Should penguins be allowed on Metro, even if they are only painted penguins, waddling through the transit system in a series of colorful panels on a station wall? Would the birds add some fun to the sober surroundings, or would their antics insult Metro's passengers and award-winning architecture?
These are among the issues to be decided as Metro weighs a proposal to display the penguin panels and 13 other artworks in seven stations for one year.
The proposed exhibit is the creation of the MetroArt Consortium, a regional coalition of eight art councils, the transit agency and a local bank. The consortium has submitted the 14 works to Metro, and the bank has offered to pay the costs of the show.
An advisory committee of art experts, Metro board members and staff is evaluating the works and plans to make recommendations to the full board of directors by the end of the month.
The board may accept or reject the committee's recommendations. If the board approves, the sculpture, paintings, wall hangings and other visual works by local artists would start appearing in the stations by spring.
Ideally, the art would serve as an "enhancement of one's daily life," said Steven Weitzman, a Silver Spring sculptor credited as the "conceptual daddy" of the MetroArt project. Washington's subway system "is the most beautiful of any I have ever seen," he said, adding that "there is a way of accommodating that attitude" with art.
The board felt the same way from the start, voting in 1975 to welcome gifts or loans of art for display in the system, if they involved no cost to the transit agency.
Since then, no regional art exhibits have been attempted. Three proposals for more limited Metro exhibits have been made, with one success: In 1983, Alexandria sponsored a one-year show of several artworks in the King Street Station.
Metro officials say the current proposal has advanced this far because the organizers had a clear idea, a broad base of support and a corporate sponsor.
"I've never been more encouraged," said Eliot Pfanstiehl, chairman of the MetroArt Consortium, which has worked for more than a year to organize the exhibit. Pfanstiehl said the advisory committee members in their first meeting "were very supportive of the project . . . but the vote that counts is the Metro board."
Yet, the initial reaction from Metro board members reflects the historical tension between adding art for the pleasure of Metro's patrons and maintaining the powerful, grim grandeur of Metro's dimly lit caverns, formed by soaring concrete vaults and smoothly tiled platforms.
"I would like to see it," board Chairman Joseph Alexander said of the MetroArt proposal. "I think we need a little color in the stations . . . . Stations are people places, and I think we ought to make it pleasing to people."
"I'm not resistant to it," Metro board member Cleatus Barnett said of the art project. "But I have seen things passed off as art that are offensive to the public . . . . The idea of beauty existing in the eye of the beholder applies here."
Until Metro makes a decision, the consortium will not identify the 14 proposed works or their creators. But word of the penguin panels leaked out, and the early discussion illustrates the conflict between Metro's conservative streak and its willingness to lighten up.
Metro board member Carlton R. Sickles said he thought the penguins were delightful. But a source familiar with the advisory committee's deliberations said one participant objected to portraying the system's patrons as comical birds.
In proposing the art exhibit, the consortium selected seven stations across the region: Ballston, Vienna and King Street in Virginia; Silver Spring in Montgomery County and New Carrollton in Prince George's, and Metro Center and Gallery Place in the District. The group proposed several sites for art display at each station and asked Metro to decide which sites to use, based on considerations of passenger convenience and safety.
First American Bank, a member of the consortium, has offered $50,000 to cover the costs of installation, maintenance, insurance and a $1,000 stipend for each artist.
More than 100 local artists submitted entries. A Virginia architect, an associate curator at the National Museum of American Art and a University of Maryland art professor served on a panel to select the 14 pieces submitted to Metro.
Art in subway systems is not unusual. The Paris, Stockholm and Montreal rapid transit systems are among the many worldwide that display art.
Since 1981, U.S. transit systems building new lines have been allowed to use up to 1 percent of federal construction funds for art. The Atlanta and Baltimore systems have used this money to incorporate sculpture, mobiles, photography and other art forms into all of their stations.
Metro chose to put all its precious funds into construction, but designed the system to be a masterpiece itself -- a monument woven through a city of monuments. Since then, Metro officials and staff have fiercely protected the system from visual violation, whether by grime, graffiti, bright lights, advertisements or vendors. They even resisted signs with patron information.
Food is not allowed. Cars are yanked from service as soon as graffiti appears or a seat is slashed. Ads in the stations are limited to illuminated cases. Newspapers are sold only on the mezzanine outside the fare gates, and only in specially designed racks, which tend to be too expensive for lurid tabloids.
Battles were fought over whether to place horizontal signs with station names on the concrete walls. Designers resisted the signs; the board insisted on them.
The designers also argued against printing the name of the station on the pylons outside the entrance, preferring just the Metro symbol and a color stripe. They were overruled.
As a result, riders are dazzled by the cleanliness, sometimes dazed by the similarity of the stations and exits, and often frustrated by the subtlety of the signs.
Barnett, who had opposed advertising in Metro as an "obscenity," said the purity of the system's design "has largely been maintained." But Metro officials "can't take it for granted," he said. "We have to be ever vigilant."
Yet, he said, "I recognize that art is important to other people."