Travelers at the Orinda BART station are in a hurry. They don’t seem to notice the abstract, multicolored, geometric shapes on each wall.
Instead, they rush by, locking up bikes, buying tickets and checking phones. When I tell them that BART has art, they seem surprised.
“I don’t really notice it,” says one commuter.
“Personally, I’ve never seen art at BART stations,” adds another.
It’s hard to believe people can miss these floor to ceiling murals, with their oranges, reds and blacks. On the other hand, even BART officials don’t seem to notice.
“They’ve put all kinds of electric outlets and billboards on top of them, so they totally ignore the art in the Orinda station,” says Dave Weinstein, a journalist who writes about architecture and design. “Clearly, BART doesn’t think they’re art at all.”
Weinstein first got interested in the art at BART stations when he noticed some funky concrete reliefs on the walls of the two Mission Street stations. He looked for a plaque that explained them, but never found one.
“They were interesting, unusual and I never knew who put them there,” Weinstein says. “And so I just wondered about them.”
He did some research, and traced the art back to a man named Adrian Falk.
“He was the visionary behind BART, he’s the one who really pushed it to get built,” Weinstein says. “And here’s what he said in 1966: ‘Our objective is to produce, for the Bay Area, not only the best system in the world from a standpoint of operating efficiency, but the finest from a standpoint of aesthetic design.”
Weinstein says BART’s creators had big ideas.
“They were very utopian, they were very socially driven,” he says. “One of the goals was to help control growth and development throughout the Bay Area. It wasn’t just to design stations that look good, but it was to change how people actually lived and where they lived.”
But, alas, more pragmatic voices eventually won out, reminding the well-meaning idealists that, “we have to strike a balance between the Taj Mahal and a budget.”
In practice, this pretty much meant scrapping those utopian plans. Sure, art was installed at many of those original BART stations, but it was done in a haphazard sort of way. But if you look around BART, really look, you’ll find it. Turns out there’s about 50 works of art throughout the system — sculptures, murals, mosaics, reliefs.
“Most of it is abstract and fairly cutting edge,” Weinstein says. “It really ranges, from a bizarre construction that looks like a mixture of undersea scenes and outer space at the Richmond BART stations, to very abstract in size and designs at the Embarcadero station. For example, when a train pulls into a platform there, there’s a series carved along the wall in concrete of circles, half circles, and semi-circles.”
Sadly, most artists were never credited for their work and pieces were lost, damaged, neglected. But lately, BART’s attitude toward art seems to be changing, starting with Jennifer Easton, BART’s first-ever full time art program manager. She wants BART to become more than just a way to get from place to place.
“You see people become more engaged with their spaces and their cities and their communities as you start to see more arts in the spaces,” Easton says. “It helps build that community awareness and that cultural awareness that we need in cities.”
She’s already working on plans for the future. BART’s 2017 Annual Report lists developing an “Art Master Plan” as one of the system’s goals in the coming year.
First, though, Easton wants the existing art to get the attention it deserves.
“A very basic thing is plaques,” she says. “And I think that’s part of the problem, that we’re not celebrating what we have. We really need to value the artists and the efforts they’ve made on behalf of making our environments better.”
It won’t be easy — BART’s projecting a $30 million budget shortfall this coming year, so Easton is still looking for ways to fund the program.
She’s optimistic, though. Easton thinks the BART envisioned by the system’s founders is attainable. And she wants BART riders to have a voice in future art plans.
“This is just the kickoff point to ongoing conversations with communities,” Easton says.
“When you think about BART and you think soon were going to be in San Jose, we go out to Pittsburg Bay Point, and soon we’re going to go beyond there. And the communities are so different and so interesting and so unique, so how do you celebrate that through arts and culture?”
Until then, keep an eye out for existing art at your local BART station. You might be surprised by what you find.