Many of the ceramic tiles at the Warehouse District light-rail stop are imprinted with photographs of soup kitchens and Teamster strikes — a nod to Minneapolis' rough-hewed industrial past.
Fourteen years after the Blue Line LRT began service, several of the station's tiles are cracked and gouged due to vandalism and the wear-and-tear of Minnesota's harsh climate.
Mark Granlund, Metro Transit's public art administrator, ran his hand over several of the pocked tiles recently and shook his head. "It looks like somebody came along and went boom, boom," he said, tapping a fist against them. "Then water got behind the initial tilework and it deteriorated."
The untitled installation at the Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue stop is among several works of art along the metro's two light-rail lines slated for a face-lift in coming months. With more than 70 unique public art works consisting of 403 individual pieces, the transit agency oversees one of the largest collections of public art in the state.
That's by design. High-quality art and architecture at transit stations improves commuters' experience, and gives each stop a sense of identity and vibrancy, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization. Typically, up to 2 percent of a transit project's construction budget is dedicated to art, APTA says.
But art on station platforms for the planned Southwest and Bottineau light-rail lines has been cut due to funding constraints and federal cutbacks for such work. While art is planned by cities near both lines, the platforms themselves will appear fairly utilitarian.
Jack Becker, director of consulting and creative services at the St. Paul-based nonprofit organization Forecast Public Art, thinks that's a mistake. "Beautification is part of it, but [public art] can go beyond that," he said. "What's the story of this place? How can it be told through art?"
The roof of the 38th Street Station on the Blue Line in Minneapolis, for example, features bronze replicas of Sears catalog kit homes — a nod to the prevalence of early 20th-century bungalows in the nearby Longfellow neighborhood. Art at the next southbound stop at 46th Street includes a metal turtle perched on a canopy that signals its proximity to the wilds of Minnehaha Park.
"There is something about the turtle on the southbound platform eave that just makes me smile. It's a bit of whimsy in a typically utilitarian environment," commented one commuter in a recent Metro Transit survey of 1,465 transit passengers.
Becker, whose firm consulted with the Metropolitan Council on the Blue Line, said art at transit stations is also connected to the passenger experience itself. "If you're stressed out and waiting for a train, if you've had a bad day, how can you change that psychology to take your mind off it for a few minutes?"
The U.S. Department of Transportation began supporting art and design in federally funded transit projects in the 1970s, according to APTA. President Jimmy Carter called for the Transportation Department to support projects that contribute to the architectural and cultural heritage of local communities.
Experts say public art works best if the artist researches the community where the piece is slated to appear. "It's not like you can make a sculpture in your studio and plop it in a public place," Becker said.
But engaging with the public about a station's design and artwork is a "dynamic process," said Karen Wirth, the artist coordinator for the Blue Line architectural design team, a co-designer for four of the line's stations. "You have to really pay attention to what people say, but you're also designing within certain constraints."
Beyond consultation with neighbors — where consensus can be elusive — Wirth recalls meeting with police (regarding safety), engineers, builders and even facilities management officials about station design and artwork. "There's just more to manage," she said.
Budget is always a consideration with public projects, too. About $2 million was spent on art and design at 15 Blue Line stations, not including the two at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Art for Green Line stations a decade later cost $2.8 million or about $187,000 for each station.
Tribute to history, culture
The Cedar-Riverside Blue Line station serves as a good example of how art reflects one of the more dynamic communities in the Twin Cities. But it points to the challenges of keeping a station's artwork shipshape, as well.
The stop features a series of 40 transparent glass canopies etched with images of constellations from the viewpoints of Minneapolis, Mogadishu, Oslo and Ho Chi Minh City — a tribute to the area's history and cultural diversity. Several of the canopies are shattered, likely due to vandalism, and now need to be replaced. It's one of the major projects Granlund's team will work on this year.
A nearby decorative steel fence that incorporates an architectural skyline was recently overhauled in an arduous process that involved removing 62 individual pieces, stripping, painting and repairing them, and then reattaching them. It took some doing to match the red, yellow and blue paint to the original colors, Granlund said.
The Met Council has learned a few lessons from the Blue Line about public art, he said. Artwork on the Green Line, which began service in 2014 and connects the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, incorporates materials that are easier to maintain. The stations are fairly standardized, as well.
Another challenge of public artwork involves realizing its lifelong potential — well after its dedication ceremony, Becker said.
"Its life is just starting then," he said. "Public art can attract media attention, people taking selfies, or those who want to get married in an artful place. You could have tours just of the work" at transit stations.
Sixty-eight percent of commuters said in the recent survey they felt "more positive" about Metro Transit because of its public art collection. At the same time, 4 percent characterized their feelings as "more negative" — Granlund assumes "that has something to do with spending money and [budget] priorities."
One passenger replied that they waited out a rainstorm at the Fort Snelling Blue Line station by listening to audio stories from Minnesota filmmakers, singers and storytellers on a windup device. The interactive artwork, featured at several stops, is also being retooled due to its outdated technology.
"I sat there for a long time, late at night, waiting until it was dry enough to go to my car," the commuter wrote. "The stories kept me company."
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