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Art for Public’s Sake

May 3, 2016

New York City DOT’s assistant commissioner of urban design, art, and wayfinding offers tips for sourcing art in public spaces.

Art is many things to many people—it can be fantastic, fanciful, and phenomenal. And in public spaces like airports, universities, and transportation systems, it can also be functional—acting as both identifier and inspirer, or as hallmark, benchmark, and landmark. The goal of the particular project will inform the curating and commissioning process.

Wendy Feuer, assistant commissioner of urban design and art and wayfinding at the New York City Department of Transportation, has been working to incorporate art into a variety public areas for over 30 years. Here she offers guidelines for success on public and commercial art installations.

Set Objectives

“Art offers different things in different contexts,” Feuer explained. “A mass transit system is essentially a public living room or waiting space. It adds value to the overall experience and feeling because you’re in a controlled environment. It adds a personality.”

Feuer’s career began in Albany on art policy legislation and historic preservation. While there, she volunteered to develop a project for New York City’s MTA. In the 1980s, after reading about artwork in Paris’s subway system, she was inspired to do something similar at home.

“Little did I know how bad the New York subway was at the time,” she said. “But I began working on a performance art program with musicians and events, and made some contacts.” In 1981, the MTA got an infusion of money to prevent it from collapsing. In 1985 she was hired as director of the newly created Arts for Transit office.

After holding that role for 11 years, Feuer went independent and began commissioning art for universities, airports, and other public and commercial spaces. “At an airport like JFK or Raleigh-Durham, the thinking is that artwork is a welcome that previews the city that you’re entering,” she explained. “People are stepping off planes from all over the world and entering a new territory.”

Her work at Brown University includes a glass bridge walkway by artist Diane Samuels that features contributed snippets about poetry and science. “The bridge and its contents are both connections. Scientists and artists both look deeply into thing—scientists see a world in a cell, artists in an idea,” said Feuer. “That connection was manifested in this one piece.”

After another 11 years in that position, Feuer came to the DOT to work on design issues for NYC streets and initiate a temporary program—and art has played an important role in many of her solutions. “Similar to how Columbus Circle has the statue and images of the Santa Maria and boats, art is a communication tool. It identifies a station visually and serves as a landmark,” Feuer said. “In the 80s, it also communicated that the city cares and trusts.”

Over 26 percent of New York City’s land mass is under DOT jurisdiction, including 789 bridges and some 6,000 miles of street. “It’s a huge portfolio, so we want to bring that down and localize it,” she explained. “We see things like barriers or fences that we don’t just cast off. Artists can do anything, and everything is a blank canvas, so we see opportunities all over. And our program is based on community interface.”  get buy-in Art projects should be compliant with the function the site serves. Engage stakeholders about goals and ensure they’re onboard with the proposals.

“Starting with an open slate and developing a program from scratch is really quite an opportunity. You have to respond to the agency’s priorities,” explained Feuer. “We’ve organized a program that responds to the developments and contexts, and doesn’t get caught up in long-term bureaucracy.”

When all parties are satisfied and all goals are met, Feuer and all collaborators are particularly proud of the result. “The reason it’s fulfilling for me professionally and personally is because there are stereotypes about art and artists, so it’s great to see how responsive people are and convert them,” she said. “In an organization where the goal is to fill potholes and just keep the city running, it’s important to do a job that’s in keeping with the agency.”

Set Up for Success

With many of these projects, the challenge is to avoid vandalism and defacement, and that requires a unique perspective.

“Instead of rejecting street art, we work with street artists,” she said. “We also have commissioners for each borough that help us identify hubs—commercial areas, subway stations, safe spaces, anywhere people are.”

For a project on the 191st Street tunnel at Broadway, Feuer’s team collaborated with neighborhoods and local arts organizations and culled five artists from an international competition. At that site, the neighborhood was frustrated because the tunnel was frequently tagged with graffiti and considered to be a dangerous area.

“But when we opened it up, the response was extraordinary. I haven’t heard of any hits, and it’s over 900 feet long,” she said. “The community was really happy. People were taking pictures and posting to social media. They now take pride in it.”

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