Public Art on Transit – A Conversation with Ben Mills

Interview by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu

Ontario Veterans’ Memorial, Queen’s Park, Toronto, Canada. Artist: Allan Harding MacKay, with landscape architectural firm Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg. Inscribed with text written by poet Jane Urquhart. Unveiled 2006. Photo: Veterans Affairs Canada.

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.

Ben Mills – Vice President, Public Art Management Ben has spoken on the subject of public art at numerous conferences and events and has appeared as a guest on CBC Radio One as well as The Artworld Demystified on Yale Radio WYBC. He has helped organize free guest lectures at OCAD University with artists such as Sandro Martini, Phaophanit + Oboussier, United Visual Artists, and Vito Acconci. From 2012-2019 he was the curator of the ARTablet, two large-scale digital and new media-dedicated art platforms located at 130 Adelaide St West and 88 Queens Quay West in downtown Toronto, organizing exhibitions of the works of: David Rokeby, Tori Foster, Chris Kennedy, Casey Reas, Eelco Brand, Gerhard Mantz, Tom Beddard, Alex McLeod, Mustafa Hulusi, Tracey Emin and Elmgreen and Dragset. He holds a BA from Western University in addition to a certificate from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

Rosemary Heather: I’ll start off asking about the type of work you’ve done on public transit, and maybe give an example of that?

Ben Mills: The most recent one that I’ve worked on we partnered with The Planning Partnership (TPP) which is an architecture firm in Toronto and did the planning and management and competition and selection for the Metrolinx Eglinton Crosstown project. One of our first tasks was really sitting down with the Metrolinx team, as well as their design and architecture team, to investigate and identify appropriate sites within the six intermodal stations that we were focused on for the project. They wanted to do something that was impactful but also highly integrated.

So, we focused on the six major intermodal stations, which are spread quite evenly from East to West. We organized it kind of like a stop light; with green sites, yellow sites, and red sites. Green sites were locations where there were far fewer restrictions as far as mechanical aspects, advertisements, entry ways, things like that. The yellow sites were ones where there were some areas of restrictions but not too many, the artist just had to be aware, and basically we had plans and elevations where we marked out these zones so artists would have almost like a colouring book, or a simplified view of it, and we would indicate potential conflicts that might impact their art in those yellow zones. The red sites where ones which were very heavily restrictive for safety, regulatory reasons, advertising as well, because you have to be aware of all the various stakeholders that are involved in this—the advertising revenue generated for these various transit agencies—so we wanted to make sure they were striking a nice balance between all these areas and all these stakeholders. You know, with transit projects you are limited in terms of things that would limit an ingress or egress or flow of people coming through. Also, because Metrolinx wanted things to be highly integrated and when you look at transit networks with successful public art programs, the works are highly integrated.

So, once we nailed down all the sites, we concurrently did open calls for credentials that were issued across a variety of newswire services, both nationally and internationally. We had a very good response from that. We reviewed all the candidates; for those projects, we just asked for credentials, it’s an unpaid stage and we didn’t ask them to produce concepts yet, and from there we reviewed all the candidates alongside the Metrolinx team as well as members of our jury. From there we used a scoring matrix to create a finalist list. Those artists were then paid a fee to generate concepts. We put together a very extensive package of information for the competition brief the artists then used when generating their concepts. There were Q & A periods with the design-and-build teams so they could better understand the site, because this was done so far in advance of anyone being about to do site visits. Very seldom are there opportunities for artists to do site visits when we are planning this far in advance, so all of this stuff is done remotely and through drawings and renderings. That’s for cost considerations, the bigger the project is, the more expensive it becomes and the harder it becomes to integrate it, and that’s when you sort of get sticking art on a surface rather than thinking holistically about it long term.

Long term durability and maintainability are two areas of the main focus for these things, because they are high impact, high activity areas, a lot of people going through, security concerns, etc. We don’t want to saddle these agencies with heavy, onerous maintenance requirements. We want to make sure these things stand up over time, but we also don’t want to limit the artists’ possibilities with what they can do. It’s all about artists and fabricators doing these things, that understand it, and you can see lots of examples of effective public art in transit systems throughout the world…and in Toronto too! It’s something that…I don’t want to say it’s newer here, because if you look at the Yonge-University line you can see integrated artwork there, but if you look in comparison to the Sheppard line, you see an expanding of that process on the Sheppard line, and with the newer stations in Vaughan and that extension North, there is a building up as you learn what you can do and can’t do. It’s difficult to experiment, especially with transit.

RH: That’s a comprehensive overview of your role. Maybe I could ask you a bit more about that? I like the idea of creating a scoring matrix at the initial stage of choosing the artist. It sounds like a tool that would put you and Metrolinx on the same page, because it’s very technical or objective.

BM: The interesting thing with those matrices is they vary from project to project, but with transit, you really want to have a balance of aesthetic and technical aspects for the jury, for their consideration, because art shouldn’t be evaluated purely on technical merits, or evaluated purely on aesthetic merits necessarily. It’s sort of this balanced compromise between the artist, the work they are presenting, their track record—which includes references and things like that to make sure they deliver things on budget—and the technical feasibility of things. We want to make sure we are open and allowing for possibilities but also, we want to make sure that all of those constraints are really laid out in advance, so that artists are working from those on down, rather than up to something and they have to change it based on site conditions or other things. We don’t want to compromise a work to the point that in effect it’s losing its meaning, but if you know all those things in advance, and you lay out as many of them as you can, you are going to get better results at the end of the day.

RH: So, you bring that to the table with Metrolinx?

BM: As well as TTP—The Planning Partnership—they were integral to it, because we’re not architects, and the members of their team and their ability to interpret drawings and provide expertise on these things, and details that art consultants and artists might overlook or not think about. So, they have been an incredibly important part of our team for that project.

RH: Can you talk about the aesthetic side, because that’s your area of expertise when you’re dealing with these bodies; can you talk about how you would advise them from that perspective?

BM: It’s visual art. It has to pass the eye test. Whenever you are doing a competition and receiving proposals, if it’s done well and you have a great list of finalists, there usually is at least one that stands out, almost immediately; and the more you look at it the better grows, just like great art. But sometimes you get a concept and are a little taken aback, and then you develop an interest and love for it. At the same time too, one of the voices we lend to the project is making sure that you are getting artists that are proposing original ideas. It’s not to say we have seen everything ever made, but a huge portion of our job is looking at art. I’ve been looking at art my entire life—I’ve been doing this for going on twelve years, so I’ve been working in the field for just over a decade—but making sure that no one is trying to pull a fast one, or a rehashing of something that didn’t pass. You know, engineers, architects, sometimes clients haven’t seen as much and we want to make sure what’s being done is site-specific and impactful for the community and of interest, but also a heavy consideration for diversity and diverse voices depending on where the project is. Budget can dictate that too. When you are working in transit, it’s not an easy commission situation for someone that’s never done public art before. It’s a lot of back and forth, and there are a lot of team members involved. It’s mostly an art procedure, but you have a lot of elements of design that are involved in it, and that’s different than the artistic process, and maybe artists aren’t always as comfortable or as familiar working with designers, engineers, contractors, fabricators, and getting these things to the point where it’s doable and feasible for the project. It’s sort of about striking a balance.

RH: Could you describe the mentorship projects you’re involved in for emerging and mid-career artists?

BM: Generally what we do with mentorships, the artist will work alongside us in navigating the steps taken to complete a public art commission. And usually they commission a smaller work, and for the most part the fee they are paid is to attend some meetings—we do a lot of Zoom calls, and group calls with them to go through the different stages. We will review boilerplate contracts with them, so that they can understand what goes into a contract, we will talk them through the commissioning and fabrication process, depending on what the work is, and that might involve a shop visit to a fabricator’s shop to see them making something in progress, and explain how we interface with them and artists interface with fabricators—because ninety five percent of the time these things are built in a fabrication shop because of the engineering requirements. A lot of artists with the exception of a few, build these massive scale things—you’re looking at a situation of a Mark di Suvero, and we’ve done several projects with the Chilean artist Francisco Gazitua, but for the most part we have drawings done and they are engineered and everything, but the artist is making it himself with his studio team. There’s a lot of components that go into it. It’s not usually one thing. You need several cooks to make the souffle work.

Yan Wu: I have a question along the same lines. Basically your work as an art consultant on the one hand is to provide advice for the clients, but on the other hand you also provide a mentoring role for the artist, especially as we get into the case of integrated art. Metrolinx deliberately didn’t choose to call its program a public art program, but an integrated art program. It’s interesting that you mentioned working with the artists and looking at the potential of the artwork. It is to ensure when the work is integrated, it doesn’t end up with a Frankenstein situation. I’m interested in your response to that and how you navigate that and work with artists in that case…especially when you are always looking at existing works, but in fact imagining future works.

BM: When we’re reviewing credentials, yes, it’s based on a track record of projects they’ve done or artworks they’ve made. When we do a competition where they are paid, they actually do produce renderings imagery and details and we usually ask for a lot of information and backup materials supporting that. For a competition where an artist is paid, say, five thousand dollars to come up with concepts, they’re providing digital renderings of the works, what the material is, how they think it will be installed, timelines, fabrication, delivery, installation, fire code information on those materials, if there is painted surfaces what that paint is, how is it applied to those surfaces, if damage is done how is it touched up, etc. etc. So, when we are reviewing credentials, yes, it’s based on their past work and the potential, what you see and what you think they can do. Sometimes too, if artists have ideas that they have worked on, but weren’t selected or produced, but it might help illustrate other ideas they are working on, they might show us that. We’ve worked with some painters who have done some sculptures with us, but they hadn’t produced sculptures physically because they didn’t have the money to do it or the opportunity to do it, but they have been working on these ideas in their minds. Or their artwork you can see it translate into sculpture in a way, which is kind of a gut feeling thing. We talk to artists and see if it’s something they are interested in doing, something they have thought about doing. If they are, sometimes you are working in the animation, 3D design field, saying “Oh yeah, I’ve been playing around with this sort of thing”. We can assess that and say, “This is a great idea. Would you be interested in doing something like that?” It doesn’t always have to be built. Produced stuff helps, because it shows that you have made things, but you know, in some situations, when you have a modest budget and you have an artist who is interested in breaking into the field, it’s an interesting way to give them that stepping stone into the public art realm. The way that we sort of navigate all these things is constant email, phone calls, coordination. We’re a middleman in a way, and we work for the clients… although it’s tricky with public projects because if it’s a public agency, our involvement with the artist’s process is much more taken back because we can’t be seen to be showing favoritism towards the artists or influencing anything. In other projects, I always say I’m always available to talk, whether by email or over the phone. It’s my job to make sure artists aren’t left in the dark. I know a lot of artists who were hesitant to do public art projects. Particularly in the past. When I first started doing this, I got turned down a lot, it was a lot of convincing. I got turned down all the time. Now I think with Instagram and stuff coming out and the Public Art Fund and things like that—though the Public Art Fund has been around a lot longer than me—but there is a lot more receptiveness to it. We also want to make sure the artists aren’t totally left to their own devices. They can use us as a resource. I’ve been involved in about 100 projects; Karen has been involved in over 200. It’s not like we have done everything, but we have done a lot of different media in public art in a lot of different forms, and a lot of different budget sizes, so I would like to think that we have some expertise on that and can help them from going down a path that’s a nonstarter. Because it is art, but there are a lot of building concerns, a lot of engineering concerns that you want to take into consideration, safety, maintainability, effectiveness; what materials hold up and what materials work and what doesn’t. We are a bit of a Swiss Army Knife. We want the artists to ask us any questions, and if we can’t answer it, then we interface with the client or find the expert from the client team that can assist them with it. If it’s an engineering or architecture question, I can’t answer that.

YW: In the conversation we just had with Mariam Zulfiqar, she pointed out that on the Tube in London everyday there are roughly 3.4 million passengers, and the maximum amount of attention to the art you can expect from them is one second, which is already a very generous investment on their end. You said you had worked on over 100 projects and Karen had worked on over 200 projects. Among those, it’s hard to strictly define whether the space is public or private because you work with developers a lot, but nevertheless they all have a public interface. I wonder what makes transit space different, in that case? Places like parks and plazas are public spaces for people to gather, but transit is not. It’s actually not encouraged for people to dwell.

BM: Right, yeah. It’s highly dynamic, catch people’s attention quickly, hopefully.

YW: How do you catch the nature of transit space in this sense and convey it to the artist through a design brief? How do you describe or address this characteristic to the artist?

BM: A lot of it has to do with context, where it is, there might be some area history that you could include in the brief. There are sometimes where clients or agencies want it to be a bit more prescriptive, but at the same time, sometimes it’s best to provide as much historic, cultural, aesthetic information. Because if you say you are doing a transit project in a part of the city that was built in the 18th century, it’s different than if it is in a brand-new city that’s been growing. Markham for example is booming but at the same time it used to be a lot of farmers’ fields, and you don’t want every station to have something related to the history of farming, for example. You want there to be some variety, but you also want to make sure you are not dropping in an alien from space. There are aesthetic considerations, if you are in an area that is mostly mid-century modern. Maybe you play off of that. Or, Indigenous histories, those are very important to incorporate too, and making sure that you are providing opportunities for Indigenous artists; that it’s not a white artist making work about Indigenous histories or something like that and further appropriating their culture, which is incredibly wrong, and we’ve been doing for long enough. So, there isn’t one approach, there is a whole variety of approaches. We want the commissioning body to be happy with the work at the end of the day. We want the people who are using these systems to hopefully appreciate and notice the art—you always find with effective projects that people either love it or hate it; if they don’t notice it, then you’ve basically failed [laughter]. It’s so subjective. I’ve done lots of projects where people tell me they love it, and other people tell me they hate it more than anything. It’s not up to me, we have an important role in the project, we are part of a shepherding process, but for finalists the ultimate decision is up to the jury. We don’t have a vote or influence on that; it’s more we talk about if we think someone has been plagiarized or something, which does not happen a lot, it has only happened once. And it wasn’t direct plagiarism, it was just close to something else we had seen. It was a very long time ago and it wasn’t transit.

You want to try and strike that balance. Offer as much information to the artists that they can use in their research, because they might find some thread in there that leads them down a path to something spectacular. If you try to focus it too much on one thing or the other, or tell them what to do, you get into a situation where people are just trying to check boxes, and it’s like…does that result in the best installation at the end of the day? I would say no. Again, it’s subjective. You want to give them that freedom in terms of content, aesthetics, and whatnot, while at the same time giving them the technical restrictions. I think if you put too many restrictions on it too, it becomes “Well, what can I do”? Sometimes, that’s all you can do. If your budget is limited and you have too many things that are tricky and you don’t have the budget to coordinate all these things. Sometimes different coloured tiles might be the best approach and still gets a great result at the end of the day. But if you don’t have three million dollars to do something massive, you want to work within that. You don’t want to try to get something that you think is worth a million bucks for a fraction of that budget. It’s getting what you paid for and trying to make the most of it and getting enough bang for your buck.

RH: In terms of working with the jury, have you had any sort of push back from Metrolinx, for instance, in terms of them not agreeing with a jury’s decision?

BM: No, the jury was involved in the selection of the finalists too, so everyone was on the same page. For the most part in Toronto, the owner has veto power—and I’m not talking about transit projects. That’s something different. In general, the owner has veto power, but it doesn’t happen often. It’s only happened once in my career and that involved a change in ownership; or you could get a drastic change in budget, if something happens. For Metrolinx, the jury was very formal, because it was a government agency that we’re working through, a public agency. In other projects, art should be adjudicated like a conversation, where you are sitting around and talking, and everyone should feel free and clear to talk based on their expertise, and interest and understanding of it. We always have artists on our juries, and we have art experts on our juries. Occasionally we will have architects on them. For Metrolinx we did. But for the most part, it’s a conversation and a discussion. Deciding what works the best and building a consensus. It’s not always easy, but we always come to a consensus.

Karen did a memorial project at Queen’s Park where there were over two dozen veterans that were there as part of the review committee. She got everyone to agree! I don’t know how she did that, but she’s magic. She raised two sons and a daughter who are all working in cultural fields, we’re all still talking and love one another, so she gets a lot of credit for that, and my Dad too, obviously. It can be a challenging process at times, but making sure everyone is sitting around the table and hearing concerns from all sides and everyone’s on the same page. So it’s not just this owner saying “I want what I want”. All of our clients, they appreciate this process once they start getting into it and see what is possible. They see the benefit to their development or their park, or whatever, or their transit system. It’s a nice break from the nuts and bolts of building something, because construction and development is a very temperamental process, and art is sort of a nice reprieve from that, but it’s still in their wheelhouse in talking about technical things—”How do we build it? How do we install it? How is this taken care of?” As long as you address those things in advance, you don’t frustrate these people. It’s having those answers and having those responses in a timely manner and figuring out how to build these things and knowing how to do that, then you are speaking their language and they know, OK you aren’t just some guy wearing a beret and sleeping in all day long. The artists also see the development side and they see that they aren’t just greedy developers out to make money. And you get the contractor at the table and they’re talking about how these things are built and how they are brought in and everyone realizes the crossovers between their different areas of work and expertise, and you build that Venn diagram where everyone meets in the middle and can see we are all on the same page, we just need to sit around a table, or on a Zoom call, and talk about it.Ontario Veterans’ Memorial, Queen’s Park, Toronto, Canada. Artist: Allan Harding MacKay, with landscape architectural firm Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg. Inscribed with text written by poet Jane Urquhart. Unveiled 2006. Photo: Veterans Affairs Canada.

YW: It’s interesting to hear different perspectives and approaches which I have found all very unique. We see this interview series as a way to present an assortment of voices. You’ve already touched on that by saying there is a difference when you are dealing with the private sector versus public agencies; you play a different role, and each brings different challenges. I would like to hear more about this comparative study.

BM: There are similarities and differences. With Metrolinx the interfacing with the City was slightly different than with the private developers. With Metrolinx and the City it was fairly smooth because, from the getgo we were focusing on interior locations—there was the question of why aren’t we doing some more stuff outside. With some of the stations it was either on property they didn’t own—and also as the title says, it’s the “integrated” art program. So, with working with the City, working closely with City Staff, reviewing our site plans, the budget, the timeline, the nature of the competition, the sites we were thinking of, and then you are also interfacing with planning and urban design. Then we have to go through TPAC (Toronto Public Art Commission) for review and recommendations or comments, and then you go through Community Council and then you go through City Council. Then you can go off to the races when all the approvals are in place. At the same time, leading into that you are also dealing with your clients, doing your internal reviews and assessments for how you want to approach the site, because it doesn’t always happen that you can sit down and the City says “Yeah it’s a great idea. You can go ahead”. I wish! [laughter]. But you know, as they say, if it was easy it wouldn’t be worth doing. It’s not that there’s conflict, but it’s about understanding things from all sides, but also understanding what’s feasible and what’s doable.

You talk to a lot of people who have built these things. With our role for these things we are working from start to finish. The clients understand that role because they are involved from start to finish but they maybe aren’t as heavily involved with the correspondence and coordination with the artists and fabricators. When you are looking at TPAC, you are reviewing the planning stages of it and then you are updating it once the project is done. You aren’t working on it day to day, and it’s not their job to do it. Same thing with planning and same thing with the City Staff. Also and the people at the City, they are involved far more on the front end and then just making sure everything gets done at the end of the day. So, I guess we have a much clearer…maybe that’s not the right word…but a clearer perspective is maybe the way to describe it. Because we are involved in it day to day to day. From the very beginning to the very end, we are the buffer for the client, the fabricator and the artist, and sometimes we have to be the whipping boy for periods of time for any of those parties, the City included. We get criticized a lot; we get compliments and stuff, but you do get criticism and it just goes with the territory and you can’t take it personally, and if you do, you shouldn’t be doing this. At times it feels thankless, but it’s not, but at times it can feel that way, these things, they’re a challenge. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not just picking things and dropping them in place and these things happen by magic. You really have to wear a lot of hats to do this effectively, and the foundation of that is an understanding of art, but also the first floor and the front door is having an understanding of construction and development and fabrication, what you can do and what you can’t and not ignoring that, and thinking “Well, the builders will figure it out” because that can raise a whole host of other issues.

RH: You said earlier that artists were reluctant to participate. They just saw a field of complications and not being able to execute the work on their terms? I’m guessing that was the issue.

BM: Yeah, and lawsuits, horror stories of projects going sideways, where artists lose money. Or one of the common concerns that was expressed to me in the early days was “Oh I know-so and so who did this project and they were awarded the project but they had to manage the whole thing soup to nuts, and the time considerations and requirements and management of money that was coming in and going out to the various trades and understanding contract terms, it became overwhelming.” In many situations, what was expressed to me—and I don’t know if that was just how some of those projects were managed, whether it’s the consultant or the owner that’s doing that, or the commissioning body—but one thing that Karen, my Mom, has always been very strong in is her willingness and ability to drive this as a process, but also being there to assist or help the artist or explain things to the artist so they’re not left with these things that aren’t necessarily their areas of expertise. But also explaining those sorts of things to clients, so they have a better understanding “We aren’t handing this million dollar project over to this artist and hope they do what they say they are going to do”. And a lot of colleagues of mine that work in this business have complimented me, or complimented Karen through me, about how she has really refined the procedure of commissioning public art. Because a lot of times it was sort of like “Oh, just figure it out.” The fabricator might have been in charge of that, and there might be compromises to the work, because you want to make sure you are maintaining the artist’s moral right, and it depends on what country you are working in too, because legal standards are different…

So we are a bit—I don’t want to say the operator, but maybe the conductor—helping to make sure this whole public art symphony doesn’t sound like a cacophony of noise. It’s a lot of work on our end, but it’s more just…it took me at least a dozen projects completed before I felt fully comfortable managing these things, because there is just a lot involved. And we deal with different situations, different personalities, different budgets, different schedules, and you really learn from projects that don’t go perfectly smoothly, you try to make sure that doesn’t happen again. It’s like that old saying, you learn more from your failures than from your successes. It would be nice if all projects were easy, but they’re not. But you just have to see that end goal. For us, these projects are permanent, and we want to be respectful to that, and we want to leave a place better than how you found it. That’s the hope at least.

YW: Maybe just one last question, simply out of curiosity. Since people like to quantify experience, I wonder, as a lot of times the public art production process can take multiple years to complete and projects happen concurrently, how many projects are you handling at the moment?

BM: In terms of number of art sites right now? They are all in different stages of development. I have three that were just installed, but there are still just finishing touches. I don’t know, about a dozen or so. It varies. You don’t make a ton of money doing this. It’s not as glamorous…no one gets into this to make a lot of money. You don’t get rich doing it. Period. I don’t know anyone that does. And artists who do this, it isn’t really an opportunity for them to make a ton of money, either, necessarily. These things cost a lot to make. You want to make sure they make as much money as possible and the artist is getting paid fairly but it’s not just going into a massive fee and you get this tiny little thing at the end of the day and it’s like “Where did all the money go”? So, yeah, you have to have a bit of a fly-tape brain, don’t delete emails, make sure you get things in writing, and you have to stay on top of things. If anyone has ever done renovations, you have to make sure everything is explicitly laid out and as little is left to chance as possible. Otherwise, little things can snowball. It happens and you want to address all that as soon as you can. Yeah, you just bounce around. A lot of the times I feel like a chicken running around with its head cut off, lots of different things to do; you’re working with artists, you’re working with developers, you’re working with fabricators, and they all have different ways of talking about things and it’s like they all speak different languages. I don’t know. I can’t do anything else. I’m unemployable in any other field, but I figured out that I wanted to do this in my late twenties and changing careers was the best decision of my life. I’ve learned from the best. I know I had a huge leg up because I learned this from my Mom, but at the same time, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She hasn’t really had a lot of employees over the years, because really, it is a consulting job. It’s not something where you can’t have a massive staff because that’s where you get gaps in communication and you want to make sure you are on top of all of it and sort of see the whole picture, and make sure you understand the minutia.

I’m always learning, and she’s always learning. We play off one another very well. We have a unique relationship, as all children and their parents do, especially when you are working together—but the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. I was very resistant to trying to do this when I was younger, and I think I wanted to work in this business and the longer I resisted the more I wanted to do it, so it sounds cheesy, but I really feel like it’s my calling, and I learned it from the best.

Interviews conducted by Yan Wu and Rosemary Heather on November 11, 2020 as part of Markham Public Art’s 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.

Public Art on Transit – A Conversation with Mariam Zulfiqar

Interview by Rosemary Heather and Yan Wu

The Palace that Joan Built, 2014 Mel Brimfield and Gwyneth Herbert
Live performance at Stratford station with East London Brass and Upbeat Choir
Image by Benedict Johnson.

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.

Mariam Zulfiqar is an independent curator and commissioner. Mariam’s curatorial and research interests are diverse and include cultural policy, interdisciplinary collaboration, moving image, art in the public domain, discourses around public spaces and the history of ideas. As an independent curator Mariam worked with various arts and cultural organisations and commissioning bodies including Film and Video Umbrella, 1418 Now and Art on the Underground. She was previously Deputy Director and Chief Curator at UP Projects. Mariam has guest lectured at international and UK based educational institutions including Goldsmiths, the Royal College of Art, McGill University, Canada and National College of Art, Pakistan. Before returning to undertake her Masters, Mariam collaborated with the diplomatic sector on a variety of cultural exhibitions and events across the UK. In 2013 Mariam was the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Scholarship fund and invited to Barbados to undertake a two-month curatorial research placement. Mariam received a BA in Public Art & Design from Chelsea College of Art and Design and MA in Curating Contemporary Art from the Royal College of Art.

Rosemary Heather: To start, could you talk a bit about the work that you have done with public art on transit?

Mariam Zulfiqar: I was at Art on the Underground, the official public art program for the London Underground, from 2010-2015. Our team was small and while permanent commissions were happening around me, I was working primarily on temporary commissions. To give an example of the kinds of commissions I was doing, one of the small but monumental commissions is the Tube map cover. You can pick up a Tube map in any station, it is a small, leaflet sized piece of print and the cover presents a commissioned artwork every six months. I had an amazing time working with a number of different artists, Imran QureshiDaniel BurenTracey Emin and Mona Hatoum; they (and many others) produced a cover while I managed that project over the five years.Tube map covers presented at Piccadilly station. Image by Daisy Hutchison.Tube map cover by Daniel Buren, 2014.

What I always found really interesting about that project, was it’s a tiny small thing that you can pick up in the station and take with you, but it puts art into the hands of literally millions of people every year. It creates an experience where art isn’t this rarefied thing that you do when you go to the museum or the gallery. It’s something you pick up and encounter and it goes into your pocket, and you might scrunch it up and throw it away at the end, but you have this moment with it.

At the other end of the scale is a project I did in 2014/2015 with Mel Brimfield and Gwyneth Herbert. That project was marking what would have been the 100th birthday of pioneering Theatre Director Joan Littlewood. There was an initiative all around the country to mark this 100th birthday with Fun Palaces, which was an idea she had with architect Cedric Price, but they had never been able to realize that project. To mark what would have been her 100th birthday, theatres all over the country were coming together to essentially reinterpret what a Fun Palace could be now. We commissioned Mel and Gwyn as they had been developing an idea around Littlewood for a while and invited them to realise the work at Stratford station, which is one of the flagship stations where Art in the Underground presents commissions. It is located a ten minute walk from Theatre Royal Stratford East, which was the theatre where Joan Littlewood was based. It ended up being a huge project that manifested as a film, drawings, posters, photography and a three hour live performance at Stratford station. Gwyneth Herbert composed eight new songs that were performed with her band, East London Brass and Upbeat Choir. Six months later we had a screening of the film at PictureHouse cinema, which was five minutes down the road from the station, and then also a cabaret in Theatre Royal Stratford East. It was a way of presenting the project within the station, but also anchoring it back into the surrounding community. We worked with about 200 participants in total on that project. There was a very extensive period of research that the artists had done, and because it was a live performance there were a lot of rehearsals. In comparison to the tube map, you’ve got a completely different type of project happening. With the map, they print 14 million copies every six months, so it’s the biggest print run that an artist might get, unless they are doing stamps or money but then on the other end of the scale you have this enormous live performance that happened in the main thoroughfare where the Jubilee line comes in. The station staff told us that 58,000 people would have seen or heard that performance in that three hours. So, two examples of very different projects, reaching massive audiences but being delivered via very different mediums.

RH: That’s fascinating. You mentioned the audience numbers, and it’s quite a unique opportunity. Of course we know there are all types of art projects that could be considered public art—from monuments (historical and contemporary) on to more experiential or social-based works, but rarely does an artist have an opportunity to have an audience that’s that big—and kind of a captive audience. Did you have a way of measuring that, that could determine future projects?

MZ: In the time that I was working with London Underground, they had 3.4 million journeys per day, and we knew that there are certain stations, the gateways to London and intersecting stations are incredibly busy. We also knew that some of the outer stations are not so busy, but we never excluded the quieter stations. We always tried to have an expansive presence across the network because people are choreographing themselves in very different ways. Understanding the way in which the commuter uses each station was important, along with working with station staff to understand impact.

The audience for the work is made up of commuters, residents and tourists—who, for example, may not necessarily be in such a rush to get from A to B. Then you have families, and people with disability access to consider too. In terms of the audience experience, there was no one way of thinking about it. For measuring figures we could track how many people were coming through the station via gate line figures, but all those people don’t necessarily see the work.

On the Gloucester Road platform, for example, which is an empty, disused platform, we know people are going to see the artwork while they are standing around waiting for their train. You can’t escape the artwork that’s there, and some ambitious projects have been on that platform; a recent one was by an artist called Heather Phillipson.

Whereas Mark Wallinger’s Labyrinth is across the entire network, with one in every station and you come across the work in unexpected spaces in each station. New projects were not driven by audience figures, rather by site, context and audience experience.

RH: As the curator, you had the experience of past projects, and that must have been very important for your role in terms of being able to judge if the project was appropriate for this context. Could you talk a little about that?

MZ: Each station is unique and this provides different challenges and potentials. Thinking about the context, audience encounters and engagement are an essential part of my job as a curator but they’re also something the artists are also thinking about. Many aspects feed into what makes a project appropriate. How the work is created and why, and where it will be sited are all important.

Mark Wallinger, Labyrinth, 2013. A multi-part work installed in all of the London Underground’s 270 stations (as seen at, top to bottom, King’s Cross, Baker Street, Embankment, and Green Park stations). Commissioned by Art on the Underground. Photos: Art on the Underground.

Mark Wallinger’s Labyrinth, a permanent commission marking the 150th anniversary of the Tube, is designed for people to go up to the work, run their finger along it, whereas a project like Transporter by Harold Offeh, was created in collaboration with young people from West London. Both are presented in very different parts of the stations.

Again going back to the Mel Brimfield and Gwyneth Herbert’s The Palace That Joan Built, that project engaged academics that had been studying the legacy of Joan Littlewood, as much as it engaged people that remembered working with her, or young people who had never heard of her; in the end, 200 people fed into the project and it mirrored Littlewood’s own ideas on inclusivity. Parts of the project were presented in the station but also back into community venues which also mirrored Littlewood’s approach of taking theatre to the people.

I led on the staff engagement for the 150th anniversary of the Tube because the staff are a major part of how a transport network operates, but they are also another audience for the work we were commissioning. In this context, appropriateness is also about ensuring that the station staff are empowered to talk about the work and have ownership. I took almost a year to complete it all—270 stations on the network needed a visit.

Yan Wu: What fascinates me is how Art on the Underground considers transit as a space, a space to host and disseminate. You mentioned that commissions happen in two streams, temporary ones and permanent ones. The purpose of this interview series in part is to collect working models and ideas that maybe one day can be borrowed and reproduced here. In Canada, besides media screens and advertising spaces, the dominant model of commissioning art in transit is still to do with permanent works, very much like architectural elements. I wonder what kind of infrastructure a program like what you just described requires, in an administrative sense, and on the awareness level? A program that can live with the stations and the entire transit system.

MZ: Art on the Underground benefited from the legacy of Frank Pick, who was Chief Executive of London Underground. Frank Pick wanted people to have a very clear London Underground experience. He commissioned the Edward Johnston fontthe Harry Beck Tube map, the iconic London Underground logo and commissioned Charles Holden to make those beautiful art deco stations on the north end of the Piccadilly line. Art on the Underground was really operating under an enormous art and design legacy that the London Underground has in its foundation. There are Man Ray posters from the 1950s for the London Underground, they were even commissioning textile artists to do the seat fabrics. He was very mindful about branding and Art on the Underground continues that legacy of working with artists and designers.

In that sense what you are talking about Yan, is how to start a program from scratch? I would say, it’s not necessarily about borrowing a model that already exists, but it’s about looking at the situation that you are in, and the context you are in, and identifying what that context calls for and needs, and then building from there up, rather than importing a model coming in, because that model may not work. But if you go from the ground up and do a thorough analysis of the situation, and the context, and the site, and what it is that you are trying to achieve, you may end up building something that is entirely unique and fitting to your network.

YW: Right, very interesting how your program’s origins actually tied into the aesthetic movement at the time, which really was the driving force to make it happen.

MZ: Yes, and also I think every place has its own unique situational politics that’s playing out. Canada has its own politics in terms of the way in which it navigates politically with its own First Nations, and the way in which land is, compared to the UK, much more disputed. The dynamics of a post-settler nation need to be considered. I noticed this also in Australia as well. My sister lived in Australia for many years and I would visit there, and the conversations in those places are charged with a different kind of politics, and those politics need to be considered and inform any model you are creating. In that respect, what you will produce is a balance between the production of art and the production of something else completely. What kind of future are you trying to bring about? And how is what you are designing now working to bring about that future? In that context, the ingredients that you are working with are very different compared to what I was working with on the London Underground. And that’s how you will come up with something that is site specific and situationally specific, it will be unique.

RH: Yeah, I think the concept of ownership, because it’s public space, because it’s public transit, that’s a good premise to start from for a public art program in Canada. In the UK, contemporary art is very much a part of the popular conversation in a way it isn’t here. So we need to focus more on the task of developing the audience. And that’s why the infrastructure pieces here take the more familiar form of this idea of “art in public” rather than an ephemeral or temporary project.

MZ: I see what you mean about ephemeral projects, but I think people are open and receptive to good ideas, whether they are temporary or permanent. Both have their value, it’s a question of figuring out why one would have more value than the other in a given context.

I studied public art for my BA, and the history of how art ended up in the public domain, coming out of institutional critique, and the fact that artists wanted to be beyond the gallery’s limitations or the institutions limitations and were coming out into public space in order to make and present their work, which is a very interesting history applicable to certain geographical and political and historic contexts.

In that respect, I think the Tube sort of becomes this really interesting space, coming back to this idea of “public”. Because the London Underground, yes, it is accessible to the public, but the stations are closed after certain times. Public does not mean it’s just there and accessible all the time. It’s also not free to use. There are all these things that sort of make it sit somewhere between public and private. It’s publicly accessible but it’s privately managed and run. There are all these complex layers in how one gets their head around what “public” really means.Wrapper by Jacqueline Poncelet. Edgware Road station. Image by Tierry Bal.

And I think this idea of contemporary art having a developed audience… in my experience I found people were incredibly receptive to very challenging ideas. I was always really mindful of the fact that I’m highjacking someone’s view. I’m intervening in someone’s eye line, and I have to be really thoughtful about how that intervention happens, both for the audience, but also for the artist. Somebody could be having a terrible day, somebody could be having a great day, you just never know—with 3.4 million people, that’s 3.4 million moods you’re navigating. And then there is the one artist who I am working with. So, there was a lot of balancing that needed to be done around this notion of “public”, and this idea of public space and who gets to have a voice and be present.

YW: I just think about the transitory nature, and think about how durational work can happen in a place, because you cannot control the attention span, you know maybe they give you one second a day…

MZ: Even that, I’d be happy with! [Laughter]

YW: So, thinking about durational, time-based work, and how it unfolds in this kind of environment.

MZ: Two good examples of that are The Palace That Joan Built—the film was an hour long and we had a structure on the mezzanine floor at Stratford station, and the film was just playing for six months on repeat every day. But then within that duration, I’ve got to think about the station staff member who is there for eight hours and has to listen to the same thing again and again. The customer might whizz past it and see a second of it, but the station staff members might call me up and say “I think I’m going to lose my mind!” I always used to imagine that people coming off the train walking past the moving image, let’s say they were a minute different every day, they’d see 60 minutes of a film over 60 days but in completely the wrong order [laughter]. I liked to reflect on how people reconstitute the work given their own engagement with it…

I worked on a project called the Canary Wharf Screen that was a really large screen that we had at the far end of the Canary Wharf Station, which is an incredibly busy station in the middle of the financial district of London. The thing with the Canary Wharf Screen that was lovely was that as you got to the escalators to go down to the Jubilee Line, it was right there in front of you—you couldn’t miss it. I saw people going down and occasionally come back up and walk around and go and sit in front of the screen and watch a film for a couple of minutes.

We invited several different partners to come and program; Film and Video Umbrella were one, the BFI (the British Film Institute) were another, I think Animate, and they all had three-month slots to program what they wanted to program. That’s a really good example of a fleeting experience—you are on the move and the work is on the move too.

Then you’ve got other examples. I did a load of platform-based presentations. I worked with a school in North Harrow…the London Underground had commissioned 100 artists to mark the 100th anniversary of the London Underground symbol, called the Roundel. They had 100 works of contemporary art and we were putting those works in various different frames that they have all over the Tube network. There was a school close to one of the stations in North Harrow and we approached them and asked if their students wanted to be in a group show. We had the students work and the artists work all printed in the same kind of format where you couldn’t tell the difference between the professional artist’s work and the student work, and that was presented on the Metropolitan line. There you have again a situation where you are travelling through several different stations and seeing these frames on the platforms as the doors open and close in front of you. And you’re on the move and the work isn’t. And you could pass that same artwork every day again and again for a year. So that idea of moving—you’ve got a moving train, a moving passenger, and a potentially moving artwork, as well; or, you’ve got a moving train, a moving passenger, and static artwork. I think they all produce different outcomes and different experiences, and different encounters, as a result.

Interviews conducted by Yan Wu and Rosemary Heather on November 11, 2020 as part of Markham Public Art’s 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.