Public Art on Transit (Part 3) - A Conversation with Ben Mills
Rosemary Heather: I’ll start off asking about the type of work you’ve done on public transit, and maybe give an example of that?
Ben Mills: The most recent one that I’ve worked on we partnered with The Planning Partnership (TPP) which is an architecture firm in Toronto and did the planning and management and competition and selection for the Metrolinx Eglinton Crosstown project. One of our first tasks was really sitting down with the Metrolinx team, as well as their design and architecture team, to investigate and identify appropriate sites within the six intermodal stations that we were focused on for the project. They wanted to do something that was impactful but also highly integrated.
So, we focused on the six major intermodal stations, which are spread quite evenly from East to West. We organized it kind of like a stop light; with green sites, yellow sites, and red sites. Green sites were locations where there were far fewer restrictions as far as mechanical aspects, advertisements, entry ways, things like that. The yellow sites were ones where there were some areas of restrictions but not too many, the artist just had to be aware, and basically we had plans and elevations where we marked out these zones so artists would have almost like a colouring book, or a simplified view of it, and we would indicate potential conflicts that might impact their art in those yellow zones. The red sites where ones which were very heavily restrictive for safety, regulatory reasons, advertising as well, because you have to be aware of all the various stakeholders that are involved in this—the advertising revenue generated for these various transit agencies—so we wanted to make sure they were striking a nice balance between all these areas and all these stakeholders. You know, with transit projects you are limited in terms of things that would limit an ingress or egress or flow of people coming through. Also, because Metrolinx wanted things to be highly integrated and when you look at transit networks with successful public art programs, the works are highly integrated.
So, once we nailed down all the sites, we concurrently did open calls for credentials that were issued across a variety of newswire services, both nationally and internationally. We had a very good response from that. We reviewed all the candidates; for those projects, we just asked for credentials, it's an unpaid stage and we didn’t ask them to produce concepts yet, and from there we reviewed all the candidates alongside the Metrolinx team as well as members of our jury. From there we used a scoring matrix to create a finalist list. Those artists were then paid a fee to generate concepts. We put together a very extensive package of information for the competition brief the artists then used when generating their concepts. There were Q & A periods with the design-and-build teams so they could better understand the site, because this was done so far in advance of anyone being about to do site visits. Very seldom are there opportunities for artists to do site visits when we are planning this far in advance, so all of this stuff is done remotely and through drawings and renderings. That’s for cost considerations, the bigger the project is, the more expensive it becomes and the harder it becomes to integrate it, and that’s when you sort of get sticking art on a surface rather than thinking holistically about it long term.
Long term durability and maintainability are two areas of the main focus for these things, because they are high impact, high activity areas, a lot of people going through, security concerns, etc. We don’t want to saddle these agencies with heavy, onerous maintenance requirements. We want to make sure these things stand up over time, but we also don’t want to limit the artists’ possibilities with what they can do. It’s all about artists and fabricators doing these things, that understand it, and you can see lots of examples of effective public art in transit systems throughout the world…and in Toronto too! It’s something that…I don’t want to say it’s newer here, because if you look at the Yonge-University line you can see integrated artwork there, but if you look in comparison to the Sheppard line, you see an expanding of that process on the Sheppard line, and with the newer stations in Vaughan and that extension North, there is a building up as you learn what you can do and can’t do. It’s difficult to experiment, especially with transit.
RH: That’s a comprehensive overview of your role. Maybe I could ask you a bit more about that? I like the idea of creating a scoring matrix at the initial stage of choosing the artist. It sounds like a tool that would put you and Metrolinx on the same page, because it’s very technical or objective.
BM: The interesting thing with those matrices is they vary from project to project, but with transit, you really want to have a balance of aesthetic and technical aspects for the jury, for their consideration, because art shouldn’t be evaluated purely on technical merits, or evaluated purely on aesthetic merits necessarily. It’s sort of this balanced compromise between the artist, the work they are presenting, their track record—which includes references and things like that to make sure they deliver things on budget—and the technical feasibility of things. We want to make sure we are open and allowing for possibilities but also, we want to make sure that all of those constraints are really laid out in advance, so that artists are working from those on down, rather than up to something and they have to change it based on site conditions or other things. We don’t want to compromise a work to the point that in effect it's losing its meaning, but if you know all those things in advance, and you lay out as many of them as you can, you are going to get better results at the end of the day.
RH: So, you bring that to the table with Metrolinx?
BM: As well as TTP—The Planning Partnership—they were integral to it, because we’re not architects, and the members of their team and their ability to interpret drawings and provide expertise on these things, and details that art consultants and artists might overlook or not think about. So, they have been an incredibly important part of our team for that project.
RH: Can you talk about the aesthetic side, because that’s your area of expertise when you're dealing with these bodies; can you talk about how you would advise them from that perspective?
BM: It’s visual art. It has to pass the eye test. Whenever you are doing a competition and receiving proposals, if it’s done well and you have a great list of finalists, there usually is at least one that stands out, almost immediately; and the more you look at it the better grows, just like great art. But sometimes you get a concept and are a little taken aback, and then you develop an interest and love for it. At the same time too, one of the voices we lend to the project is making sure that you are getting artists that are proposing original ideas. It’s not to say we have seen everything ever made, but a huge portion of our job is looking at art. I’ve been looking at art my entire life—I’ve been doing this for going on twelve years, so I've been working in the field for just over a decade—but making sure that no one is trying to pull a fast one, or a rehashing of something that didn’t pass. You know, engineers, architects, sometimes clients haven’t seen as much and we want to make sure what’s being done is site-specific and impactful for the community and of interest, but also a heavy consideration for diversity and diverse voices depending on where the project is. Budget can dictate that too. When you are working in transit, it’s not an easy commission situation for someone that’s never done public art before. It’s a lot of back and forth, and there are a lot of team members involved. It’s mostly an art procedure, but you have a lot of elements of design that are involved in it, and that’s different than the artistic process, and maybe artists aren’t always as comfortable or as familiar working with designers, engineers, contractors, fabricators, and getting these things to the point where it’s doable and feasible for the project. It’s sort of about striking a balance.
RH: Could you describe the mentorship projects you’re involved in for emerging and mid-career artists?
BM: Generally what we do with mentorships, the artist will work alongside us in navigating the steps taken to complete a public art commission. And usually they commission a smaller work, and for the most part the fee they are paid is to attend some meetings—we do a lot of Zoom calls, and group calls with them to go through the different stages. We will review boilerplate contracts with them, so that they can understand what goes into a contract, we will talk them through the commissioning and fabrication process, depending on what the work is, and that might involve a shop visit to a fabricator’s shop to see them making something in progress, and explain how we interface with them and artists interface with fabricators—because ninety five percent of the time these things are built in a fabrication shop because of the engineering requirements. A lot of artists with the exception of a few, build these massive scale things—you’re looking at a situation of a Mark di Suvero, and we’ve done several projects with the Chilean artist Francisco Gazitua, but for the most part we have drawings done and they are engineered and everything, but the artist is making it himself with his studio team. There’s a lot of components that go into it. It's not usually one thing. You need several cooks to make the souffle work.
Yan Wu: I have a question along the same lines. Basically your work as an art consultant on the one hand is to provide advice for the clients, but on the other hand you also provide a mentoring role for the artist, especially as we get into the case of integrated art. Metrolinx deliberately didn’t choose to call its program a public art program, but an integrated art program. It’s interesting that you mentioned working with the artists and looking at the potential of the artwork. It is to ensure when the work is integrated, it doesn’t end up with a Frankenstein situation. I’m interested in your response to that and how you navigate that and work with artists in that case…especially when you are always looking at existing works, but in fact imagining future works.
BM: When we’re reviewing credentials, yes, it’s based on a track record of projects they’ve done or artworks they’ve made. When we do a competition where they are paid, they actually do produce renderings imagery and details and we usually ask for a lot of information and backup materials supporting that. For a competition where an artist is paid, say, five thousand dollars to come up with concepts, they’re providing digital renderings of the works, what the material is, how they think it will be installed, timelines, fabrication, delivery, installation, fire code information on those materials, if there is painted surfaces what that paint is, how is it applied to those surfaces, if damage is done how is it touched up, etc. etc. So, when we are reviewing credentials, yes, it’s based on their past work and the potential, what you see and what you think they can do. Sometimes too, if artists have ideas that they have worked on, but weren’t selected or produced, but it might help illustrate other ideas they are working on, they might show us that. We’ve worked with some painters who have done some sculptures with us, but they hadn’t produced sculptures physically because they didn’t have the money to do it or the opportunity to do it, but they have been working on these ideas in their minds. Or their artwork you can see it translate into sculpture in a way, which is kind of a gut feeling thing. We talk to artists and see if it’s something they are interested in doing, something they have thought about doing. If they are, sometimes you are working in the animation, 3D design field, saying “Oh yeah, I’ve been playing around with this sort of thing”. We can assess that and say, “This is a great idea. Would you be interested in doing something like that?” It doesn't always have to be built. Produced stuff helps, because it shows that you have made things, but you know, in some situations, when you have a modest budget and you have an artist who is interested in breaking into the field, it’s an interesting way to give them that stepping stone into the public art realm. The way that we sort of navigate all these things is constant email, phone calls, coordination. We’re a middleman in a way, and we work for the clients… although it’s tricky with public projects because if it's a public agency, our involvement with the artist’s process is much more taken back because we can’t be seen to be showing favoritism towards the artists or influencing anything. In other projects, I always say I’m always available to talk, whether by email or over the phone. It's my job to make sure artists aren’t left in the dark. I know a lot of artists who were hesitant to do public art projects. Particularly in the past. When I first started doing this, I got turned down a lot, it was a lot of convincing. I got turned down all the time. Now I think with Instagram and stuff coming out and the Public Art Fund and things like that—though the Public Art Fund has been around a lot longer than me—but there is a lot more receptiveness to it. We also want to make sure the artists aren’t totally left to their own devices. They can use us as a resource. I’ve been involved in about 100 projects; Karen has been involved in over 200. It’s not like we have done everything, but we have done a lot of different media in public art in a lot of different forms, and a lot of different budget sizes, so I would like to think that we have some expertise on that and can help them from going down a path that’s a nonstarter. Because it is art, but there are a lot of building concerns, a lot of engineering concerns that you want to take into consideration, safety, maintainability, effectiveness; what materials hold up and what materials work and what doesn’t. We are a bit of a Swiss Army Knife. We want the artists to ask us any questions, and if we can’t answer it, then we interface with the client or find the expert from the client team that can assist them with it. If it’s an engineering or architecture question, I can’t answer that.
YW: In the conversation we just had with Mariam Zulfiqar, she pointed out that on the Tube in London everyday there are roughly 3.4 million passengers, and the maximum amount of attention to the art you can expect from them is one second, which is already a very generous investment on their end. You said you had worked on over 100 projects and Karen had worked on over 200 projects. Among those, it’s hard to strictly define whether the space is public or private because you work with developers a lot, but nevertheless they all have a public interface. I wonder what makes transit space different, in that case? Places like parks and plazas are public spaces for people to gather, but transit is not. It’s actually not encouraged for people to dwell.
BM: Right, yeah. It’s highly dynamic, catch people’s attention quickly, hopefully.
YW: How do you catch the nature of transit space in this sense and convey it to the artist through a design brief? How do you describe or address this characteristic to the artist?
BM: A lot of it has to do with context, where it is, there might be some area history that you could include in the brief. There are sometimes where clients or agencies want it to be a bit more prescriptive, but at the same time, sometimes it's best to provide as much historic, cultural, aesthetic information. Because if you say you are doing a transit project in a part of the city that was built in the 18th century, it’s different than if it is in a brand-new city that’s been growing. Markham for example is booming but at the same time it used to be a lot of farmers’ fields, and you don’t want every station to have something related to the history of farming, for example. You want there to be some variety, but you also want to make sure you are not dropping in an alien from space. There are aesthetic considerations, if you are in an area that is mostly mid-century modern. Maybe you play off of that. Or, Indigenous histories, those are very important to incorporate too, and making sure that you are providing opportunities for Indigenous artists; that it’s not a white artist making work about Indigenous histories or something like that and further appropriating their culture, which is incredibly wrong, and we’ve been doing for long enough. So, there isn’t one approach, there is a whole variety of approaches. We want the commissioning body to be happy with the work at the end of the day. We want the people who are using these systems to hopefully appreciate and notice the art—you always find with effective projects that people either love it or hate it; if they don’t notice it, then you’ve basically failed [laughter]. It’s so subjective. I’ve done lots of projects where people tell me they love it, and other people tell me they hate it more than anything. It’s not up to me, we have an important role in the project, we are part of a shepherding process, but for finalists the ultimate decision is up to the jury. We don’t have a vote or influence on that; it’s more we talk about if we think someone has been plagiarized or something, which does not happen a lot, it has only happened once. And it wasn’t direct plagiarism, it was just close to something else we had seen. It was a very long time ago and it wasn’t transit.
You want to try and strike that balance. Offer as much information to the artists that they can use in their research, because they might find some thread in there that leads them down a path to something spectacular. If you try to focus it too much on one thing or the other, or tell them what to do, you get into a situation where people are just trying to check boxes, and it’s like…does that result in the best installation at the end of the day? I would say no. Again, it’s subjective. You want to give them that freedom in terms of content, aesthetics, and whatnot, while at the same time giving them the technical restrictions. I think if you put too many restrictions on it too, it becomes “Well, what can I do”? Sometimes, that’s all you can do. If your budget is limited and you have too many things that are tricky and you don’t have the budget to coordinate all these things. Sometimes different coloured tiles might be the best approach and still gets a great result at the end of the day. But if you don’t have three million dollars to do something massive, you want to work within that. You don't want to try to get something that you think is worth a million bucks for a fraction of that budget. It’s getting what you paid for and trying to make the most of it and getting enough bang for your buck.
RH: In terms of working with the jury, have you had any sort of push back from Metrolinx, for instance, in terms of them not agreeing with a jury’s decision?
BM: No, the jury was involved in the selection of the finalists too, so everyone was on the same page. For the most part in Toronto, the owner has veto power—and I’m not talking about transit projects. That's something different. In general, the owner has veto power, but it doesn’t happen often. It’s only happened once in my career and that involved a change in ownership; or you could get a drastic change in budget, if something happens. For Metrolinx, the jury was very formal, because it was a government agency that we’re working through, a public agency. In other projects, art should be adjudicated like a conversation, where you are sitting around and talking, and everyone should feel free and clear to talk based on their expertise, and interest and understanding of it. We always have artists on our juries, and we have art experts on our juries. Occasionally we will have architects on them. For Metrolinx we did. But for the most part, it’s a conversation and a discussion. Deciding what works the best and building a consensus. It’s not always easy, but we always come to a consensus.
Karen did a memorial project at Queen’s Park where there were over two dozen veterans that were there as part of the review committee. She got everyone to agree! I don’t know how she did that, but she’s magic. She raised two sons and a daughter who are all working in cultural fields, we’re all still talking and love one another, so she gets a lot of credit for that, and my Dad too, obviously. It can be a challenging process at times, but making sure everyone is sitting around the table and hearing concerns from all sides and everyone’s on the same page. So it’s not just this owner saying “I want what I want”. All of our clients, they appreciate this process once they start getting into it and see what is possible. They see the benefit to their development or their park, or whatever, or their transit system. It’s a nice break from the nuts and bolts of building something, because construction and development is a very temperamental process, and art is sort of a nice reprieve from that, but it’s still in their wheelhouse in talking about technical things—”How do we build it? How do we install it? How is this taken care of?” As long as you address those things in advance, you don’t frustrate these people. It's having those answers and having those responses in a timely manner and figuring out how to build these things and knowing how to do that, then you are speaking their language and they know, OK you aren’t just some guy wearing a beret and sleeping in all day long. The artists also see the development side and they see that they aren't just greedy developers out to make money. And you get the contractor at the table and they're talking about how these things are built and how they are brought in and everyone realizes the crossovers between their different areas of work and expertise, and you build that Venn diagram where everyone meets in the middle and can see we are all on the same page, we just need to sit around a table, or on a Zoom call, and talk about it.
YW: It’s interesting to hear different perspectives and approaches which I have found all very unique. We see this interview series as a way to present an assortment of voices. You’ve already touched on that by saying there is a difference when you are dealing with the private sector versus public agencies; you play a different role, and each brings different challenges. I would like to hear more about this comparative study.
BM: There are similarities and differences. With Metrolinx the interfacing with the City was slightly different than with the private developers. With Metrolinx and the City it was fairly smooth because, from the getgo we were focusing on interior locations—there was the question of why aren't we doing some more stuff outside. With some of the stations it was either on property they didn’t own—and also as the title says, it’s the “integrated” art program. So, with working with the City, working closely with City Staff, reviewing our site plans, the budget, the timeline, the nature of the competition, the sites we were thinking of, and then you are also interfacing with planning and urban design. Then we have to go through TPAC (Toronto Public Art Commission) for review and recommendations or comments, and then you go through Community Council and then you go through City Council. Then you can go off to the races when all the approvals are in place. At the same time, leading into that you are also dealing with your clients, doing your internal reviews and assessments for how you want to approach the site, because it doesn't always happen that you can sit down and the City says “Yeah it's a great idea. You can go ahead”. I wish! [laughter]. But you know, as they say, if it was easy it wouldn't be worth doing. It’s not that there’s conflict, but it’s about understanding things from all sides, but also understanding what’s feasible and what’s doable.
You talk to a lot of people who have built these things. With our role for these things we are working from start to finish. The clients understand that role because they are involved from start to finish but they maybe aren’t as heavily involved with the correspondence and coordination with the artists and fabricators. When you are looking at TPAC, you are reviewing the planning stages of it and then you are updating it once the project is done. You aren’t working on it day to day, and it’s not their job to do it. Same thing with planning and same thing with the City Staff. Also and the people at the City, they are involved far more on the front end and then just making sure everything gets done at the end of the day. So, I guess we have a much clearer…maybe that’s not the right word…but a clearer perspective is maybe the way to describe it. Because we are involved in it day to day to day. From the very beginning to the very end, we are the buffer for the client, the fabricator and the artist, and sometimes we have to be the whipping boy for periods of time for any of those parties, the City included. We get criticized a lot; we get compliments and stuff, but you do get criticism and it just goes with the territory and you can’t take it personally, and if you do, you shouldn’t be doing this. At times it feels thankless, but it’s not, but at times it can feel that way, these things, they’re a challenge. It’s not rocket science, but it's not just picking things and dropping them in place and these things happen by magic. You really have to wear a lot of hats to do this effectively, and the foundation of that is an understanding of art, but also the first floor and the front door is having an understanding of construction and development and fabrication, what you can do and what you can’t and not ignoring that, and thinking “Well, the builders will figure it out” because that can raise a whole host of other issues.
RH: You said earlier that artists were reluctant to participate. They just saw a field of complications and not being able to execute the work on their terms? I’m guessing that was the issue.
BM: Yeah, and lawsuits, horror stories of projects going sideways, where artists lose money. Or one of the common concerns that was expressed to me in the early days was “Oh I know-so and so who did this project and they were awarded the project but they had to manage the whole thing soup to nuts, and the time considerations and requirements and management of money that was coming in and going out to the various trades and understanding contract terms, it became overwhelming.” In many situations, what was expressed to me—and I don't know if that was just how some of those projects were managed, whether it's the consultant or the owner that’s doing that, or the commissioning body—but one thing that Karen, my Mom, has always been very strong in is her willingness and ability to drive this as a process, but also being there to assist or help the artist or explain things to the artist so they’re not left with these things that aren’t necessarily their areas of expertise. But also explaining those sorts of things to clients, so they have a better understanding “We aren’t handing this million dollar project over to this artist and hope they do what they say they are going to do”. And a lot of colleagues of mine that work in this business have complimented me, or complimented Karen through me, about how she has really refined the procedure of commissioning public art. Because a lot of times it was sort of like “Oh, just figure it out.” The fabricator might have been in charge of that, and there might be compromises to the work, because you want to make sure you are maintaining the artist’s moral right, and it depends on what country you are working in too, because legal standards are different…
So we are a bit—I don’t want to say the operator, but maybe the conductor—helping to make sure this whole public art symphony doesn’t sound like a cacophony of noise. It’s a lot of work on our end, but it’s more just…it took me at least a dozen projects completed before I felt fully comfortable managing these things, because there is just a lot involved. And we deal with different situations, different personalities, different budgets, different schedules, and you really learn from projects that don’t go perfectly smoothly, you try to make sure that doesn't happen again. It's like that old saying, you learn more from your failures than from your successes. It would be nice if all projects were easy, but they’re not. But you just have to see that end goal. For us, these projects are permanent, and we want to be respectful to that, and we want to leave a place better than how you found it. That’s the hope at least.
YW: Maybe just one last question, simply out of curiosity. Since people like to quantify experience, I wonder, as a lot of times the public art production process can take multiple years to complete and projects happen concurrently, how many projects are you handling at the moment?
BM: In terms of number of art sites right now? They are all in different stages of development. I have three that were just installed, but there are still just finishing touches. I don’t know, about a dozen or so. It varies. You don’t make a ton of money doing this. It's not as glamorous...no one gets into this to make a lot of money. You don't get rich doing it. Period. I don't know anyone that does. And artists who do this, it isn’t really an opportunity for them to make a ton of money, either, necessarily. These things cost a lot to make. You want to make sure they make as much money as possible and the artist is getting paid fairly but it’s not just going into a massive fee and you get this tiny little thing at the end of the day and it’s like “Where did all the money go”? So, yeah, you have to have a bit of a fly-tape brain, don’t delete emails, make sure you get things in writing, and you have to stay on top of things. If anyone has ever done renovations, you have to make sure everything is explicitly laid out and as little is left to chance as possible. Otherwise, little things can snowball. It happens and you want to address all that as soon as you can. Yeah, you just bounce around. A lot of the times I feel like a chicken running around with its head cut off, lots of different things to do; you’re working with artists, you’re working with developers, you’re working with fabricators, and they all have different ways of talking about things and it’s like they all speak different languages. I don’t know. I can’t do anything else. I’m unemployable in any other field, but I figured out that I wanted to do this in my late twenties and changing careers was the best decision of my life. I’ve learned from the best. I know I had a huge leg up because I learned this from my Mom, but at the same time, she doesn't suffer fools gladly. She hasn’t really had a lot of employees over the years, because really, it is a consulting job. It's not something where you can’t have a massive staff because that’s where you get gaps in communication and you want to make sure you are on top of all of it and sort of see the whole picture, and make sure you understand the minutia.
I’m always learning, and she’s always learning. We play off one another very well. We have a unique relationship, as all children and their parents do, especially when you are working together—but the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. I was very resistant to trying to do this when I was younger, and I think I wanted to work in this business and the longer I resisted the more I wanted to do it, so it sounds cheesy, but I really feel like it's my calling, and I learned it from the best.