As an arts institution, how do you build a collection that comes within reach of gender parity? Well, if you’re MTA Arts & Design, you have it figured out, with 48% composed of female artists. This self-described “underground museum” is the organization responsible for the public artworks — mosaics, sculptures, photo light boxes, and more — in hundreds of subway stations across New York City. With roughly 8.7 million riders a day, the MTA serves New York in all its cultural complexity, and as a result its arts-focused arm has a duty to reflect the city’s makeup. But when I asked its director Sandra Bloodworth how they did it, her answer was a surprise: “It just happened,” she said.
In an art world now waking up to egregious gender inequality, the “collection” of artist commissions spearheaded by the organization is exceptional in that it is almost half female. Though this statistic is slightly out of step with the city’s population (which was 53% female as of the last census), it is a far cry from the 13% representation in the collections of the top 18 US museums. The story of how New York City’s subway system has become one of the most gender balanced public institutions in the country, however, is more interesting than numbers. “We are creating [the art] for our riders,” Bloodworth, who has led the organization since 1988 says, and “without compromise, New York City deserves the best art.”
The selection panels that choose commissions have not explicitly made diversity their aim, but rather are in the business of choosing the best proposal for the specific project at hand. Each commission is considered on a case by case basis, and MTA Arts & Design does not have a quota to fill or a government issued directive to which to adhere. Equality is simply a natural byproduct of their process.
The success of this process is reliant on its focus on catering directly to the people who will be seeing the art. The manner in which a traditional museum adds to its collection is not always guided by the museum’s audience, as donations and special funds are sometimes more reliant on the tastes of trustees than on those coming through the door. But for MTA Arts & Design, their audience –– the New Yorkers who swipe through the turnstile each day –– is their primary consideration.
No matter where the project is, whether a high profile opening of the stations within the new Second Avenue Subway or a rehabilitation of a less trafficked station far from transportation hubs, the selection process is the same and begins rather than ends with a consideration of the ridership. The second presentation the panel of judges are briefed on (only after consideration of a station’s physical constraints) is focused specifically on the community of people serviced by the station. Who are they? Where do they work? What are the landmarks of the community? What is its history? Who are its notable residents? By knowing who is seeing the art, panelists can better decide who should be making it.
Each panel “is tailored to every project we do,” and its variability is in line with the variability of the neighborhoods and stations for which art is commissioned. While three votes always go to director Sandra Bloodworth, an architect, and an “arts professional,” the rest of the panel is formed by voices from the community — sometimes community board members, sometimes elected representatives, but always someone who is intimately familiar with the people and places above ground. “Other cities are jealous,” Bloodworth says, because in New York “we can always find art professionals from that community.”
The conscientiousness required of such a thorough process is borne out in Jean Shin’s commission for the Q stop at 63rd street on the new Second Avenue Subway, titled “Elevated” (2016). Like many commissioned artists before her, she considered the daily ridership when planning her installation, but deepened its meaning by honoring the commuters who have used the trains throughout the system’s 115 years. Her work took on a meta-narrative that addressed the history of the MTA, by referencing the drawn-out promise of the new subway line and the disappointment that a generation had to bear when it did not materialize in their lifetimes. “Believing in something long term and having it realized was a beautiful narrative that I wanted to show,” Shin says.
As a previously commissioned artist, Shin is sometimes asked to serve on the selection panels for future projects. Panelists are not only allowed to vote for proposed projects, but have the power to recommend artists who have not applied who they believe are well suited to the task. By including artists with large networks of other artists, you can imagine that diversity perpetuates itself. A female artist may recommend another female artist, and so on and so forth.
In addition, for any proposal that is turned down, Arts & Design will keep the artist in mind and might call upon them for another project better suited to their work. With hundreds of projects already completed and often thirty to forty proposals submitted for each open call, the MTA has access to an unbelievable pool of potential collaborators and is uniquely positioned to select exactly the right candidate for the project at hand.
A quick look through previous MTA Arts & Design sponsored projects reveals how well-matched artists are to the stations for which they have made work. Faith Ringgold, who was born in Harlem, was commissioned in 1995 to make work for the 125th Street 3 train station. She titled it “Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines,” after a song she often heard in her youth spent in the very same neighborhood. Decades later, still true to its process, Arts & Design commissioned Firelei Báez, born in the Dominican Republic, for the station at 163rd and Amsterdam — a stop serving a majority Dominican neighborhood — which she festooned with the flora of her native country, a tropical forest of plants to remind commuters of their metaphorical roots.
“Good art and diversity are not in conflict,” Bloodworth says. $2.75 and a daily commute are all that it takes to prove it.
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