We keep our Museum Guide filled with the best current NYC exhibits for kids and families. But this being New York City, some of the coolest installations are actually free public art displays on the streets, in the parks and even down in the subway.
Going on a do-it-yourself tour of underground subway art is a fun (and almost free) activity, especially when it's cold or rainy. Of course with more than 250 pieces of art in our city's subway stations, not all are worth a special trip. That's why we've picked out nine favorites, all permanently on view, that will really intrigue kids, from funky murals to illuminated installations, whimsical sculptures to an interactive musical work.
Leo Villareal's Hive — 6 at Broadway-Lafayette Street
Kids will be mesmerized by the constantly changing colors and patterns in Villareal's LED light display, which is installed on the station's ceiling. Aesthetically similar to the artist's BUCKYBALL, which is currently on view in Madison Square Park, Hive has a geometric honeycomb shape and is great fun to watch. The rainbow of glowing greens, blues, purples and reds are bright relief in an otherwise dingy station.
Mel Chin's Signal – 6 at Broadway-Lafayette Street
You'll find these internally lit, studded, stainless steel cones on the mezzanine of the same station. The cones represent campfires, and they illuminate as trains approach and dim as they leave. Definitely one of the coolest subway alerts in the system.
Tom Otterness' Life Underground – A,C,E,L at 14th Street and Eighth Avenue
Otterness' quirky bronze figures are always a hit with children. At this station, you'll spy them peeking out from behind walls and railings, hanging off the ceiling or sweeping up coins. Don't miss the alligator popping out from under a sewer cover grabbing his human prey! You can see more of this Brooklyn-based sculptor's whimsical work at Silver Towers Playground on West 42nd Street, "Penny Park" in Battery Park City and in the water off Roosevelt Island. He even opens up his Gowanus studio to the public during the annual Open House New York.
Christopher Janney's Reach New York, An Urban Musical Instrument – N,Q,R at 34th Street-Herald Square
This is probably my family's favorite. Reach isn't much to look at—in fact you very well may have passed it many times without noticing it. The pale green rectangular box installed right over your head contains sensors so when you wave your hand in front of it, you set off lights, chimes, piano and pan-pipe notes interspersed with tropical bird calls. Your instant creation is even echoed on the opposite platform. Be prepared to be stared at as you gesticulate wildly! Here's a video of it in action. Little kids will need to be lifted up in order to make it work.
Roy Lichtenstein's Times Square Mural and Toby Buonagurio's Times Square Times: 35 Times – passageways at Times Square-42nd Street
The Times Square subway station is quite the colorful cornucopia of murals and light box installations. Lichtenstein's Pop Art mural of a futuristic subway car reflects the area's incredible energy, and kids love peeking at Buonagurio's brash, ceramic light boxes, each of which focuses on an iconic Times Square type: actor, musician, fashion designer, magician and New Year's Eve reveler.
Liliana Porter's Alice: The Way Out – 1 at 50th Street and Broadway
Beloved characters from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland adorn the walls in blue mosaic silhouettes. Just like Alice, commuters are "trapped underground" in the subway system. A little girl and her grandmother were chattering about Alice, the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit as I approached, proving the fascination with these figures is timeless.
For Want of a Nail – C at 81st Street-Museum of Natural History
Your trip to the American Museum of Natural History really starts in the subway station. You'll find an amazing underwater scene, elephants, birds and dinosaurs adorning the walls. There are even bronze fossils and caveman-like drawings on the platform itself. Extinct animals are usually gray while living animals are in color. The B train also stops in the station at select times on weekdays.
Bill Brand's Masstransiscope – Q leaving the northbound platform of the Dekalb Avenue station on the express track
A giant Zoetrope-like installation sits in the abandoned Myrtle Avenue station, which makes the tunnel come alive. As the train barrels by, the illusion of a 20-second, flip book-style "movie" is created, featuring bright, jumping shapes and figures, which culminate in a rocket ship blasting off into space. Don't plan to take the Q in Brooklyn anytime soon? You can watch Masstransiscope online.
I also want to give a shout out to the Art Cards and Poetry in Motion series that are displayed aboard the actual subway trains. My daughter is always commenting on the Sophie Blackall print of eclectic straphangers, including a man in a bear suit. I actually bought a Coney Island print I saw on the subway for her room.
Want to check out more subway art? Download the MTA's great new app, which gives you up-to-date info on all the art underground, or check out the complete list on the MTA website.