Second Avenue Subway Art—New York’s newest underground art museum

Posted by Lester Burg, Aug 14, 2017 0 comments

This post is part of our Public Art Network 2017 Year in Review blog salon.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority moves over 8 million people daily on trains, subways, and buses, bringing travelers together in a most democratic way. MTA Arts & Design oversees the percent for art program as well as poetry, digital, music, and photography.

Our PAN Year in Review honoree, Second Avenue Subway art, was a monumental undertaking with four major art installations that were embraced at opening events in an unprecedented way, with positive press, lines of people wanting selfies, and a mood of celebration. As the project manager, I have described these installations as the projects of a lifetime, because the immensity of creating new subway stations in Manhattan was a very big deal, and the art had to speak to today’s riders while also pointing the way to the future of mass transit. It was years in the making as each artist had a different way of using enormous spaces—three blocks long and multiple street entrances—while remaining true to their artistic practice.


Public art in the transit system reaches people. There are currently 150,000 daily visits to the combined stations, and the numbers are growing with the population of New York, and the growing numbers of people who appreciate having art as part of their daily journey.


Sarah Sze’s work at 96th Street is integrated with the architecture, utilizing digital printing to fire her drawing directly onto porcelain tiles. The artist’s vision to create representations of movement, speed, and architecture in 2-D form meshed with technological advances enabling her to print on over 4000 individual tiles. She describes it best: “What’s really exciting about this project is this idea that the entire subway station can become an immersive experience, and that the kind of information, the kind of art, that you get in one place changes and evolves, and the next time that you come and you use another entrance or another exit, you can have a different experience of really the same world. … So, this idea that I could do every entranceway and the mezzanine level, and that the work could unfold over your movements through the station, was this incredible opportunity.”

96th Street station. Art by Sarah Sze.

At 86th Street, 12 stunningly detailed portraits by Chuck Close of artists and cultural figures represent New York City archetypes and are rendered in fine micro-mosaic and custom-glazed tiles, providing a museum-like experience for riders. Through his years-long collaboration with Mosaika Art & Design and Magnolia Editions, Close’s various painting and printing techniques are reinterpreted and reimagined in glass and ceramic mosaic, which pushes the boundaries of what this ancient medium can do and be. The individuals that Close selected to portray in “Subway Portraits” represent the riders who use the subway every day. Bringing museum quality work into the realm of a subway station has made new and interesting gathering places, as school groups often visit the artwork, and the portraits have become meeting places.

86th Street station. Art by Chuck Close.

Forty mosaic figures by Vik Muniz that line the 72nd Street station walls reflect the diversity and individuality of subway passengers. The New York Times quoted one reaction: “There is no feeling quite like seeing yourself cemented into the infrastructure of New York. … It lets me know that my city loves me.” The mosaics are renderings by Franz Mayer of Munich based on photographs that Muniz staged, featuring unique and quirky New Yorkers from all walks of life. People connect with the characters and have posted thousands of photos of the installation. Muniz titled the work “Perfect Strangers” but they don’t seem like strangers—they are familiar because they look like us and like the people we know and love who are part of our richly diverse city.

72nd Street station. Art by Vik Muniz.

A tri-part project for 63rd Street which received a new station entrance and access points by Jean Shin mines the history of the community and removal of elevated trains, revealing the sky and residents in ceramic tile, mosaic, and glass. She celebrates the history of the station’s neighborhood with historic photos of the elevated tracks that once ran along 2nd and 3rd Avenue and archival photos of people in the neighborhood. She worked with fabricators Frank Giorgini, Stephen Miotto, and Tom Patti to create ceramic, mosaic, and glass artwork that reference past, present, and future throughout three levels of the station and which draw the viewer into the work. The vintage photographs used for mosaics draw the most attention as people commute and commune with neighbors past seen in late ‘40s and ‘50s garb.

63rd Street station. Art by Jean Shin.

MTA Arts & Design has installed nearly 300 permanent projects throughout the MTA region. Our subway system is 112 years old and we normally commission art that is incorporated into station rehabilitation projects. It was a rare opportunity to start from scratch, and the team was involved from the beginning thinking about how to integrate the artwork into the architecture and the kind of artists and artwork that should be created.

As the art administrator enmeshed in the many details of contracts, schedules installation, and finishes, the point at which the public viewed the art at community open houses was momentous for me. The entire Arts & Design team was on hand and witnessed the reaction of residents of all ages. They were so pleased, proud, and awestruck by the art. The four artists were proud to show their families and friends the art, to see the unprecedented positive coverage in local news media, and to realize new audiences for their work. Public art in the transit system reaches people. There are currently 150,000 daily visits to the combined stations, and the numbers are growing with the population of New York, and the growing numbers of people who appreciate having art as part of their daily journey.

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