Public Art on Transit – A Conversation with Brad Golden

March 26, 2021 § Leave a comment

Interview by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu

HIGHWAY 407 – TTC Transit Station – Toronto (unveiled, 2017). Artist: David Pearl. The artwork is silk screen printed with frit enamel onto low iron glass, creating a line of colour that follows the passenger’s movement throughout the station. Photo: Ian Trites.

This series of interviews takes an in-depth look at public art on transit. Artists face a contradiction when making art for public transit. Works can reach a very broad audience, but the chance for engagement is fleeting. Creating a work is further complicated by the conditions of display and the number of stakeholders involved. Artworks need to be long-lasting and/or low maintenance, while safeguarding concerns about the human rights and health and safety of passengers. As such, art on transit is a heightened form of the challenge faced by any artist making public art. In these conversations, art writer Rosemary Heather, and Yan Wu, Public Art Curator for the City of Markham, talk with three public art professionals about the complex job of helping artists make art for public transit. Mariam Zulfiqar speaks about the curatorial role she held with the Art on the Underground in London, UK from 2010-2015; Brad Golden talks about the work he did to bring extraordinary public artworks to the new TYSSE – the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension; and Ben Mills provides insights into how he ushers dozens of projects to completion as co-lead of Public Art Management, the public art consulting firm founded by his mother, Karen Mills.

Brad Golden, Owner, Brad Golden + Co – Public Art Consulting. For over forty years, Brad Golden has directed and collaborated on award-winning projects that engage public spaces and landscapes. From large-scale collaborations with architects and engineers for public clients to consultation for public agencies and private development clients, Brad has become recognized for creating and coordinating both permanent and temporary artwork programmes involving the integration of art, architecture, landscape construction and urban design.

As a former public artist himself, Brad has garnered several prestigious awards for his work including a Governor General’s Award of Excellence, City of Toronto Urban Design Award of Excellence, City of Etobicoke Urban Design Award of Excellence, Ontario Association of Architects Allied Arts Award, Canadian Society of Landscape Architects Award of Excellence and a Financial Post Design Effectiveness Award.

Brad has been a guest critic and lecturer at the Schools of Architecture at the University of Toronto and University of Waterloo and guest critic at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and at Ryerson University.

Committed to communicating the value of art and design in the public realm, Brad participated as a member of the inaugural design review panels for the City of Vaughan and Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (Fort McMurray). He is founder, past host and producer of Designers Talk, a monthly radio programme which addressed a wide range of issues in design.


Rosemary Heather: What are the differences between commissioning public art on public transit and other types of public space—eg., condo developments and public plaza or park spaces. Can you walk us through some examples?

Brad Golden: I could talk about the TYSSE – the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension, which is six stations that extend north from what used to be Downsview Station into Vaughan Metropolitan Center. That was a very special project and was brought about in a world that is quite different than the world we live in now, on the project delivery side of things. The delivery method was called design-bid-build, which is when the client hires a design team—architects and landscape architects, engineers, etc.—allowing the client to have a very direct relationship with these design consultants. The consultants produce a series of documents and then those documents are put out to tender. The contractor that wins the bid builds the project while the consultants continue to be engaged in the delivery of the project, in service of the client. The project that I am currently working on, and have been for a while—first on the client side and now on the project delivery side—is through a PPP or Public-Private Partnership (also known as AFP-Alternative Finance Procurement.) The structure of AFP project delivery, and the way these projects are run, have a significant effect on what presence art can have within the project, what role the artist plays and how they operate within that context.

Public art in transit is typically a component of capital project programmes. There can also be temporary projects and those delivered through the advertising media providers, by way of the ongoing occupation of the screens in what is called Run-of-Schedule. We see this type of media based art all over the world. We see it in Times Square, we see it in different transit facilities globally, but that’s a different program than capital projects. What we’re talking about, in my world, is capital project delivery. That’s when there is an investment of dollars for new stations, or for new lines, through the policy of the Transit Agency, based on a specified percent of the construction cost of the project, typically one percent. The one percent will not typically include the construction cost of the tracks, switchgear, transformer stations, etc.—so let’s just call it one percent of the architecture or of the public facing components.

Public art in transit is interesting because it is art in a truly public space. When we talk about the other type of work that I do—working with developers, it’s quite different. In that case, there is a more personally-influenced delivery of art, where the vision of art is put in the hands of the private development sector. Whereas in public transit, it is very much a public process, and an expression of public will—even if expressed politically—that’s why I think public art in transit is so fascinating.

It starts with the artist procurement stage in public transit projects. The call for artists is as broad and public as possible, typically through open calls. Transit agencies may limit the geography of how broad that call will be, for example, it may be within a metropolitan, provincial or national jurisdiction. Sometimes the call will be international, as it was with TYSSE, but the appetite for international calls has been reduced. Partly because of budgets and also partly because of current politics.

As I mentioned, artist procurement of a public project is often through an open call, so it’s as broad and open as it can be. Subsequently, there is a short-listing process that will often look at artists’ past work and credentials. In the private sector, by comparison, public open calls are possible but they’re very rare. Why are they rare? Because there’s risk. If you run a public call, based on artistic excellence and not on experience, you run the risk of selecting someone who may not be that experienced. And for developers, there is permitting criteria attached to the delivery of the public art. Receiving a building permit and occupancy of a building can be tied to the completion of a public art project, each of which has significant dollars attached to them, if they are delayed.

With integrated public art projects, where the artist delivers their work as a component of the building process, there is an additional degree of complexity imposed on the building process. Where money is potentially lost for every day there is a delay, that’s risk and risk has cost. That’s one of the main reasons you don’t see a lot of open calls in the private sector. It’s also due to a perceived lack of control on the overall process, and developers are typically risk-averse. Developers are primarily delivering a product to the marketplace and that product is their building and public art is part of the total package of that building. So, there’s a disincentive for developers to deliver what could be seen as a controversial public artwork because that also imposes project risk. If the developer perceives that public art could be a disincentive to potential purchasers, that’s a problem.

With TYSSE, the TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) was very brave in that they commissioned six international artists to deliver artwork, very early on in the process. The artists became members of the design team, without presenting specific proposals. The artists were involved in the development of their artwork, at the same time the stations were being designed. Getting the artists involved as early as possible is usually considered ideal but not all artists are interested in, or capable of working at, that preliminary level. Some would rather be given an opportunity that is more specifically defined, that they can respond to and push back against. Many artists see their role as quite distinct from that of an architect. In other words, I’m an artist, don’t ask me to design a building and some critics would say, you shouldn’t be asking artists to design buildings, they’re supposed to be delivering art. And, if art is to have critical content—well that’s a whole other discussion. It’s a very rich topic.

Selecting an artist to be a member of a design team inherently creates a bias because, if you’re procuring artists who have previously worked with architects, or have the ability to work in that context, you have, defacto set up a limit as to which artists are qualified or best qualified, according to certain criteria, to work in that context. And, that may not always be the best artists, depending on how you define best.

When you deliver art as architecture and architecture as art, it’s a specific expression and should be understood as such. It may not always be apparent where the “art” is, which can be problematic. Art can get relegated to the role of enhancing architecture, in some cases enhancing impoverished architecture as clients or commissioning agencies cut design budgets—leading to the redirection of public art budgets to service architectural budgets, in the aegis of integrated art.

I believe that a well-delivered decorative arts program in architecture can be wonderful—look at the buildings we love and celebrate. One of my local favourites is the Canada Post Office, now incorporated into Scotiabank Arena, formerly the Air Canada Centre. The Louis Temporale friezes on that building are an exquisite essay on the transportation of goods and communication.

There really is a pendulum of public art expression, over time. Modernism tended to be less interested in integrating decorative arts, so the practice of public art became more sculptural in form, and became autonomous from the building. Kind of like the frieze fell from the building into the plaza. There are incredible examples of art in public space; Chicago is an incredible city for this. There’s a fantastic Picasso, Calder, Dubuffet and more. All have become icons of their time. Locally, we have Henry Moore’s The Archer at Toronto City Hall. Less accomplished examples of these monumental sculptures became ubiquitous and came to be known as “turds in the plaza” or “plop art” because they were seen as indifferent to their context, physically and socially. So, public art shifted back to an integrated expression.

TYSSE is a really interesting study because we have a spectrum of artwork integration. In some stations you can’t tell where the boundary is between the art and architecture, and in others you very clearly can. None of the TYSSE artworks are free standing sculptural forms as the TTCs public art policy is geared toward integrated art.


RH: How much does the consultant act like a curator for these projects, typically?

BG: We’ve been talking about artist procurement and how the process varies from public to private sectors. In the private sector, the consultant usually performs a little bit of a curatorial role in that they put together a long list of artists for the client to consider. The prospective artists are typically those who have some experience in the field and those whose work is relevant to the particular project that has been defined; whether it’s a freestanding opportunity, an integrated landscape opportunity or an architecturally-related opportunity. You try to match the artist with the project, based on their capabilities and on their past work and also on the client’s aspirations for the artwork programme, including their risk tolerance, or stated in a more positive way, on their interest in public art patronage.

In the public transit context, the consultant facilitates the artist procurement process in accordance with best practice. A professional jury selects a shortlist, in response to the terms of a public call for artists and the consultant performs no curatorial role. If you’re an artist, with little experience building public artworks, transit projects can provide a great opportunity, because they engage an objective, public procurement process. There’s no curation from an individual.


Yan Wu: You mentioned TYSSE and the artists who were selected very early on in the process, and then were involved in the designing of the station—you can tell by how the elements are integrated into it. What’s your role in that process, from selecting the artists to conceiving the works for the sites?

BG: I’ll tell you a little bit about my role in how these artists were selected. It has to do with championing a fair and equitable procurement methodology and that’s really important. On TYSSE, there was an international call for the architects, based on the aspirations for the architecture on that project which were both significant and optimistic. It was great because the mandate was that the TTC would deliver international quality public spaces that would really respect the transit rider. They wanted to deliver very rich experiences and recognize the importance of public space.


YW: It is exceptional in the city. I give you credit for it.

BG: Not me, but the vision of the client at that time. The TTC aspired to excellence and to respecting public space to the extent that the resulting public spaces are almost ecclesiastic or cathedral-like. So, that speaks to values and that speaks to political will, which can also lead to push back, depending on the values of the time.

As the TTC’s public art consultant for that project, I worked with a wonderful colleague named David Lawson, who was in charge of the overall architectural vision of the stations, including the integration of art. I said to David: If the aspirations for the architecture are international, we should equally set the bar for the artists and conduct an international call. He wholeheartedly agreed. David was an amazing mentor who, unfortunately, passed away way too early. He never got to see the finished stations and artworks.

So, we put out an international call, through all available channels, soliciting artists for this project. We had responses from artists around the world. We then distributed the artists’ submissions to the design teams and asked the teams to create a ranked short list of artists they were inspired to work with. We then conducted a week-long series of face to face interviews, in a matchmaking process since we weren’t selecting proposals at that stage—we were selecting artists on the basis of their past work and their interest in the project.

For the interviews—the architects interviewed the artists, and the artists interviewed the architects, and they ranked each other. At the end of the process, we looked for the highest correlation between the two rankings. It was a bit like speed dating. The procurement of the artists was at a very early stage in the design process. Call it schematic design or conceptual design; the actual form of the building was suggested but not resolved. The artists became members of the design teams, working with the architects at that point.

At the point where we made the pairings, the artist and architect became a singular design team. Another important point—it’s subtle but it’s really important—the artist was not hired by the architect but by the TTC. Before I got to TTC, the artist was typically hired as a sub-consultant to either the project designer or to the builder. I said “No, that’s not cool” because that’s putting the artist under the thumb of somebody who has a different agenda, not necessarily counter to the interest of the artist, but their interests are different. Delivering artwork is not necessarily what they’re pursuing as a building contractor. So, I recommended that the TTC should hire the artist directly. The artist needs to have equal say at the table with the other consultants. To their credit—and again, they’re a confident client who listens to their consultants—they agreed. From there on in, the artist was an equal at the table.

Because we procured the artists, prior to development of concepts, we set up a stakeholder review panel. At different stages of artwork development—at the conceptual stage, at the design development stage, and then at the stage of integrating the artworks—the architect and artist together would present their work to the review panel. The artist and architect, as a collaborative team, would present their ideas about how the art and architecture would work.

That is how we championed an art programme where there was no artwork proposal at the artist procurement stage. Artists are often hired on the basis of proposals. You have a jury that is reviewing different proposals. We didn’t do that. So, there’s a lot of risk involved there as you’re hiring an artist without knowing what will be designed, whether it will be achievable for the budget, what the maintenance requirements will be, etc. We set up a working group / steering committee. We had the artist and architect present to the steering committee. Separate steering committees were set up for groups of stations. Included on the steering committee was one of the jurors from the initial artist procurement stage. Through their continuous involvement, throughout the entire process, the steering committee, in particular the person who was on the jury and interview team, became champions of the art programme. To a greater or lesser extent, the participants who had a continuous role in the artwork development process also helped shape the art, through discourse with the artists and designers. An important role of the community representative was to make sure that the artists weren’t making any missteps, since they aren’t always totally familiar with the subtleties of the specific context of each station, particularly with international artists.


YW: And this transit line produces a continuous experience. It’s amazing.

BG: It’s not the easiest to deliver succinct messages about the complex topic of public art, the relationship of procurement to production and the process by which large, complex infrastructure projects are delivered. But that’s what’s interesting about this whole discussion. It’s about public art capturing the much larger currents of culture and society. The TYSSE public art programme is a great example. It’s one that I’m incredibly proud of and one that may not happen again, partly because of the alternative procurement methods that we talked about earlier.

From an art expression context, there was no overriding mandate or thematic request for the artists on TYSSE. I’m very much against predetermining content. Without being overly dramatic, I think that can be dangerous. There was consideration of relevance to an audience in a public transit environment that the artists had to be aware of, but the TTC didn’t say, “Make it red and make it about transit.” Artists were given the opportunity to determine their content and to develop their respective ideas. I very much want to protect, as much as possible, what artists want to say, understanding of course, the public context they’re communicating within.


YW: Some stations have a chapel or church-like feeling in a certain way. It’s as if through the work and the space you achieve an experience of transcendence.

BG: David Pearl’s artwork at Highway 407 station is one of the artworks that can deliver that transcendent experience. You rise on the elevator, from the platform up into the concourse and then to street level. You ascend into this dramatic, shifting, colourful space, I mean it’s pretty special. It’s transcendent, it’s almost ecclesiastical. Depending on the time of day and the time of year, that space will be a different colour. I’ll tell you something else that’s wonderful about that particular project. David is an artist whose medium is glass. So, the art isn’t an image imposed upon glass as an interlayer. It’s made by an artist who understands what glass is as an artistic medium and understands its transmutable aspect, the capturing, the diffusion and diffraction of light.

YW: Can you talk about the controversial art project [1] by realities-united, at Pioneer Village Station? They are nice objects in themselves, but not activated. Why can’t this button just be pushed on?
realities-united, Lightspell, Pioneer Village TTC Station, Toronto, Canada. Photo: Toronto Star.

BG: The challenge with the Pioneer Village station artwork, called Lightspell, is a really interesting one, because it involves artistic expression, public voice, public space and service delivery. The TTC has a mandate to ensure that their passengers experience a safe and comfortable environment. They also have to uphold Canadian law—including those relating to human rights and hate speech. So, there is a real question how to support the intent of the artwork while adhering to these laws and respecting the TTC’s service mandate if, for example, somebody were to input on the artwork display: “kill blank”, whether “blank” be a person or a racial or marginalized group. The artwork presents a publicly addressable, eight character capable display that does not have a censorship code written into its programming. The artwork presents a crucible of social discourse in that it asks the questions of how do we communicate in public space and do we need controls to limit that discourse? The artists recognized that the artwork presents its own control such that, if somebody does not like what somebody else has said, then all they have to do is to say something else. In terms of the artwork mechanism, if somebody did type “kill blank”, somebody else would simply have to type “love blank”, for example. You just have to say something else; change the conversation. But we live in a world where the ephemeral is easily made permanent, through phones and social media. It’s not like these forms of media didn’t exist when the artwork was conceived but the length of time it takes to deliver an artwork project, in a transit environment, is so long, that the implications of the control of and access to social media has evolved considerably and is still very much, as we know, a current discussion. That’s why the commissioning of Lightspell isn’t that easy to complete and why, I believe that, despite its difficult birth—perhaps because of it—this artwork succeeds. It’s an important artwork that raises questions about public space and societal propriety within it.

[1] LightSpell, an artwork at the TTC’s Pioneer Village station, has to date never been turned on. Created by Tim Edler and Jan Edler of Berlin-based realities-united the interactive piece was conceived to allow transit riders to input simple text messages, using keypads on the station platform, to appear in lights in an overhead installation. Hate speech and human rights legislation have prevented the work from being activated.


Interviews conducted by Yan Wu and Rosemary Heather on November 11, 2020 as part of Markham Public Arts Becoming Public Art: Working Models and Case Studies for Art in Public, a nine-week virtual summit presented by the City of Markham in partnership with ART+PUBLIC UnLtd. Framed by current discussions happening at the intersection of contemporary art, public realm issues and urbanism, the summit features working models and case studies that address the challenges and opportunities faced by those working in this constantly evolving field.

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