Metro's Summer Public Art Tour Connects Rail, Artists, and Communities

While notes from a street saxophonist float off the walls of the 7th Street/Metro Station, downtown workers kept up with the echoing rhythm and clog the escalators for the afternoon commute out of the city.

They barely glance at the art on the walls and entrance of the station, and even dodge the three docents who were standing by to lead a preview of a new tour: Metro Art Moves_DTLA.

The summer tour will be held on the first Thursdays of July, August, and September. It was curated to increase the visibility of public art in the Metro Rail system, showing the connection between rail, artist, and community by docents trained by Metro.

''City Above'' by Terry Schoonhoven I Photo: Helen Ly

"The Metro Art Moves_DTLA tours have a particular itinerary -- which the docents helped put together," said Zipporah Lax Yamamoto, creative services manager for Metro. "But the docents can answer questions about any of the artworks in our system."

The tour also is a primer on how to ride the rails. The co-leads heading this particular safari -- lead artist Sara Wookey, with Alex Amerri, Hassan Christopher, and Kabir Singh -- included a native Angeleno who never learned to drive. That made one docent a public transportation specialist. With flair, they introduced tour-goers how to be at-one with a TAP card, and offered "model transit riding behavior" tips, like explaining that the black arrows on the platform are the best place to wait for boarding while passengers exit a train.

They even have ideas on how to warm-up. Docents had the group stand in a circle and rotate their ankles to prepare for walking, then directed them to stand close enough for shoulders to touch. Unlike a lot other cities Los Angeles has a lot of space, they said; you have to get used to being close to other people.

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Tour participants were encouraged to consciously engage their own bodies, such as posing as one of the painted sports figures rendered in Faith Ringgold's "People Portraits: in Creativity; Performing; Sports; and Fashion" within the underground thoroughfare of the Civic Center station.

Yamamoto says that the "free, public Metro Art Moves_DTLA tours are fun opportunities for discretionary riders to give Metro a try. Eighty-five percent of the people who take our docent-led art tours are first-time transit riders, who get their first TAP card as part of a guided experience through the system."

The tour, with the planned start time of 5:30 p.m., centers on six public works at three of downtown's Metro stations. It begins at the 7th Street/Metro Station with Terry Schoonhoven's "City Above," the 1991 mural that uses forced perspective to engage a commuter taking the escalator out of the subway. (Schoonhoven depicted himself as a homeless man in the mural, points out a docent.) They moved on to 7th Street/Metro's "You Are / Are Not Here," the installation from the Center of Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), for the photographic "Lightbox Series."

Then onto the crowded train you go, ankles flexed and shoulders ready for urban contact. Soon you will be at Union Station and have a personal introduction to works like Christopher Sproat's "Union Chairs" from 1993, or Richard Wyatt's "City of Dreams, River of History," the 1995 mural that shows the diversity that passes through the station. You may also hear random details about Union Station itself, like how the waiting room walls absorb sound.

Artist Sara Wookey prompts tour participants to pose like their favorite sports portrait along a wall at the Civic Center station | Photo: George Villanueva
The group learned of the cigar cap cutters installed into the walls of union station when it was first built in the 1930s | Photo: George Villanueva

The final stop, at Civic Center/Grand Park Station, is timed to end at Grand Park's "Out of Office" summer Thursday concert series, where you are greeted by Faith Ringgold's "People Portraits: in Creativity, Performing, Sports, & Fashion" from 2010.

Yet, one can wonder why this tour isn't also held on the first Thursday of the month, to work in tandem with Downtown Art Walk and make FigAt7th and Grand Park satellite art destinations.

"Our docent-led weekend tours are scheduled for the first Saturday and Sunday of each month," said Yamamoto. "We added the Metro Art Moves_DTLA tours as a first Thursday option to be consistent in our scheduling. We haven't ruled out the possibility of organizing something around the Downtown Art Walk in the future though -- it's a great event."

"Tour destinations will change seasonally to connect riders with a wide range of local cultural activities and venues, so the fall tours will have a slightly different itinerary," Yamamoto added.

It complements other tours through the city's public art by the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, who will hold their next tour in the Downtown L.A. Arts District Saturday, June 22, and the specialized tours by The Social Public Art and Resource Center (SPARC). In no small part, the city's art survey also includes the summer tours by the Museum of Neon Art.

Metro Art Moves_ DTLA is a micro-trip of what Metro already fosters in their other art tours that use the experience of moving through the city by train. This tour suggests public art isn't just about revitalizing an underserved downtown, or reinventing the city. It responds to what is already there and helps prove that the decades of strategies aimed to make the city a creative center point have been constant.

Once in a while though, you have to warm up your ankles, slow down, and really see how Metro's public art is bringing the city's creative cycle out from the underground.

Richard Wyatt's City of Dreams, River of History at Union Station I Photo: Helen Ly

'Metro Art Moves_DTLA' tours begin on July 4 at 5:30pm. Future tours will be held every first Thursday of the month until September. For more information, visit

Top: Tour participants take on the interpretive maps created by the Center for Land Use Interpretation that are installed in the light boxes of the underground thoroughfare of the 7th Street/ Metro station. Photo: George Villanueva

Additional reporting by George Villanueva and Helen Ly.

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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