Inside the 5th Avenue-53rd Street subway station, a new site-specific exhibit showcases the connection between modern art and the graphic design of New York City’s transit system. The vinyl displays are a collaboration between MTA Arts & Design and The Museum of Modern Art, which has in its collection several objects related to the creation of the subway’s graphic design and more recent graphic innovations.

5th Av-53rd Street exhibit with MoMA and MTA on subway graphic designPhoto by Patrick Cashin/MTA

In 1967, The MoMA organized the symposium “Transportation Graphics: Where Am I Going? How Do I Get There?” after the unification of the separate subway companies, all which had its own unique signage system. MoMA curator Mildred Constantine facilitated an important introduction between Transit Authority chair Daniel Scannell and graphic designers Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda of Unimark International.  Vignelli and Noorda would then produce the New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual that would make Helvetica a ubiquitous, celebrity font and establish the signage system that is still in use today.

Detail of the Graphic Standards ManualPhoto by Patrick Cashin/MTA

The panels in the new exhibit show an illustrated timeline, pages from the Graphic Standards Manual, and quotes from people involved in the graphic design in the subway system. The bold and recognizable icons, exploded in size for the exhibit are show-stopping and should fulfill one of the goals of the project, which according to the MTA is to “to create a museum quality exhibit that would prove interesting to riders who navigate our system each day and those who use the subway to reach the Museum.”

5th Av-53rd Street exhibit with MoMA and MTA on subway graphic designPhoto by Patrick Cashin/MTA

Arrow in Fifth Av-53rd Street subway exhibitPhoto by Patrick Cashin/MTA

MoMA Curators Juliet Kinchin and Andrew Gardner were responsible for the research into the Graphic Standards Manual as well as a key 1972 diagram that helped make the transition from more literal map to diagrammatic tool (including removing above ground details). MoMA’s internal Graphic Design Department created the layout and timeline of the exhibition, MTA Arts & Design helped identify the key players and important events in the timeline, and other MTA employees provided additional information about the legacy of Vignelli’s work.

Timeline in Fifth Av-53rd Street subway exhibitPhoto by Patrick Cashin/MTA

The 5th Avenue-53rd Street was last rehabilitated in 1986 by Lee Harris Pomeroy Architects, featuring a bold and simple design. The former art installation, which dates to 2000, is protected below the new one, and once featured the cultural institutions around the station. Several of them have changed names since and one has closed, so The MoMA requested an update to an outdated installation in 2017. The new exhibition is just temporary, and when this subway station is up for a capital upgrade for new construction or renewal, a decision will be made what to do with the space permanently.

In The Museum of Modern Art’s collection, you can find an original copy of the Graphic Standards Manual, porcelain enamel steel Station Signage for the 5th Avenue-53 St Station, signage and map diagrams, along with newer items like the 2012 Weekender map, commemorative maps from the Second Avenue Subway opening, a Help Point Intercom, and MetroCard Vending Machine.

Next, check out 13 other art installations not to miss in NYC this month!

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