A `magazine' on wheels. Streetfare Journal brings art, poetry to city buses

Poetry and paintings aren't the sort of things you associate with city buses -- you're more likely to encounter sticky seats and glazed looks. But if the editors of a ``publication'' called the Streetfare Journal have anything to do with it, buses will become repositories for art. Residents of a number of major cities, including San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., have already encountered the Streetfare Journal. Where passengers once saw only advertisements for technical schools and temporary agencies, they now can also see placards displaying, perhaps, a poem by Thom Gunn, a painting by David Hockney, or maybe a black-and-white photograph of a cowboy limbering up for a bronco ride.

Begun in November 1984, the Journal is now seen on some 12,500 buses nationwide, with a potential readership of 10 million people. It has garnered much acclaim from transportation officials, poetry publishers, museums (San Francisco's de Young and Modern Art museums have opened their collections to the Journal) and, most important of all, from bus riders.

``These things give you something to look at . . . besides graffiti and vandalism,'' says Adrian Andersen, who uses the San Francisco bus system every day. She says the Journal posters ``give me something real to think about.''

``So many people are writing in to us, thanking us for giving them credit for having brains,'' adds Kevin Doherty, managing editor of the San Francisco-based Journal.

The posters are produced by the New York-based Winston Network, the largest seller of transportation advertising in the country. It costs the company about $500,000 a month in production and donated advertising costs, Mr. Doherty says, which might make the effort seem altruistic were it not for the indirect benefits the company hopes to gain. By bringing attention to the medium, the Winston Network hopes to improve the image, artistry, and salability of bus advertising -- a situation, Doherty claims, in which everybody wins. At $5 per card, bus advertising is ``dirt cheap,'' he says, and needn't be as ugly and ineffective as much of it is today.

But Doherty says he is not as interested in selling advertising as in ``returning to the Golden Era of the poster'' in America, or at least making American poster art equal to that found in Europe.

``The inside of the bus forms the most continually available form of mass communication,'' Doherty says. At first the Journal tilted toward humor and advice, but it has evolved steadily toward a greater emphasis on the arts and society: The posters are reproducing the work of lesser-known artists such as photographer Sue Rosoff or painter Joe Sam, whose work began appearing during Black History Month in February. ``We want to celebrate all sorts of Americana -- everyday people, American art,'' Doherty says. ``We didn't want to waste this space, we wanted to do something significant in society -- to get people involved.''

Among those involved were about 200 Bay Area high school students who submitted art to a poster contest last fall sponsored by the Journal. As the announcement poster put it, students were asked to put ``Your Dream Here.'' Elton Hom of Oakland painted his dream of world peace -- a Soviet bear and an American bald eagle burying missiles -- and saw his message reproduced nationwide, in the company of Frank Stella and Robert Hudson.

How long the Journal will keep publishing is anyone's guess. But for now, the Streetfare Journal is available to everyone. And as Doherty says, ``if you've missed the last issue, you just have to wait fifteen minutes for the next.''

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