Walker Evans, and his work celebrates diners and really great eating spots around the country. The exhibit is located on the dining concourse at Grand Central Terminal.
We administer a poster and art card program, and are able to capture unused advertising space in stations. This year, for example, we commissioned a poster by artists Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell that celebrate the sustainability of the Subway system – the fact that 8.5 million people use the Subway every year makes New York one of the greenest cities in the world. In addition, we commission artists to create art cards, which are posted in the Subway cars. This year, the two art cards on display have been really popular. One is by Gregory Christie, and it is a fabulous, neon image of musicians playing in the Subway system. The other is by the artist Sophie Blackall, and she celebrates all of the wonderfully diverse people who travel on the Subway. We originally saw Sophie’s work as part of her ‘Missed Connections’ blog; she illustrates many of these “missed connections” that are found on Craigslist, and we thought her work was charming and really incredible. The public has responded by writing us lots of letters telling us how much they love it and say that seeing the poster reminds them why they live in New York.
|Smarter Greener Better, Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell||
The Subway Soiree, R. Gregory Christie
Missed Connections, Sophie Blackall
Our newest program is Poetry in Motion, which we just relaunched in April, which is Poetry Month. Poetry in Motion is a program that was around for a long time, and then it was on hiatus for a couple of years. We’ve brought it back now with a new design concept and we are partnering with the Poetry Society of America to select poems. The design itself actually marries poems with imagery from our permanent art collection. The first Poetry in Motion piece that we issued features artwork by the artist Joan Linder, whose work is newly installed at 71st Street in Brooklyn and it’s combined with a beautiful poem called “Graduation” by the artist and poet Dorothea Tanning, who passed away this January when she was 101 years old. The second piece that we produced had artwork by Elizabeth Murray. It’s a mosaic piece that’s installed in Queens at the 23rd Street and Ely Avenue station (E, G), and it’s joined by a poem by the poet Aracelis Girmay. We’ll be publishing eight Poetry in Motion posters and special Metro Cards each year, so keep an eye out for the new ones in the next couple of months.
And, then of course we have our music program called Music Under New York, where we present more than 7,000 musical performances in the Subway every year. We hold annual auditions in Grand Central each May. We have over 350 musicians who are part of the program now, and they are scheduled by our office to perform in 26 locations throughout the Subway and Rail system.
With Music Under New York, are there certain qualities you’re looking for in a musical act? How do you make the decisions for who gets into the program?
We ask musicians to submit their samples to us, and we receive several hundred submissions each year for the auditions. We select about 60—this year I think we had about 72 different performers who came in for an audition. They audition in front of a panel of judges, and the judges are a whole range of people: there are people from the music industry, the MTA, the Stations’ department, and musicians who are in the music program right now. We’re usually listening for three different things. First is the quality of the musicianship; second, we are listening for a variety of musical styles. We have a wide range of different kinds of musicians from Dixieland to Cajun to Opera singers to musical-saw players to Rock and Roll to harpists. It’s a very eclectic mix of music. And last, we’re listening for something which is a little more subjective, which is this concept of having something that’s appropriate for the Subway environment. And when people ask about that, I say sometimes we get an incredible marching band or large choral group that might come in, and they’re really amazing, but they’re not quite right to perform in the Subway itself.
I can imagine it being disconcerting hearing a marching band on your way to work at 8 o’clock in the morning…
Yes, probably not quite the right thing. But we have had some great bands and musicians who have auditioned. The musicians are not paid, they play for tips—so we also encourage people to throw a couple of bucks in their hat to say “thank you” for the generous gift they give to the city.
“Music Under New York” from THIRTEEN’s New York Voices, Produced by Matthew G. Kells (2008).
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So is Arts for Transit going to have any involvement in the hotly-anticipated 2nd Avenue Subway?
We are very excited about the 2nd Avenue Subway. We selected three artists so far for 3 of the 4 stations that will first be completed. We are going to be working with the artists Sarah Sze, Chuck Close, and Jean Shin and we’re in the process right now of selecting an artist for the fourth station, which will be the 72nd Street Station. We’re truly thrilled about those new projects. We’re also working on some other projects. We’re building a new station on the number 7 line, which is being continued over to the West Side of Manhattan. An incredible artist named Xenobia Bailey has been selected to create a gorgeous mosaic work that will be incorporated into that new station. We have another project in Harlem at the Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot. We’ve commissioned artist Shinique Smith to create a large-scale mosaic installation that is going to be absolutely spectacular, and we’re very excited about that, too.
THIRTEEN recently spoke with New York-based artist Reed Seifer, creator of the optimism MetroCards that launched in 2009 as part of the MTA Arts for Transit program. Here, Seifer discusses his favorite art in the subway and on the streets, and how New Yorkers responded to his art during economic hard times.
What inspired your “optimism” artwork, and how did the project translate into the optimism MetroCard?
In college at Clark University, I did a project where I presented a poem I’d written about optimism on a can of soda, which had been designed to look like it was a brand called “Optimism.” As part of the project I made buttons that had the logo from the optimism soda can printed on them, and I distributed 500 around campus. People went crazy over them, and the buttons took on a whole other asset of art that I had previously not considered. I learned so much about the interaction between what I was creating and the people who were receiving them, and what art could really do to people — it’s profound.
When I moved to New York, the director of retail for the Whitney Museum bought whatever I had left of the optimism buttons and sold them in her shop. I kept on making them, particularly after 9/11. At this point I’d had 30,000 optimism buttons so I had quite a few ideas for doing a public art project. I went to see the folks at Creative Time, a public arts fund, and they had an open critique session where artists could come and talk to them for feedback. I came to them with all these different ideas and when I proposed this idea of integrating my optimism project into the subway system, they were really excited and gave me the contact information for the MTA.
What response did the cards get from New Yorkers?
I would say they got a very New York-like response in that everyone that became aware of the cards had something to say about them. I accept all praise and criticism of the project because I understand that the context in which it exists is actually controversial – - it’s possible to read into the connection between the MTA and optimism. The critical response sometimes was, “What is this doing on the back of my MetroCard when my train never comes on time?” So that was a component that I acknowledge. There was a lot of discussion about that, and to me it was frustrating as an artist, because I wanted to talk about what the project is rather than just where it exists. But many people did see it that way, when people reached out to me directly, it was entirely complimentary in sharing how this was inspiring to them. There really were those emails where people said “I was having the worst time of my life and I didn’t know if I could go on, and then I saw this sign on the back of the MetroCard and I knew it was a sign that I should do what I was thinking of to change.” I would say I’m a sign-maker and I like making signs for other people, so if someone’s looking for a sign I’m happy to provide it.
Can you talk about the timing of the card? Why was 2009 an ideal time for this message?
I don’t think it’s too often I can say the recession was on our side. As I came to know through the process of doing this project, that when one thinks about public art on the grand scale – we’re talking about 30 million optimism MetroCards – there are so many people involved with these projects, and they are such huge undertakings of both creativity and diplomacy and patience. So, in retrospect the time between when I introduced this concept to MTA Arts for Transit and when it came to be released to the public was actually not that long. I’m more familiar now with public art projects and know that they can go on for 30 years before they come to fruition. I think the state of the world and the state of New York at that time let it be released in a way that would be most well received.
I believe my job as an artist is to make the world a better place. Even momentarily, subliminally, to place something in someone’s unconscious, holds the possibility of having an ultimate effect. To have a word on the back of something that people see everyday for a millisecond that they’re not taking full acknowledgement of visually; it’s really potent and powerful. I think in contrast to what was going on in New York, it was just a good time to send that message out.
The optimism MetroCard is an example of art in an unexpected place. Do you see any missed opportunities in the city where this kind of artwork could work?
I think there are so many opportunities in New York for public art; it’s an exceptional canvas. Art can exist in so many forms, so I always admire artists I see working on the streets. One artist, Madelon Galland, would find areas of the city where the trees had been chopped down and she would upholster the stump of the tree so it was like a little chair. There’s also another artist, Space Invader, who makes little creatures out of mosaics that appear in random spaces around the city. Now that I’ve done this project I really keep an eye out even more so for artists doing similar things.
Do you have any favorite subway art?
Some of my favorite things I see while I’m waiting for the train is graffiti on top of advertising in the subway stations. Now that I live in Brooklyn, one canvas I notice that interests me is around some trees on the streets, they have a little wall, like a tree pit, to enclose the garden. I think that’s a great space to for public art.
I really love the Tom Otterness sculptures that are at the 14th Street A,C,E station – they remind me of my own work in that they can be read on many levels and they appeal to almost everyone. A seven year old would find as much delight in it as a 70-year-old professor, potentially. They are an example of art in an unexpected place as well.
Also, on the L,G stop by Metropolitan and Lorimer, there are mosaics on the walls of the station by Jackie Chang that basically take apart words and break them down into new meanings. One of them is the word “useless” that she divides up into “use” and “less” and “mankind” into “man” and “kind.” I find those really engaging, because they allow the audience to interpret them on many levels, like the optimism MetroCard.
The New York Subway….not only is it a lifeline for our great city but in the last 25 years it has been transformed into a vast canvas for public art. Treasures of New York: Art Underground takes a behind-the-scenes look with the artists, artisans and public officials involved with our transit system’s makeover.
Hear from Bill Brand, Tom Otterness, Faith Ringgold, Milton Glaser, Elizabeth Murray and others in the first comprehensive documentary about the MTA Arts For Transit’s initiative to bring permanent art to our subway and commuter railroads.
Treasures of New York celebrates 125 years of Pratt Institute, located in the heart of Brooklyn and recognized worldwide as an influential institution of art and design.
Treasures goes inside the prestigious college to discover its vibrant Brooklyn history through the eyes of the two men who “built” it; industrialist Charles Pratt, who founded the school in 1887, and Dr. Thomas F. Schutte, who has been articulating Pratt’s vision since he became the school’s President in 1993.
From its inception through the 21st century, Pratt has counted among its faculty those whose works became the lexicon of industrial design. Eva Zeisel’s Museum Dinnerware, Morison S. Cousins’ Promax Compact Hairdryer, and Karim Rashid’s reusable Bobble Water Bottle are all part of the archive of the Museum of Modern Art. Pratt also helped develop such versatile artistic sensibilities that included Pamela Colman Smith’s The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck and Jeremy Scott’s avant-garde fashion.
For over a century, Pratt Institute alumni and faculty have had a major influence on the world of art and design. From masterful pieces of art to everyday household items, works by people who have studied and taught at Pratt permeate throughout the world we live in. Here’s a look at some of the iconic works that have been generated by artists and designers affiliated with Pratt.
In this web exclusive video, Treasures of New York takes a look at the Pratt Design Incubator, launched in 2002 to help designers turn their ideas into businesses. Seventy percent of the designers working at the incubator are Pratt alumni. Since its inception, the incubator has supported the launch of 23 companies and consulted for 15 organizations, and in 2010 businesses started by the incubator generated more than $4.2 million in revenue and created close to 50 jobs.