Happening Now

Amtrak’s New Art Installation In DC

September 15, 2023

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

The next time you’re in Washington, DC’s Union Station, try not to simply rush to your boarding gate but instead look up above the gate doors and see DC artist Tim Doud’s newly commissioned work – A Great Public Walk 2023.

It’s more than just a visually pleasing piece of art. It’s part of a commitment by Amtrak to bringing art into public spaces and if done right it can really help to spur the success of what sociologists have to come to call “third spaces.” That is, places that are NOT home, and are NOT work, but a third place where people gather.

If it all sounds like a lot of “woo-woo” to you, consider this: researchers have shown in studies over many years that these “third places” help bind communities together, create shared identities, belonging, and civic engagement. They belong to “all of us” and are very often a source of pride for those live near them or use them.

Passenger rail has the same effect on communities, bringing economic vitality to places large and small. New York City recognized this many years ago, creating the MTA Arts & Design program in 1985 to put posters, sculptures, paintings, poetry, and even musical performances in front of fare-paying passengers on the trains and platforms and in the stations.

The years of isolation and fear created by the COVID-19 pandemic shut millions of people out of third places, and revitalizing them now is considered by many policymakers and planners to be a crucial part of bringing recovery back to struggling cities.

This happens in very small ways, but the effect is real and visible. Perfect strangers who might not otherwise interact with each other might see the same piece of art and it sparks a conversation. Multiplied many times over, these kinds of encounters help people live, work, and play together.

I was thrilled this week to get a personal tour from Sharon Tepper, who is Amtrak’s Director of Infrastructure Planning in the NY Gateway Program and a member of the Art at Amtrak advisory committee, and Debra Simon, the Curator for Art at Amtrak and President of Debra Simon Art Consulting.

Doud’s piece is firmly anchored to DC as a place. The geometric forms of his installation echo Pierre L’Enfant’s street plan for Washington, DC, which he envisioned as a kind of “Paris” for the fledgling revolutionary republic of the United States. L’Enfant himself described his vision for the new capital as a “great public walk,” from which Doud takes his installation’s title. Inside each of the spaces created by the street lines, Doud includes snips of what he saw as he watched people flow through Union Station’s concourse – fabrics, logos, colors – capturing the observed moments of travelers in DC. People-watching, preserved.

Spotting the references is a fun and engaging game all by itself. A piece of the Washington Capitals’ hockey team logo here, a swath of U.S. Navy’s now-discontinued camouflage uniform – which sailors called the “blueberry” uniform because of its mix of blue colors, a tiny piece of Nike “Just Do It” lettering, pieces of flags, Charlie Brown’s shirt.

Strangers playing that game and sharing what they see, along with a laugh, is the way public art makes a difference in these third places.

“When done well, a public artwork engages citizens in conversation that can vary from understanding historical and cultural backgrounds, to driving attachment to place and social cohesion,” says Patricia Walsh from Americans for the Arts. “In a world struggling with new ways to connect, public art can make public spaces more approachable.”

Public art matters, maybe even more so after the pandemic, and certainly for train stations and platforms as we use passenger rail to jump-start cities. Amtrak launched its program at the Moynihan Train Hall last year, and added Washington Union Station this year. Let’s hope Amtrak is able to incorporate public art systemwide as just one more way to bring value and strength to the communities it serves.