The frustration is palpable in Hugo Medina’s Sign of the Times mural at Modified Arts, painted in 2017 as a nod to artists’ dismay over rampant development in the Roosevelt Row arts district in downtown Phoenix. The mural, painted in charcoal grays and primary colors, shows an artist in despair, her furrowed brow planted in her cupped hands.
Now, Medina is the one feeling frustrated.
He’s one of 25 artists who’ve designed public art for Valley Metro light rail extensions that might never happen. If Phoenix residents vote “yes” on Proposition 105 on August 27, planned extensions will get the ax, except for the PHX Sky Train at Sky Harbor Airport.
“I’m frustrated that we’ve already invested all this time,” Medina says, “but now we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
It’s been two years since Medina was chosen to design public art for a station along the South Central Extension, slated to run along Central Avenue between Lincoln Street to Baseline Road. Fourteen artists have been tapped to create art along the route, including the Fortoul Brothers, Emily Costello, and Martin Moreno. Medina’s design includes children, and butterflies symbolizing migration.
“I’ve spent hundreds of hours on the project,” Medina says.
Now, all he can do is watch and wait.
“Nothing is fabricated yet,” according to Cheryle Marine, public art specialist with Valley Metro. “If Proposition 105 passes, artists will get paid for what they’ve done through the morning of August 28,” she says.
That’s little consolation for artists who’ve spent countless hours creating a design, making public presentations, talking with community members, and adjusting design elements based on feedback.
Artists for the South Central Extension are at the 90 percent design phase. So Medina has already secured estimates for materials, identified fabricators, and put together budgets for final approval.
Most of the artists are based in Arizona. And they’ve conceived some intriguing designs, inspired in part by the history and culture of neighborhoods located along the light rail.
Pete Goldlust, one of seven artists creating work for the Northwest Extension Phase II slated to run between Metrocenter and 25th and Dunlap avenues, culled his design from Phoenix Lights UFO lore.
Mary Lucking looked to youth playing sports.
“Public art can make spaces more meaningful, and help people connect emotionally with their communities,” Lucking says.
It’s just one more factor that could influence how people vote.
The debate has been framed largely by those who oppose the light rail extensions, including a group calling itself Building a Better Phoenix, which is supported by a nonprofit associated with oil barons Charles and David Koch. The group says more money spent on light rail will mean less money for street repairs, as if city governments can’t do two things at one time.
The stakes are high for artists, whose project budgets range from $25,000 to $350,000. Artists keep monies not spent on materials and fabrication. Budgets for public art currently commissioned along the planned extensions total about $4.5 million.
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Even so, Medina says it’s not just about the money. “When local artists get a chance to work on something this huge, it gives them the knowledge and experience they need to get more projects .”
Medina is thinking big-picture for the city, as well. He’s hoping to see light rail connect more communities as Phoenix continues to evolve. And nobody wants to see him paint 25 more artists looking despondent or displaced.
For now, artists are simply pushing forward.
“We keep working until we finish the job or someone tells us not to,” Lucking says. “I hope people know what’s at stake and will get out and vote.”