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Going for the Gold: California Stories on the Los Angeles Metro Gold Line: Communities, Public Art, and Placemaking.: History of the Gold Line and its Public Art

The project was funded in 2008-2009 by the California Council for the Humanities through its California Stories: California Story Fund

Funding and Public Art Selection

Voter approval of Proposition A in 1980 established a funding mechanism for constructing a public rail transportation system in Los Angeles County by increasing the sales tax in the county by ½ percent.  Additional funding for the county’s rail transit system became available in 1990 with the passage of Proposition C, which added another ½ percent to the sales tax in Los Angeles County, and the passage of Proposition 108, which brought in money from the State of California through the sale of bonds.[1] 

In promoting Proposition A, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) presented a map to voters of the planned rail lines that included one linking downtown Los Angeles with the City of Pasadena.  In 1992, the LACTC purchased the 38 mile right of way of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad from Los Angeles to Claremont.[2]  Two phases were planned for constructing the line to Claremont: Phase One, which was a 13.7 mile segment between Union Station and east Pasadena; and Phase Two, a 24 mile segment going through 10 communities between Pasadena and Claremont.[3]

In 1992, the State of California created the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) by merging the LACTC and the Rapid Transit District.[4]  That same year, contracts for planning and design were awarded for developing Phase One of the light rail.  Called the Pasadena Blue Line, this line was originally conceived as an extension of the Blue Line that opened in 1992 linking downtown Los Angeles and Long Beach.  The planned route of the Blue Line initially went from Long Beach to Union Station along Alameda, and from there to Pasadena. However, when constructed, the Blue Line was re-routed to go west on Washington from Alameda and then north on Flower where it ended at Seventh Street.[5]  Even after the change in routing, the line between Union Station and Pasadena continued to be called the Pasadena Blue Line, though consideration was given to renaming it the Rose Line, in deference to the annual Tournament of Roses in Pasadena.  The name Rose Line, however, was not adopted and in 2001 the line was renamed the Gold Line.

The Pasadena Blue Line was planned to have 13 stations, not including Union Station, which was treated as a separate project.  The route or alignment was divided into seven segments that corresponded to the design contracts for the stations: 1) Chinatown; 2) Avenue 26/French Street; 3) South West Museum/Avenue 51/Avenue 57; 4) Mission; 5) Fillmore/Del Mar; 6) Memorial Park; and 7) Lake/Allen/Sierra Madre Villas.

Construction of the Pasadena Blue Line began in 1994 with a scheduled completion date of 2001.[6]  But in late 1995, because of massive cost overruns, engineering failures, and charges of favoritism in the awarding of contracts at MTA, construction of the light rail line stopped with about 12% completed and $286.9 million spent.[7]  During the subsequent “cost containment” freeze, the station at Avenue 51 in Highland Park was deleted from the project.  Other cost reductions were implemented including the incorporation of standard designs for the station’s lighting, benches, and canopy.  As a compromise between the initial concept of giving each station a distinctive appearance to create community landmarks, and the financial pressures to reduce costs with a standardized inexpensive design, the Chinatown, Southwest Museum, and the Memorial Park stations were designated “landmark stations”.[8]  Serving as gateways to surrounding tourist attractions, these three stations had larger budgets for aesthetic enhancements to enrich the experience of the projected greater volume of riders. 

During the “containment” period, serious consideration was given to completely eliminating the Pasadena Blue Line.  However, because of strong support for the light rail from the cities of Pasadena, South Pasadena, and Los Angeles, State Senator Adam Schiff drafted two senate bills that resulted in the creation of the Pasadena Blue Line Construction Authority (PBLA) in January 1999 and the reassignment of the project to a sole-purpose entity dedicated to the completion of the light rail to Claremont.[9]

In October 2000, the PBLA awarded a $260 million contract to Kiewit/Washington Group (KW) to design and build the light rail to Pasadena.  The route has 13.7 miles of double track, two cut-and-cover tunnels, 28 at-grade and 41 separate crossings, 13 stations (which includes Union Station), and a maintenance facility.[10]  As the project’s designer, KW largely adopted the station designs that had been prepared under contract by the MTA, except for Chinatown, which involved a new design by the architectural firm, Gensler.[11]  After the light rail line was completed on time and under budget—the only rail line constructed in Los Angeles County to have done this, the PBLA turned the Gold Line over to the MTA, which began operation on July 26, 2003. 

History of Public Art on Gold Line

Public Art Policy: In 1989, with construction well underway on its first rail line—the Blue Line—linking downtown Los Angeles with Long Beach, LACTC implemented the A-R-T (Art for Rail Transit) policy which required ½ percent of the construction cost be devoted to the design and installation of public art.[12]  One of the policy’s goals was to create customer friendly environments throughout the system by instituting procedures for involving the public in the design of the art and the selection of the artists.  A-R-T, however, became more than a policy: it shortly became a program and out of it, Metro Art was created as a department at LACTC which later became the department at the MTA charged with implementing the policy. 

Establishing the Overall Aesthetic of Gold Line:  In 1992, Metro Art became involved in the Pasadena Blue Line.  Based on the construction costs for the entire rail project, Metro Art prepared a budget of $2,201,000 for the art component.[13]  That same year, the team of engineers and designers responsible for determining the location of the stations, landscaping, station entrances, and other basic features of the line began meeting.  The head of the Metro Art program, Jessica Cusick, felt that the group was making aesthetic decisions, and suggested that it have an artist who would bring an aesthetic orientation to the deliberations and identify opportunities along the line for public art.  Metro Art had never hired an artist to work with the design team of a rail line before and this was one of the first times in the United States that an artist was brought into a transportation project so early.[14]  Alan Nakagawa, who was responsible for the public art program for the line to Pasadena, began the search for an artist by distributing a Request For Qualifications.  Metro Art wanted an artist who would be a member of the design team and would be responsible for “enhancing the alignment” by “collaborating in the design of aerial structures, retaining walls, columns and other alignment features”.[15]  In September 1992, Metro Art assembled a panel of people affiliated with non-profit organizations and government agencies in the three cities of the line (Los Angeles, South Pasadena, Pasadena) to select the artist.  On September 29, this panel, which was ethnically, experientially, and philosophically diverse, reviewed the artistic quality and experience of the 47 artists who had responded to the RFQ and selected five finalists who made presentations to the panel a week later.[16]  The panel chose Seyed Alavi because his aesthetic had a philosophical basis and because he worked in a variety of media. The panel also thought Alavi might have a fresh approach since he was the only finalist who did not live in Los Angeles.[17]  After his selection, Alavi prepared a series of drawings of possible design elements, and wrote an “Overall Aesthetic Philosophy” for the project.  Alavi saw the neighborhoods where the line would run as culturally and demographically diverse, yet scarred by a sense of alienation and separation.  Within this context, he wanted the project to have a “unified aesthetic approach” that would integrate the users of the rail line into the environment.  He saw the artist as part of a “collaborative” team, whose role was to promote creativity and encourage the development and expression of aesthetic concerns.  In creating the art for the line, Alavi felt that the artists should consider the history and location of the surrounding community.  He also thought that consideration had to be given to the purpose of the rail line as a mover of people, its appearance as seen from different perspectives, and its relationships with its physical and cultural environment.  In addition, Alavi felt that the aesthetics of the rail line should not only focus on the region’s shared myths, climate, and geology, but should also promote the individual character of the area’s various ethnic and racial communities.[18]

The “Overall Aesthetic Philosophy” and drawings were given to each of the other artists selected for the project.  According to Nakagawa, they were not a resource to help the artists design something or lead them “to go in one particular direction,” but were almost a work of art that stood by itself.[19]  The direct impact of Alavi’s contribution is hard to measure, but Nakagawa felt he gave the line some cohesion and stimulated more innovative approaches to design issues.  His “Overall Aesthetic Philosophy” provided a common starting point for the artwork for each of the stations, opened the door for the variety of designs that the individual station artists created, and identified cost-effective ways to incorporate art into the project that was not part of the stations.[20]

After Alavi completed his work, Metro Art retained Beth Thielen, the runner-up in the original artist selection process that selected him, to prepare design elements that could be placed along the entire line.[21]  Initially she wanted to incorporate art on the overhead catenary system (OCS) poles, change the color of the rocks under the tracks, decorate the fences around Traction Power Substations (TPSS), and imprint a small repertoire of five images into alignment’s retaining and sound walls.  Because of cost, none of this was done except for imprinting the five images along the line and putting them in the elevator lobbies of the Sierra Madre Villa garage to identify the different parking levels.[22] 

Artist Selection Process

Community Advisory Committees:  An essential part of the A-R-T process was the creation of Community Advisory Committees (CACs) in each of the seven design segments of the rail line: 1) Chinatown; 2) Avenue 26/French Street; 3) Southwest Museum/Avenue 51/Avenue 57; 4) Mission; 5) Fillmore/Del Mar; 6) Memorial Park; and 7) Lake/Allen/Sierra Madre Villas.[23]  CACs were responsible for drafting Community Profiles to guide artists in designing works that would respond to the physical, historical and cultural environment of their stations.  Each CAC was also responsible for electing two of the five members of the artist selection panel for their area.[24]  CAC members were recruited at community meetings organized by the MTA Public Affairs office and Metro Art between late 1992 and early 1993 to inform the public about the rail line and the art component.[25]  In the last half of 1993, the CACs prepared the community profiles and elected two members to the artist selection panels.

Artist Selection Panels:  The artists were selected by panels composed of an artist, two art professionals (such as an art administrator, writer, teacher, or critic), and the two members elected by the local CAC.  Metro Art felt it was valuable to have an artist on the panel with public art experience and there was an attempt to have people on the panel with local and county wide perspectives.  Metro Art also felt the panelists should represent diverse age, gender, and ethnicities.[26]   

The panels began the selection process by reviewing slides in the Metro Art’s registry of artists.  In addition to slides, the registry contained C.V.s, cover letters, and press information on hundreds of artists.  Artists were invited to submit material to the registry at annual workshops organized by Metro Art.  Later, Metro Art collaborated with the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department in hosting joint workshops to obtain material for the registries for each agency’s public art program.  Metro Art also received a lot of submissions from artists who responded to notices about competitions for the artwork along new rail lines.[27] 

The initial review of slides by the panelists was to discern the artists’ aesthetics and their ability to solve problems.  The panelists were also given information about the artists and were advised to recluse themselves from voting and deliberation if there was a conflict of interest.  By the end of the first round of voting, about half the artists in the registry were eliminated from competition.  The panelists then went through additional rounds, winnowing the list down to a “short list” for each segment.  An artist was required to have at least three votes in each round to stay in the competition.[28]  

At their second meeting, the panelist evaluated in greater depth the slides, resumes and cover letters of the short list of artists to come up with a list of finalists.  These artists were invited to an interview and given copies of the community profile for the area of their station and the “Overall Aesthetic Philosophy”.  If the panel was responsible for selecting artists for more than one station, which was the case for four panels, the finalists were invited to identify the station they wanted.  During each 45 minute interview, the artist was asked questions largely relating to their experience working in collaboration with other design professionals and their availability to execute the project.[29] 

Post Artist Selection:  After the artists for all the stations were selected, Nakagawa organized a meeting at the Southwest Museum in early 1994 between them and Vera Rocha, the Chieftess of the Gabrielino/Shoshone Nation.  The purpose of the meeting was to educate the artists about the Arroyo, since a number of the community profiles referred to it as the physical and symbolic frame for understanding the past, present and future of the area.  Nakagawa also organized the meeting because he wanted the artists of the light rail project to meet each other and learn about the research resources at the Southwest Museum.[30]   

Engineering Management Consultants (EMC), an umbrella organization of firms that was involved in the construction of the various rail lines of the MTA, also had an influence on the initial design of the art.  The organization established the basic station design and operational requirements, prepared the layout of the stations, and provided drawings and criteria to the individual station architects.  This material was used to identify the respective responsibilities of the engineers, designers, and artists for the station.  Though the goal of the EMC guidelines was to make the artist a full partner in the design of the station, it directed the station designer to prepare a rough cost estimate for the design and construction of the artwork and delegated responsibility to the station designer to review the constructability, suitability of material, and safety of the art.[31] 

By the end of the containment period, the degree of completion of the art ranged from 0 percent for the Mission Street station because the artist had withdrawn from the project to 95 percent for the Southwest Museum station.[32]  All the artist contracts with the MTA had been terminated and the Avenue 51 station was eliminated.  Before the station was deleted from the rail project, its artist, Diane Gamboa, had prepared a preliminary design which included installing a paving pattern in the street next to the station, constructing an aluminum or steel fence with images of people, placing giant heads at the ends of the canopy, and decorating the guardrail and fence.[33]   

Pasadena Blue Line Authority (PBLA) Public Art:  After the PBLA took over the light rail project and resumed construction, it hired Lesley Elwood of Elwood & Associates as an art consultant to manage the line’s art program, and Gail Goldman to prepare a public art policy.  During the remainder of 2000, both Elwood and Goldman discussed a broad range of issues relating to the design status, community process, contracts, and budget with PBLA administrators, the head of the Metro Art program, art administrators from the City of Pasadena, and, except for Gamboa, all the artists who were selected through the A-R-T process.[34]  They also prepared a $1.8 million budget for the art component of the rail line, determine that the artists would receive design fees of $10,000, $15,000, or $20,000 depending on the amount of redesign that was necessary, and increased the installation payment of each work from the $80,000 in the original MTA budget to $90,000.  This increase, which came from funds originally set aside for conservation and repair, was to ensure that the artists would be able to warrant their work for a minimum of three years by employing high quality and easily maintained materials.[35]  Because Richard Hall, the original artist for the Mission Street station in South Pasadena had withdrawn from the project, Elwood initiated a process which resulted in the selection of Michael Stutz as the station’s new artist.  She also arranged to have all the artists on the Gold Line be sub-contractors to the general contractor, KW, which was responsible for installing the artwork.

To create a framework for the public art program of the PBLA, Goldman prepared a “Policy Interpretation” of the MTA’s public art policy, which was adopted by the PBLA in January 2001.  The goal of the policy was “to enhance the rail project and the communities through which it runs by commissioning a diverse range of artists who would integrate high quality artwork into the system and would involve the community in the design process…Using the baseline station design, the art should make the station unique.  Although it should reflect the station’s community, it should do so without sacrificing the artistic integrity of the artist.”  The policy also directed the design/builder, KW, to use the artists who had been selected through the MTA process in 1992-3.  In addition, the policy recommended that the PBLA contract with a conservator, and allow the MTA to comment on the maintenance of the artwork.[36] 

The review and approval process was the most significant difference between the PBLA and the MTA public art policies.  As a general policy, the MTA does not have its artwork evaluated by other governments entities.[37]  There were exceptions however with the Gold Line.  The City of Pasadena insisted that the art projects for the six Pasadena stations be evaluated by the Pasadena Light Rail Station Review Committee.  This committee, created to review the design of the stations, was composed of representatives from the Pasadena Planning Commission, Cultural Heritage Commission, Design Commission, Community Development Committee, and the Transportation Advisory Commission.[38]  In South Pasadena the art component of the Mission Street station was initially reviewed by the South Pasadena Downtown Revitalization Task Force.  This Task Force was composed of community members involved in planning for the station and the surrounding area.[39]  In contrast to the MTA’s policy of resisting reviews by other government agencies, Elwood recommended that the art designs under the PBLA be submitted to the relevant city governments as a way of involving communities in the approval process.  As a result, the designs for the art at the stations in the City of Los Angeles were approved by the Cultural Affairs Department of the City of Los Angeles, and the art at the Pasadena stations was approved by the Cultural Affairs Division of the City of Pasadena as well as the Pasadena Light Rail Station Review Committee.[40]  During the PBLA period, the review in South Pasadena was done by the Mission Street Blue Line Art and Design Committee, an ad-hoc committee comprising of citizen volunteers and two Councilmembers.[41]  PBLA reinforced its approval process of involving government agencies by having a huge community outreach program that included heavily attended public meetings in the three cities along the route.[42]  

The PBLA not only sought installations with high aesthetic quality, it looked for art that was durable and could be reasonably maintained.  To achieve that goal, in June 2001 Elwood created a list of qualified conservators who could work on the project.  From that list, she invited five to  submit proposals.  After receiving three proposals, Elwood reviewed their references and interviewed them before selecting the Sculpture Conservation Studio (SCS).  The conservator prepared a questionnaire for each artist concerning the materials, coating, installation, and methods they were proposing for every component of their art project.  SCS then interviewed each artist and prepared reports for the artist with recommendations concerning issues that should be addressed during fabrication and installation.[43]

[1]Beth Wilson, “Opening the Golden Gate: Discovering Gold in Los Angeles County”, Rail, no. 11: 24 (published by the Community Transportation Association of America, no date).

[2] Memo from Patricia V. McLaughlin, Arthur T. Leahy, Stanley G. Phernambuco to MTA Board of Directors, re: Pasadena Blue Line, p. 3, February 22, 1996.

[3] Los Angeles/Pasadena Blue Line Rail Extension, USA,  Accessed 2008.

[4] California Assembly Committee on Transportation, SB 1847, p. 3, July 6, 1998.

[5] Alan Nakagawa, interview by Michael Several, June 4, 2008.

[6] Los Angeles/Pasadena Blue Line Rail Extension, USA.

[7] Ibid.

[8] MTA Metro Art, Metro Art Pasadena Blue Line Suspension Document, [nd[, p. 3; Metro Gold Line Station: Special Characteristics, September 4, 2002; Alan Nakagawa, interview by Michael Several, May 21, 2008.

[9] Wilson, “Opening the Golden Gate.”

[10] Pasadena Gold Line Project Description, Accessed 2008.

[11]Leslie Elwood, interview by Michael Several, August 7, 2008.

[12] Metro Art Pasadena Blue Line Suspension Document, p 1; A-R-T Program Policy, adopted by the LACTC in 1989.

[13] A-R-T Program, p. 1.

[14] Alan Nakgawa, interview by Michael Several, April 25, 2008.

[15] The Metro Pasadena Line Artist Request for Qualifications, no date.

[16] Metro Interoffice Memo, from Alan H. Nakagawa to Pasadena Project Staff, re: Artist Selection, September 28, 1992.

[17] Nakagawa interview, April 25, 2008.

[18] Seyed Alavi, Overall Aesthetic Philosophy: Pasadena Metro Project, 1993.