Transit-Oriented Art: Expanding Access in Motion

For a toolkit on how to engage artists as leaders around major disruptions like light rail construction, get the Irrigate toolkit on artist-led creative placemaking.

Routine riders of public transit may methodically shuffle to and from their destinations, heads down, substituting eye contact and casual conversation for cell phone stares and daydreams.

But throughout metro Denver, an exploding collection of art along the Regional Transportation District (RTD) rail system is well worth lifting your gaze, if you haven’t already.

Art has been part of the light rail buildout since the beginning, when a 5.3-mile section of what is now the D Line opened in 1994, the same year RTD launched its Art-n-Transit program.

With the April 22 opening of the University of Colorado A Line — a 23-mile stretch of commuter rail, connecting downtown and Denver International Airport — it’s a great time to stop and enjoy the displays of creativity along each of the transit corridors.

Art is currently on display at more than 45 rail stations and bus terminals. From spray-painted murals to large-scale sculpture, lighting installations to free-hand sketches, the number of artworks will grow substantially with the opening of the four new rail lines and a bus rapid transit this year. The amount of rail in the metro area will more then triple from tohe 2015 total of 48 miles to about 150 by year’s end.

A sense of community

According to Brenda Tierney, manager of RTD’s Art-n-Transit program,  the public expressed a clear and collective determination to include art in Denver’s transit system since its beginnings. “Starting with the initial light rail in Denver, there were a series of community groups and one of their requests was to add art to transit stations,” she says.

Also serving as RTD’s public information officer, Tierney has guided the Art-n-Transit program since the beginning. Without any formal art administration background, she says she has relied on friends and colleagues, as well as selection committees, made of artists, art administrators and constituents of impacted Denver neighborhoods, for each station. In 2015, she won the Denver Mayor’s award for Excellence in Arts & Culture.

With the shared intent to foster a sense of community, encourage transit-oriented development, and operate as a serviceable way-finding tool, as well as a deterrent to graffiti and other vandalism, Art-n-Transit projects consist of enhancements and commissioned works. The former refers to artistic elements that are incorporated into the design of the rail and bus stations, such as windscreens, benches and railings; while the commissioned works — the murals, mosaics, sculptures and other installations — are site-specific centerpieces, meant to add distinguishing components to the neighborhoods in which they reside.

Tierney says the financial commitment to achieve artistic expression at transit stations was, and remains, an uncertainty. “Over the years, funding for artwork has come from different sources,” she explains, describing the budget for the original project along the first five miles of rail “ridiculously tight.” “We worked with the community and founded a nonprofit so the first four stations had artwork.” The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, Tieney adds, so “RTD decided they could get in on helping with the funding.”

Since, money has come from a handful of different sources, from fundraising to ad-based revenue until the economy tanked in 2008. “Then times got tight and for the Southeast line, we decided funding should come from the actual project budget,” Tierney says. From that point forward, no specific amount has been set aside for funding art along Denver’s transit system, but the contingency budget — set for risks that could arise during each rail line buildout — has instead been reallocated by the project manager.

In all, about $3.5 million has been spent on Art-n-Transit since the program’s inception. Tierney is quick to note that it’s a tiny fraction of the total budget, far lower than Denver’s 1% initiative, where a percent of the budget of city projects over $1 million is set aside for public art.

Of the program’s works, Tierney highlights Lady Doctor, a 1998 sculpture by Jess DuBois that can be found at the 30th and Downing station plaza in Five Points. The installation pays tribute to Justina Ford, the first African-American doctor licensed in Colorado.

She also points to a completely different work in Centennial: At the Dry Creek Station, a project called Fools Gold by artist John McEnroe features a series of colorful stainless steel tubes holding hourglasses full of water on the wall of the parking structure. The piece suggests that over-development is our modern fool’s gold, and highlights water as a precious non-renewable resource — a hot topic in Colorado.

“This is a lot different than museum pieces,” says Tierney. “We never tell artists what type of art we want, but we give them location and criteria.” She says consistent project requirements include works that are safe and durable.

Once selection committees convene for each commissioned project, they select an artist and a direction for the project. The rough turnaround time from selection to installation is 12 to 18 months, Tierney says. “There’s a short turnaround time compared to other agencies, since we get our money late in the process.”

Artists are selected from a collection of applicants and work with community members and RTD officials to come up with something that suits the neighborhood, budget and station’s limitations.

A Line art

RTD’s Art-n-Transit team officially received funding for the three rail stops of the A Line in late 2014. DIA and Union Station were excluded from the plans, as art budgets were already in place for those destinations, as well as the 61st and Pena Station, which is privately funded and providing art for its plazas.

According to Tierney, art will be installed and ready for riders to gaze upon by opening day of the A Line. She adds that of the six artists who worked on this stretch of rail, three are from Colorado, including Denver-based Kelton Osborn, whose work is featured at the 38th and Blake station.

With background as an architecture and printmaker, this is Osborn’s second foray into public art. “I happened to get lucky with this one,” he says. “This call was specific to artsist in the RiNo area, and so I applied and made the short list and came up with a proposal.”

Osborn, a native of Pueblo, Colorado, says he was “very enchanted with the steel mill and industrial buildings,” which provided inspiration for his RTD project. “I really wanted the piece to reflect some of the grit of RiNo. With all the redevelopment, it’s losing some of that,” he says.

His piece — titled Conflux | Redox — had to be built of durable material and with low-maintenance finishes. The total budget came to $85,000, and he says his experience in architecture allows him to accept the “interference that comes with the general public’s wear and tear.”

“I think, in general, art tends to be something that’s layered on top of cities,” Osborn says. “With transit specifically, I think it helps enliven the spaces that are more utilitarian to start with.”

Echoing Osborn’s sentiment about practical public spaces, Molly Dilworth, a Brooklyn artist whose sculpture will appear at the Airport and 40th station, says, “Sometimes, I wonder if people ask themselves how ugly can we make this school.” She got her start in public art circa 2009 when she started composing large-scale paintings on rooftops for a Google Earth project, aiming to merge the physical and digital worlds. “I feel like people always ask, ‘Is art good for cities, or good for business?’ To me, even if it’s subtle, it makes life that much better. To look at some of the government buildings we have, it’s such a drag on your psyche over time.”

The ultimate goal is to have artwork at every rail station and major bus stations, Tierney says, though the latter endeavor hasn’t been as fully realized. “On the bus side, there are very few locations at RTD we have art inside of bus terminals,” she says, pointing to exceptions at Civic Center Station, Union Station and in Boulder.

Tierney is looking forward to unveiling the large-scale wall art at the Clear Creek-Federal Station on the Gold Line connecting downtown and Wheat Ridge this fall. She describes a massive wall that will depict silhouettes of community members in a wide palette of colors. The Berlin-based artist, Addison Karl, is hand-painting the entire image during a two-month period before the station opens in fall 2016.

“We’re always excited to see artwork come in,” Tierney says. “The engineers and designers have spent years and millions of dollars and are excited to have the signals work and the trains stop at the right place, but the artwork is the piece the community responds to the most. It’s a way for each station to be unique and tied to the community.”

This story is part of a series on the impact of arts and the creative community in Denver. This partnership with Confluence Denver and Creative Exchange is underwritten by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

Bonfils Stanton