Looking Back to Move Forward: Reflections on Arts in Transit

Time flies. I started this series — on public art in Boston in the 1980s — just about a year ago. Then, I was just starting to formalize my questions about public art in our city. I wondered who was behind some of our non-memorial artworks, why those artworks were placed, and how they were commissioned. Twelve months ago, I was just discovering UrbanArts, Now + There's predecessor, the organization that produced many of the public artworks on the southwest portion of the Orange Line in the 1980s.

Arts in Transit Booklet_via LTH.jpg

As part of Arts in Transit, UrbanArts commissioned permanent works along each of the nine new stations opened in 1987.  If you’ve read this series before (hello, dear reader!), you may remember that the organization also effected temporary educational programs (projects that today we'd call "socially engaged") that documented the destruction of neighborhoods and communities along the southwest corridor. More than 30 years old now, many of the commissioned permanent works remain, but some are gone. As for the temporary projects, their documentation lives on in the memory of those who participated in them.

I started on this series not to be nostalgic, or to romanticize the past (which, in truth, I'm wont to do). Instead of aggrandizing public art in the 1980s, and idealizing the decade, I wanted to think (dare I say pragmatically) about what Boston's public art past means for its future. How would factual knowledge of our past public art embolden us to build a more dynamic, equitable, and vibrant public art future? Most importantly, I wanted to consider if the permanent Arts in Transit installations still give — as they were meant to — Bostonians a voice in civic life, both locally and globally.

In the 1980s, Bostonians were coming off of a decades-long struggle to voice their concerns about the proposed federal highway to lacerate the city’s neighborhoods to the south and west. The anti-highway movement (historicized in Karilyn Crockett’s recent book, People before Highways) successfully stopped plans for the highway by unwaveringly pressuring elected officials and policymakers through grassroots, multiracial organizing.

Nevertheless, destruction of the Washington Street Elevated was transformative for communities in Chinatown, the South End, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, and Roslindale. The construction of the Orange line subway was likewise metamorphic, and even, as one Globe writer implies, metaphoric. "The old and the new Orange Lines traverse the life of a city and its long-running ideological disputes — immigrant vs. native, labor vs. management, real estate speculators vs. ‘city beautiful’ supporters," writes Martin F. Nolan for the Globe in on April 26, 1987, days before the El was demolished on April 30 of that year. Seeing the El as a time capsule of sorts, Nolan seems particularly prescient to me as he continues that the new Orange Line “is a monument to Boston’s class struggle.” That today’s Boston still grapples with so many of these issues, including citizenship, race, and place, certainly underscores the Orange Line’s function as a monument, which are so often stagnant, passive, and recessed from contemporary experience.

Scenes from the Washington Street Elevated portion of the MBTA’s Orange Line

Scenes from the Washington Street Elevated portion of the MBTA’s Orange Line

But it didn’t, and still doesn’t, have to be that way. I wonder if it's possible to change our monuments and assuage our social struggles through new forms of public art erected on, and through, our past?

Initiated in 1984, UrbanArts was a scrappy, idealistic non-profit founded by Arts on the Line veteran Pamela Worden. Brought in well after construction plans for the new Orange Line stations was underway, UA quickly organized a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary arts program of permanent and temporary works. No matter their duration, media, or material, these works were intended to give residents a way to participate in the evolving topography of their neighborhoods.

These programs were part of a larger effort to enhance affected neighborhoods, unifying and “beautifying” areas that by the 1980s, had observed seismic change to their built and civic spaces. In listening to the people of these places, UA heard that residents “wanted a sense of place…They also hoped to incorporate citizen participation and public education into the art program so that public art could help achieve the goal of reducing tensions that had long existed in many Southwest Corridor communities, tensions that often were the result of racism and the negative impacts of economic restructuring.” That’s a lot for public art to achieve, and integral to its success would be its comprehensive integration in all spheres of civic infrastructure. In the 1980s, UrbanArts believed that this could happen.

Life Around Here  by Malou Flato at the Stonybrook Orange Line stop

Life Around Here by Malou Flato at the Stonybrook Orange Line stop

How else could Urban Arts have so enthusiastically worked (on a short timeline and even shorter budget) on ambitious permanent projects like Richard Gubernick’s Caravans at Tufts Medical Center? 19 x 40 ‘ overall, the piece consists of four pieces of aluminum, abstracted and placed along the station’s escalator. What about Malou Flato’s ceramic tiled mural, Life Around Here, installed on a curved wall at Stonybrook? (A personal favorite of mine, I was delighted to see that the usual grime obscuring the image had been washed away last summer.) And how about Paul Goodnight’s Geometree, another mosaic-like ceramic work installed above the Columbus Avenue entrance at Ruggles? Among the city’s most important civic-minded artists, Goodnight was integral to Boston’s mural movement in the 1960s and 1970s and would work on Geometree for years. These are just a few examples of the tremendous contribution to Boston’s public art that UA achieved in the late 1980s, and just a fraction of what they would go on to produce.

Caravans  by Richard Gubernick at Tufts Medical Center photo via   Miles on the MBTA

Caravans by Richard Gubernick at Tufts Medical Center photo via Miles on the MBTA

I highlight these because with the perspective of a year’s worth of research I now know that it’s impossible to do justice to the breadth of UA’s work and their relationship to national and international trends in public art during the tumultuous 1980s in just a few blog posts. Nor is it possible to adequately summarize the scope of change to the field of contemporary art and its structures in the rollicking 1980s. Nostalgic or no, I still firmly believe that we are living the legacy of the 1980s politically, socially, and culturally. Hence, I think it’s essential that artists, curators, and others think creatively and constructively on our shared past to frame a more expansive, generative future.

So, what has changed in the thirty years since the 1980s? I think, most critically, it is how we interact with each other. Today, we’re more nervous, afraid of interaction and litigation, engrossed in digital devices and ensconced in a culture unafraid to sue. The ways in which artists and curators interact has changed, with hierarchies erased as economic structures reshuffle cultural work. Most significantly, the way that those artists and curators engage the communities they serve has shifted with the rise of relational aesthetics, socially-engaged artworks, and all of the politics of both. Through its temporal curatorial approach, N+T works through all the sticky problematics of interaction so that we can more fruitfully exchange with one another.

Time flies so swiftly that I can hardly believe it’s been a year since my first post on the N+T blog. So much has changed for me in these past twelve months, including my job. As N+T’s new assistant curator, I’m thrilled to be working through Urban Arts’ legacy in the local and national art landscape. Let’s be honest: even over these twelve months, I haven’t really answered any of the big questions I’ve brought forward. Instead, I produced and asked more of them with each post. But maybe that’s necessary in this social and cultural moment. It will take time, and more artmaking, to resolve these questions or our past and present.