When the Morning Commute Becomes a Public Art Experience

When Paul Simon sang, "Each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories," in his song "Homeward Bound," the song's narrator may very well have been taking a gloomy train ride through the industrial Midwest.

The narrator wasn't exactly awestruck by what he saw, and you can't really blame him. Barren, industrial strips adjacent to rail lines don't incite a sense of wonder. In fact, we've come to view these barren, blighted stretches as a necessary byproduct of progress. There really isn't much you can do it about it, right?

Not so fast.

Recent news out of Cleveland points to a novel and brilliant idea conjured up by the city to transform the no-man's land along the city's transit lines into a venue for public art. The Cleveland Foundation, for one, is intrigued. It allocated $150,000 for the plan, which calls for installing art along the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's Red Line, which runs between the airport and the city center. The foundation's gift is in addition to $357,000 in Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency funding for the initial phase of the project. The plan calls for installing art on other transit lines as well.

A curatorial team will choose the local and international artists who will contribute to the project. To that end, featured artwork will be inspired by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, the annual, Cleveland Foundation-curated literary prize that honors books confronting racism and celebrating diversity. The art installations will honor past winners, including Toni Morrison and Martin Luther King Jr.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson is quoted in a statement, saying, "This is a good example of what public-private partnerships can accomplish in our city."

Upon contemplating the aspects of the plan, our own reaction was, "Why didn't we think of this?"

First off, unlike art in museums or parks, destinations requiring travel and planning, the public art will be automatically "on display" for all commuters taking the train. It is public art in the truest sense.

To that end, the project exposes the art to certain demographics that may not normally attend museums. And finally, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the project will transform previous eyesores into what the foundation calls "one of the nation's largest outdoor art galleries."

Lillian Kuri, Cleveland Foundation program director for architecture, urban design and sustainable development, also said, "This project showcases the power of the arts to transform community spaces."

And better yet—spoiler alert!—Cleveland isn't the only city plagued by industrial blight between its main rail hubs. Therefore, nonprofit arts organizations everywhere should take a good hard look at what's happening in Cleveland, since it speaks to hot funding areas like creative placemaking and arts-based urban revitalization. We wouldn't be surprised if other foundations got on board.