If everyone is indeed a critic, then more than a million of them ride the buses and trains of the Metro every day, and Maya Emsden, directly or indirectly, deals with all of them. Sometimes they’re not amateurs. Several years ago, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight spent a day riding the Red, Blue and Green lines, checking out the public art in the stations. He noted a few things he’d found enjoyable, and one stop he’d found remarkable, but wrote off most of the rest as a collection of mediocre-themed stations. “Metro Rail,” he wrote, “is Universal CityWalk with artistic pretensions.”
In a published retort that flaunted Metro Art’s climbing count of art and design awards, Emsden made clear, as will any conversation with her, that she is smart and isn’t shy.
Emsden, who worked for the New York City MTA Arts for Transit program, came to Metro in 1991. A decade later, she established an in-house design studio, which, along with the Metro Art public-art program and another of Emsden’s creations, the Metro Art Docent Council, falls under the umbrella of Metro Creative Services. To clarify, that means Emsden oversees her own design studio, a network of freelance designers and artists, a massive public-art program that commissions small to monumental projects via a competitive review and selection process, as well as a horde of rail-riding tour guides.
“I’m a hire-good-talent-and-get-out-of-their-way kind of person,” Emsden offers. “Then my role is championing their efforts within the agency.”
Indeed, while her job is about relations in the public realm, it’s also about navigating in the office. “As much as I love my engineer colleagues, the fact is, they spend a lot of their time thinking about how to get people from A to B. I’m the person who thinks about the image and the art experience of getting people from A to B.”
Much of Emsden’s mission has been earning trust — which means gaining permission both from colleagues and constituencies — in order to be more adventurous. “There have been a lot of envelopes to push, and a lot of boxes to think our way out of.”
Emsden is convinced that trust is well established and growing, with successful past projects paving the way for a more forward-thinking review and selection of future commissions. This is important, not only because it allows for more interesting projects to be realized, but also because it attracts more artists to get into the game. In addition, such an attitude also fosters the possibility of artists and designers getting in on the earliest stages of design, which is essential to keeping public art from becoming a “Band-Aid” slapped on major construction projects, after the fact.
Emsden also insists that good art and design is essential as infrastructure is upgraded or expanded, and advocates that artists be involved well after the fact. She thinks this is the best way to attract artists who aren’t regularly active in the public arena, or who might not want to sit through years of engineering and planning meetings. Important recent infusions of art into the Metro experience include Roy Dowell’s Orange-Line Canoga Station terrazzo pavement collage, which incorporates fragments of imagery drawn from the locale; and artist/designer Pae White and architect Tom Marble’s redesign of seat fabric on more than 200 of Metro’s articulated buses.
Asked about her proudest completion, Emsden goes slightly dreamy. “Jim,” she says cryptically, followed by a silence. But then she’s all business. “Jim Isermann’s project for the Metro Customer Center.
“It was the bunker of all bunkers,” she says of the building that in better days was the Welton Beckett–designed Tilford’s Restaurant and Lounge before it went dormant, was stuccoed over and was then purchased by Metro in 1984. “It was a sad little gray building, and this was where we greeted more than 10,000 customers a month, and where people driving by at Wilshire and La Brea every day got their image of Metro.”
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It was more of a non-image, which Isermann changed with geometric-patterned relief. The design turned the building into a landmark.
Asked what her dream project would be, Emsden pauses. “You really want me to dream?” Another pause is followed by a swell of certainty. “Flying carpets.”
Photo by Kevin Scanlon