Beyond graffiti: subway art blooms in Boston

The train pulls into the station, and passengers get off expecting the usual array of signs and dirty subway walls. Instead, there is a wall of colorful children's drawings, each one signed by a youthful artist.

A new form of subway graffiti?

No, it's one project of Boston's ''Arts on the Line,'' an effort to bring contemporary art into the public transportation system. AOTL both spotlights the need to do something about the nation's deteriorating public transportation systems while at the same time graphically showing that modern art is not just for museums. In the Davis Square station under construction in Cambridge, brightly colored tiles based on drawings by more than 200 local schoolchildren will decorate the subway walls.

A project of the Cambridge Arts Council (CAC), AOTL was born in 1979 when Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) announced plans to extend its Red Line with four new stations. With an initial $45,000 grant from the US Department of Transportation, it created a program which may become a beacon to brighten the face of public transportation all across the United States.

In line with CAC's original mandate, ''to make the quality of life more pleasing for those who live here,'' says Chris Connaire, executive director of CAC, ''the idea was to get contemporary art out of the museums and into people's lives in a very direct way.''

The program has expanded since the start, ''but the original idea is unchanged - to create an ambiance in which the site and the art complement one another,'' says Ms. Connaire. ''For that reason we have many local lesser-known artists who are more likely to be familiar with the area. A big-name artist would be more interested in simply having a location to display his or her work. That's not what we wanted.''

The program required an enormous amount of understanding between officials, artists, and the community, Ms. Connaire adds. ''The fact that we lost only one of the original artists contracted to do the work is remarkable.''

What they finally came up with was a painstaking collaboration between designers, artists, MBTA officials, and citizen boards representing each community in which the stations would be built.

''As might be obvious, art designed for outdoor sites must meet specialized criteria,'' observes Pallas Lombardi, director of AOTL. ''The art must last under tough underground as well as outdoor conditions for at least 75 years, be relatively maintenance-free, not to mention vandal resistant. This adds to the challenge.''

In the end, ATOL came up with an art selection process that may serve as a blueprint for other cities wishing to build or remodel public transportation systems. Already there have been inquiries from San Francisco, Atlanta, and New York City.

Ms. Lombardi says: ''We looked at many existing systems - European cities such as Stockholm and Paris in particular. They have included art as a more general practice in their city planning. The Louvre Metro stop in Paris is a classic. (The station displays reproductions of the masterpieces housed in the museum above ground.)

''But even many of these stations are simply places to put art. Our idea is to create a station so 'site-specific' that it becomes a work of art unique to each community. It should reflect them in a way that would preclude it being built in just that way anywhere else.''

She says such community involvement has the valuable side effect of deterring vandalism. ''When people have a personal involvement with public places they feel much more protective of them and will work to maintain their beauty,'' says Ms. Lombardi.

The original plan called for art in the four new Red Line stations (Harvard Square, Davis Square, Porter Square, and Alewife Station Garage). It has expanded since then to include the modernization of 11 other stations on both the Red and Orange Lines.

The effort to bring art into people's lives won't stop when the stations are finished, as they are scheduled to be in 1984. Says Ms. Lombardi: ''We all got very inspired working on this project. We would like to continue the sense of community involvement with art through some form of education, like oral histories of the artists - to make art become real for people. Something to make them realize it's part of their lives.''

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