Where the Underground and Arts Collide

Everyday millions of people get on the subway to get from point A to point B. In the subway cars, among the crowds of people trying to read their iPads, there will be a few who will take notice of a picture with a poem mounted on the wall. Those people might wonder why it is there, considering neither the picture nor the poem is trying to sell something like the clusters of ads on the train. The big, elegantly designed Poetry in Motion logo printed on each poster brings to question who is behind the placement of these works.

Poetry in Motion is one of the many programs MTA’s Arts for Transit and Urban Design organization has created to enhance the experience of commuting. It focuses on using creativity and aesthetic sociology to craft positive and stimulating exposure to the city. Sometimes New Yorkers don’t see the small details of the city that make it such a distinct place. Just as when we look at a single tile of a big mosaic, many of us only see the city one part at a time. Arts for Transit and Urban Design acts as a glue to combine different concepts and to celebrate the diversity of cultures coming together.

The poems distributed among the subways are frequently assessable and uplifting. The serene pictures on which the texts are printed help convey the poems’ character. A popular favorite is Billy Collins’ “Grand Central Station.” The poem describes an ego-centric society. It begins, “The city orbits around eight million centers of the universe and turns around the golden clock at the still point of this place.” It then goes on to express the feeling of isolation in a colossal world where seemingly everyone is too self-absorbed to notice anyone else. Many who have spent time in New York City can easily relate to the poem and agree with its message. It may take the reader out of their personal lives for a moment and broaden their perspective to see the world as a whole.  The elegant, rich green color on which “Grand Central Station” is printed helps add to the sense of boldness that Collins’ writing emanates and the faint golden constellations add a touch luxury to match the splendor of the image that the title portrays.  Those familiar with Grand Central Station will recognize the image as the iconic ceiling of the New York City landmark. All of the poems found among the subway trains are written by contemporary poets. Some of the poets include Aracelis Girmay Mary Ruefle and Dorothea Tanning–the legendary painter and writer who died in early 2012.  

In addition to subway car pieces, Arts for Transit has installed many permanent works. Nothing fits the term “only in New York” better than Tom Otterness’s iconic Life Underground sculptures at the 14th St/Eight Ave subway station. Otterness was commissioned in 2001 by Arts for Transit to breathe new life into the large station. His cartoon-like figures transform walking through the concrete tunnels into a new experience. Laced throughout the platforms are round-headed, plump-figured people usually depicted in funny scenarios that mockingly imitate real life. They include a little bronze man who sits on a bench, looking as if he is waiting for a train and a policeman who looms over a homeless woman sleeping on the ground, leaving the viewer wondering, “What is going to happen next?” Otterness’s work has made a great contribution to public transportation with the sense of humor and enchanting aesthetic captured in his little people.

Sandra Bloodworth, director of Arts for Transit, gave a Ted Talk in 2012, explaining the purpose of Arts for Transit and how, in the past 27 years, they have recreated public spaces. Bloodworth explains that Art for Transit began in the early 80’s as a way to revitalize a dilapidated subway system. The city’s transit suffered during the 1970’s when New York City nearly went bankrupt. With little government funding to uphold maintenance, the trains and stations became too filthy and crime-ridden for the general public to want to use them. This is where visual satisfaction is important.  Bloodworth reveals how people’s attitude about a public space was, and can continue to be, changed with the addition of art.  She tells the viewers that once the program began, “Very quickly leadership [and] ridership saw the power of art to truly recreate a place, and it is very clear that the resurgence of the quality of life of New York City began with this renewal.” The slides following that statement show new and improved transit spaces with breathtaking wall mosaics that pay respect to the enriching history of the neighborhoods they serve.

With the city of New York as evidence, it is clear how art can impact a person’s choice for their mode of transportation. Art can make riding public transit a chance to pass through an underworld wonderland. People are drawn to visual incentives because art, being a creative expression and interpretation of reality, gives people a reinvigorating sense of environment. Arts for Transit holds the responsibility of making sure various forms of creativity are embedded within casual encounters of New York City and acts as a medium of inspiration.