To get from Coney Island to Times Square, you can take the N train from Stillwell Avenue to 42nd Street. Or to put it another way: get on the subway at the Robert Wilson glass brick installation and exit at the Roy Lichtenstein mural.
"When you have a museum as large as ours -- we believe it's geographically the largest museum in the world -- a couple of labels isn't going to do it," said Sandra Bloodworth, the head of the MTA's Arts for Transit program. She was in Grand Central Station on Thursday with Howard Permut, the president of MTA Metro-North Railroad, and Jeff Hardison, a VP for software company Meridian, for the official launch of the Arts for Transit app.
The free app, which went live Thursday at noon, has information on each one of the 236 (and counting!) permanent artworks in the New York City transit system. It was built for the MTA by Meridian, and it includes background information and photos about each art installation. It's searchable by line and artist, and the app also offers turn-by-turn directions about precisely where to see art in selected stations. Some artworks have videos, as well as audio podcasts, detailing the work.
Sandra Bloodworth said many subway riders just see the same few pieces of art on their daily commute and the app will help expand their horizons. "Now it's clear that each artwork is part of a larger collection -- and it's a collection that fits in your pocket."
Jeff Hardison echoed that sentiment. "You might pass an artwork and not know much about it," he said. "Now you can look it up."
Bloodworth said the Arts for Transit program "think(s) about how the artwork will change the station." The app lifts the veil on that creative process and helps locate the artworks--figuratively and literally -- in the neighborhood in which they are installed. The entry detailing Romare Bearden's stained glass windows at the Westchester Avenue/East Tremont Avenue station says they "weave(s) together the spirit found in his beloved music, social concerns and interest in trains."
When asked to name her favorite piece of art in the collection, Bloodworth protested. (One reporter sympathetically compared her reaction to being forced to choose a favorite child.) "Each artwork is created for the particular place that it exists...it's for that place!" she said. "So you only compare it to itself. And if you must measure it, measure it 'does it speak to you? Does it move you in some way? Does it create and add to your experience?' We believe the artworks do that. "
But when pressed, she admitted to a special fondness for a couple of pieces. "There's so many artists I would love to share them all..but if I had just five minutes today, I sure would not want you to miss the Sol LeWitt at Columbus Circle, or the Elizabeth Murray underneath Bloomingdales." Bloodworth said the LeWitt "captures, in an abstract way, the movement, the energy of this place."
It's hard not to love the Arts for Transit program. But let's play devil's advocate for a moment: when subway crime is up -- fueled in large part by thefts of smartphones -- is it a good idea to encourage people to whip out their iPhones underground?
Howard Permut, the president of MTA Metro-North Railroad, was pragmatic. "The fact is there has been some increase (in crime), it's not been a huge increase, and I think that quite frankly that's just a trade off in life and in our society...when people have devices that make their life easier there are others looking to take them, that's always going to be a tradeoff that we have."
"We really feel we've had a mission to create art," said Bloodworth. "And now we're working with Meridian to really let our customers know about that art. It's their collection, they own it. They customer, the public owns this collection. Now they have the guide."