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An interview with Tamsin Dillon, director of London’s Art on the Underground program

An interview with Tamsin Dillon, director of London’s Art on the Underground program

Tamsin Dillon, head of the London Underground public art program.
Tamsin Dillon, head of the London Underground public art program.

Yesterday, we were honoured to have Tamsin Dillon give a presentation at TransLink!

Tamsin is the head of the London Underground’s art program, called Art on the Underground. She kindly agreed to come by our offices as she was also in town for a conference at the Vancouver Art Gallery. (Explore the Art on the Underground website here!)

During her presentation, she gave us background on the program and talked about its works. Art on the Underground is actually part of their customer experience strategy, and works to fulfill the Underground’s chief philosophy: “value our customer’s time.”

Under Tamsin’s direction, the art program has adopted the motto, “World class art for a world class Tube for a world class city,” and has presented works from high-profile artists like Cindy Sherman and Mark Titchner, as well as artists at early stages of their career.

Richard Long's artwork for the Tube map cover. Photo from <a href=>Art on the Underground</a>.
Richard Long's artwork for the Tube map cover. Photo from Art on the Underground.

The program has been creative in seeking out places for art of all kinds all over the system. For example, the Tube map cover is now illustrated by artists, and one project doesn’t use system space at all – it asks Piccadilly Line staff to use a booklet of selected quotations in their announcements and conversations.

And the works continue to involve front-line staff more and more — for instance there’s a portrait series of 60 Jubilee Line staff to celebrate its 30 year anniversary.

Just in case you’re wondering, we don’t currently have any concrete plans or a mandate for an ongoing public art program right now, except for smaller projects like the Main Street public art project (here’s work 1 and work 2), or the Between Spaces partnership.

But we were happy to hear Tamsin’s insight on how art has worked for her system, and her experience will absolutely help inform our work as we move forward!

Tamsin was also kind enough to do an interview with me about her work – so for more detail on Tamsin and Art on the Underground, please continue reading below.

How did you come to be curator for the London Underground public art program?

Well, I originally trained as a curator at the Royal College of Art, and my underlying principle is that I would like to find ways to work with artists not just inside the gallery but outside the gallery context.

So in 2003, the opportunity arose at the London Underground. I’ve been there since then, developing the program.

I did see enormous potential in working with artists in that site. As long as I had the opportunity to drive it forward, in a way that was going to be taken seriously, by not just the Underground itself but by the art world. I thought if that could happen, then they would see much better benefits than they had not necessarily realized.

So what was your first big project?

Cindy Sherman's exhibition at Gloucester Road. Photo from the <a href=>Art on the Underground website</a>.
Cindy Sherman's exhibition at Gloucester Road. Photo from the Art on the Underground website.

What I wanted to do was first of all set a high level of expectation in terms of the quality of work we produced, the level and calibre of the artist, and the potential for collaboration with other organizations.

The opportunity to work with Cindy Sherman with the Serpentine Gallery at Gloucester Road: that was my first major project. [An unused track and platform at Gloucester Road Station is one of the main art spaces for the Underground.] At the same time, I was also concerned that it’s an enormous network, and how we could have an impact in other parts of the network, which was quite a challenge as well.

A work from Mark Hosking featured on a poster from the Go to the Gallery project. Photo from <a href=>Art on the Underground</a>.
A work from Mark Hosking featured on a poster from the Go to the Gallery project. Photo from Art on the Underground.

At that point, you could put poster based works into an awful lot of other sites that the advertising company wasn’t using. So what I did was produce a project called Go to the Gallery. I contacted a whole range of galleries in London, public and commercial, and asked if they were interested in working with us and could they let us use some images of the artwork they were showing.

We would produce an artwork poster of that image, and then put the artist name, the gallery name, and the name of the nearest tube station to the gallery.

So we managed to produce a whole range of these works we could put out in the network, which had the effect of improving the environment, raising our profile, and working in partnership. It was immediately going out and developing a much stronger impact on the network, and it was thinking of those strategic ways of developing the program. So those were the main two things I delivered in the first year I was there.

What was public response like?

Really positive. With the Cindy Sherman one, obviously the gallery were really delighted to work with us. It gave them an opportunity to work alongside us. They do an awful lot of offsite projects. In some sense this fell into that category for them. We also got really strong media response to the project. That was partly because of the partnership with the gallery as well. We did a big feature on the exhibition and on the Gloucester Road site, on the TV news. Cindy was interviewed, and I was interviewed, and that got a really strong hit in that way.

The response from our customers already started to come in as well. We didn’t have a feedback opportunity on our website. But that’s really been an important development for us – it suddenly seemed an obvious thing to do. But people were sending in positive feedback and email spontaneously, telling us how much they liked the program.

We did have other strategies some of which we don’t have any more. We had something called an opinionmeter at Gloucester Road. It was an electronic device where people could plug in what they thought of the art. We don’t have that any more, but it always did have strong positive results.

And once or twice we did do a dedicated survey and hired a company to do that survey, face to face interviews with something like 2,000 customers at a time. And the result was always incredibly positive. All of those things have contributed to us being seen as a positive element of London Underground.

It’s really interesting that your program features a great many international artists.

Well, that’s where the focus lies in terms of the London Underground. London is internationally important in terms of particularly contemporary art practice. We’re also an internationally diverse city. And we want to reflect both of those aspects in the program. Certainly the workforce reflects that diversity of the city. And so the program ought to, and it ought to reflect the calibre of the quality of the artwork that you’re going to see in galleries in the city.

So how do you go about selecting artists or working with artists for the public art program?

There are five of us on the team, and three of us are trained as curators.

We have a curatorial practice each of our own. It comes from constantly having personal research and development, being aware of contemporary art practice, being aware of who is exhibiting in London, and internationally as well. Reading art press and magazines, constantly keeping ourselves up on who is making interesting work.

And between us we might make decisions on what projects need to be planned in the next few months, and what the brief might be. Whether or not we want an artist to think about a particular site on the station, or on the tube map cover. One that might engage staff or other communities in some way. And what sort of medium we want the artist to be working in.

Linear: Dryden Goodwin. Photo by Daisy Hutchison, from the <a href=>Art on the Underground website</a>.
Linear: Dryden Goodwin, the portrait project for the Jubilee Line. Photo by Daisy Hutchison, from the Art on the Underground website.

For the portrait project, for example, each of the three curatorial members of the team suggested a different artist. And once we were all happy that those were serious artists, we arranged studio visits, talked with them on what their approach might be, and invited them to make proposals. And we decided what would be the best proposal. Sometimes we go back to members of the wider team. But that’s the chief process we go through in order to make a selection.

For the more permanent works we need to sometimes engage particular stakeholder groups and involve them in selection some way. For example, we’re doing a permanent project in Green Park, which is part of the local authority of Westminster, and they are very protective of their built environment. They also have a public art advisory panel as part of their planning process. So we brought a member of that panel onto our team for that project. We also have the architect for that station design on the team, the Royal Parks, etc.

So what we tend to do as trusted professionals in our field is shortlist the range of artists. And we might decide for a particular project that we’re looking at early career artists, or for another project we might need a much more established artist and this project has another impact. Or are we looking for an artist who is mainly a sculptor, or a photographer.

[My colleague Liz chimed in here:] Some of these programs have quite prescripted selection process models. And I think that prevents major damage, but being professionals you have the confidence to adjust the process to the task.

Life is a Laugh by Brian Griffiths, a large project at Gloucester Road. Photo from <a href=>Art on the Underground.</a>
Life is a Laugh by Brian Griffiths. Photo from Art on the Underground.

We make recommendations, I can put it that way. We will shortlist the artists and take them to the group and say, these are the artists we recommend. These are the reasons why they fit this brief.

We meet the artists, draw up a brief, invite the artists in to talk us through them. If we’re just presenting, typically we might already as a team have thought for these reasons, the proposal we will recommend following a discussion. The team, there might be discussion or debate, and we’re not trying to preempt the decision. But we can make that kind of recommendation in advance.

That whole process in itself is an interesting one. And it’s important to have that as a possibility because it generates a strong sense of ownership among those stakeholders.

But at the same time, it has to be very well managed and controlled, because it can become sort of lowest common denominator. “Oh that’s a nice bright colourful butterfly, let’s have that, that’s not going to cause any problems or issues.”

You sort of learn how to make recommendations about choices that they might think are going to cause more problems, but in the long term, are going to be a better project.

Is it unusual to have a fine art person in charge of the public art program?

I imagine it is, and I think they’re really seeing the benefit of that. But there’s a benefit to the fact that we’re employees of London Underground. When we get out there and talk to the operational staff, and they know we’re not people who are parachuted in or out, you get that sense of advocacy there.

I think that arts background is important to have in the team. But I think it has to come from someone who is keen and enthusiastic about London Underground itself. And I must say the two curators who work with me really wanted to work in that environment, because they thought it would be challenging but really fascinating. We do get on very well as a team.

Has it been interesting, coming from the arts, and working with public transit?

It’s not an unchallenging environment. The bureaucracy can sometimes drive you crazy. I don’t know. At one point in terms of my career path, I could have been going into a gallery or into a context like this. And I find this such a challenging and interesting environment that I wouldn’t want to necessarily go back into a gallery context.

Your front-line staff is involved in the program. What has their response been like?

The staff are becoming more and more impressed, and wanting to be involved in the program.

So what advice do you have for public transit systems thinking about public art programs?

Do it! [Laughter] Hopefully the program we’re developing can be inspirational, and some of the strategies that we have in place for securing the program and bringing budgets to the fore will be helpful, I hope. But by all means look at our programs and other programs as models of practice. And other commissioning agencies, which I mentioned to others before. Artangel is a commissioning practice that I would like to consider ourselves quite closely aligned with as well.


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