If the CTA's so broke, how can it afford to commission some of the city's best public art?
Derailments, fires and slow zones aren’t all the Chicago Transit Authority has to offer commuters: In 2005, the CTA’s Arts in Transit program began commissioning and installing art at 26 stations on the Red and Brown Lines. About 20 artworks will have been completed by the end of this year, and the project is expected to end in 2010, once it spruces up the Red Line’s Howard, Belmont and Fullerton stops. The CTA began Arts in Transit after completing the 54th/Cermak Branch Project in 2004, which brought nine artworks to eight stations on the Pink Line.
Unless you believe there’s “a train right behind” the one you’ve just waited 20 minutes to board, you’re likely wondering why the CTA would purchase art before replacing the 38-year-old train cars creaking along the Blue Line (which won’t happen till 2010). According to Elizabeth “Lee” Kelley—director of the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Public Arts Program, which oversaw the 54th/Cermak Branch Project and now administers Arts in Transit in collaboration with the CTA—Arts in Transit is “based on the template of how [the PAP’s] Percent for Art program works.” Translation: The art budget is linked to the construction budget for the stations’ renovation, much of which is funded by the Federal Transit Administration, not the CTA. Sheila Gregory, a CTA spokeswoman, concurs that Arts in Transit has no connection to the CTA’s operating budget, and the CTA wouldn’t get the federal infrastructure-improvement grants unless it used some of the money to fund public art.
Kelley notes the federal government also demanded that the 26 renovated stations be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and some of the new artworks contribute to this goal, such as Ellen Harvey’s Carpet (2007), a mosaic of an Oriental rug that covers the Francisco Brown Line station’s entrance (pictured right)—now a handicapped-accessible ramp. Harvey’s work reflects the quiet, residential character of the station’s surroundings, says Kelley, who suggests the artist portrays the station as “the linchpin” between commuters’ personal lives and their work, “an extension of everyone’s homes.” Other Arts in Transit pieces are functional, such as Josh Garber’s Hope and Renewal (2007) at the Brown Line Kimball stop: Garber’s sculptures of lotus blossoms, which honor the neighborhood’s thriving Asian community, make convenient benches for riders waiting for the bus.
Kelley says the CTA would like the artworks in the renovated Howard station to include an entrance canopy that would protect riders from the elements, “because you could do paint on enamel that lasts.” She adds that any art the CTA commissions must be designed to last 50 years and be almost maintenance free: “You have to be able to power-wash it.”
These projects don’t seem to receive the media attention they deserve, but Gregory denies the CTA downplays Arts in Transit for fear of a customer backlash. She cites the press events held when each station is completed and the CTA’s promotion of the artwork and artists on its cable television show, Connections
It’s a shame Arts in Transit hasn’t received Olympic-size fanfare, because even riders suffering through three-track construction should seek out masterpieces such as Stephen Marc’s color photographic murals (pictured, above) at the 79th Street Red Line stop. Marc blended historic images of African-Americans with his contemporary pictures of people from the neighborhood, as well as ornamental patterns that evoke braided hair. His project reflects Arts in Transit’s tendency to promote local artists and locally relevant work: Other such pieces include tile mosaics by Chicago artists Dzine, who covered one wall at the Sedgwick Brown Line stop with abstract swirls of color; and Hector Duarte, whose Ice Cream Dream/Sueño de un Carrito de Paletas (2004) at the Western Pink Line stop celebrates the hopes of Mexican immigrants in Pilsen/Little Village.
The art might not make the trains arrive any faster, but at least it’ll give you something cool to look at while you’re cursing the CTA.
The first community forum for the Fullerton station is Thursday 24, 6pm, at the DePaul University Music School, 804 West Belden Avenue, first floor. For more information, visit cityofchicago.org/publicart.