Bodeck Hernandez, Legacy, 2019 Courtesy of Metro (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority).

A bus stop, subway station or train depot could be your next art opportunity.

For over a century art has been used to beautify and humanize transportation centers. Art plays a critical role in encouraging people to take public transportation, feel safer and connect with their community. And, most transit agencies have art programs that manage art enhancements and site-specific works. 

Here are a few reasons to consider your local transit center for your next art commission. 

Have thousands of eyeballs on your artwork, every day. 

Public transportation projects give you the opportunity to engage with a new audience. Those that ride public transportation reflect a diverse demographic whether it be daily commuters, students or tourists.

Some public transits like the New York MTA are open 24 hours, 7 days a week—that’s a lot of exposure to your artwork!

Get your feet wet with small projects.

Art in the public sphere does not have to be monumental. You can make a big impact in your career with a small project. Typical “entry-point” projects include painted light boxes, sculptural bike racks, posters, and digital displays—all of which you can submit proposals for. 

Public art programs want to create different access points for artists no matter where they are in their careers. Even as an established studio artist, public art projects can be new and humbling, so smaller projects help you gain experience and confidence. 

You can search for public art RFQs on Artwork Archive’s Call-for-Entry page.

Surf Station 90 (2011). © Michael Miller, NYCT Beach 90 Street Station. Commissioned by Metropolitan Transportation Authority Arts & Design. Photo: © MTA Arts & Design.

Make your vision a reality with the help of fabricators. 

According to Roberta Bloom, Public Art Coordinator for the City of Aurora, the relationship between artist and fabricator has become critical in the field of public art. She shares, “fabricators enable artists to do a scope of work that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.” Studio artists are not limited by their medium, process or studio space. 

With the help of a fabricator, you can create in your preferred medium—paint, photography, collage, etc.. Next, you’d deliver your artwork as high-resolution files to the fabricator who will then translate the artwork into a different, more durable media like glass, ceramic, or enameled steel. Fabricators are often artists themselves and will recommend different processes that will honor your artwork the best. 

Reimagine your canvas. 

There are multiple modes of public transportation, and within that, many opportunities to create art for the public. Projects aren’t just for electric boxes. For instance, in Aurora, Colorado, windscreens scatter the R Line of the light rail. Brooklyn-based illustrator, George Bates, hand-painted each glass panel to reflect the diverse neighborhood of each station. 

Make sure your works are durable.

Transit systems have unique requirements for durability and safety. Artwork can’t need much maintenance. Why? As Lester Burg, Deputy Director at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority Arts & Design puts it, “you can’t shut down a train line to polish a piece.” That’s why New York’s MTA keeps to a system that dates back to 1905—using mosaics and ceramics and locations away from trains. Metal and glass are often used in elevator stations.

Consider the environmental factors too. Lester asserts, “the public realm is not a pristine white box” and offers steel dust as an example. The subway wheels create steel dust from the friction on the rails and those particles cling to things like metals and sculptural works. You don’t want to create a work that attracts that pervasive material. 

Vicki Scuri's installation at Macleod Trail & 162nd Avenue SE in Calgary, Canada.

Let’s look at an artist making art for the public realm. 

Meet Vicki Scuri, a Seattle-based artist who has been working in the field of public art for transportation for 34 years. Much of her work includes transit, roads, and bridges. Her public art career started with an art-in-transit project in her own backyard. Vicki applied to an RFQ for the Downtown Seattle Transit Project, a design team project that included artists. At the time she was a professor at Whitman College and on sabbatical. “When I saw the call, I realized it was exactly the type of opportunity I’d been dreaming about, allowing me to move out of the ivory tower and into the real world, through public art,” says Vicki.

What makes Vicki’s work and process conducive to art in transit projects? Vicki shares, “it’s about my attitude and approach. I try to figure out what makes a community tick and celebrate their identity in a symbolic way. I transform structures by introducing human scale and sequential patterning systems, getting to the core of the values, imagery, and aspirations of the community.” 

The public sphere is different from your studio or a gallery. Ask yourself some tough questions to determine if it’s right for you.

Do I embrace feedback? Am I willing to change my vision?

Within the public art process, you will receive a lot of feedback. Public art impacts a community and thus is a collective conversation. Is that for you?

Vicki encourages artists to keep an open mind about how they work and what they want to accomplish. “Your process and final project will most likely change,” she shares. 

And Lester encourages you to be open to changing the manner in which your artwork is experienced. He asserts, “you’re not creating work for sale. You’re creating work for experience. Art is not the destination. It enhances the experience.” Are you OK with that?

Do I like to collaborate?

More and more projects are being integrated into the construction of transportation hubs. For instance, the arts and design team for LA Metro works with the construction team from the get-go. With projects like these, you will collaborate with engineers and other civic partners. 

Do I like to be surprised?

And when collaborating with construction projects, there are a lot of factors that are out of your control. It’s an adjustment when working for a large government agency whose primary business is transportation when art is not the primary purpose. Construction may change the dimensions of your project site. For instance, the wall size may shift due to emergency fire code. Are you willing to pivot? 

Anne Marie Karlsen, Strati, 2012. Courtesy of Metro (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority)

Am I patient?

Clare Haggarty, Senior Manager of Transportation Planning (Arts & Design) for LA Metro, states that “a lot of art in transit projects are years and years in the making. I’ve seen a 5-year contract.” To avoid “plop-art,” works in public transportation centers take time to develop and implement.

Do I like research?

Clare shares that it is incredible how much research goes into a project. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes. 

Before submitting your proposal, do you have a clear idea of what the selection committee is looking for and who the audience is? Vicki coaches artists to look at a lot of art in transit projects and see what is succeeding. Ride your public transit and experience the environment. And, most importantly to listen to the current conversation in that community.

Do I have thick skin?

Public art is a highly competitive space and it’s not for everyone. Vicki encourages you to submit and not worry so much about whether or not you’re going to be selected. “There are so many factors that shape the dialogue around projects. Continue to submit,” she says. Sound like a process you’re willing to undertake?

Still interested? Then, dive in. 

Get yourself out there! Get on the mailing lists of transit agencies’ art programs. Keep your ears open for professional development events. Be challenged and try something new! 

Find opportunities.

You can search for public art RFQs on Artwork Archive’s Call-for-Entry page.

When applying to calls, present your artwork professionally with Artwork Archive’s Portfolio Pages.