WHEN THE ARTS IN STATIONS Initiative was launched by the MTR three years ago, it took many by surprise. Arts, after all, aren't normally something you associate with the metro. We want quick, regular trains - but what's that got to do with having an arts programme? That the MTR is developing one is a welcome step towards putting Hong Kong on par with underground systems such as those in London, Paris and Lisbon, with their colourful, often in-your-face artworks. It's also an indication of changing demand from the average Hong Kong commuter, a hint that the SAR's population is looking for better quality of life throughout their day. But what is the MTR policy - and more to the point, where is it? For a corporation as vast as the MTR - and as important to our lives - to have made so little impact so far with its arts programme is peculiar. There have been several initiatives: the Roving Art Series, the two weeks of performances in the Living Art In Stations series, the Community Art Gallery of Lam Tin station, the three massive artworks of the Airport Express Artwork programme, paintings in old lifts at 15 stations. The MTR Open Gallery is the latest, unveiled yesterday in 13 stations on the Island line. Perhaps it's just me, but I worriedly asked a PR while being escorted around to see some of the existing artwork and to get a sneak preview of the Open Gallery paintings that are about to be unveiled. The thing is, I just hadn't noticed anything other than advertisements on station walls. Unmissable, always, are the wonderfully clean, highly efficient stations and, more importantly, trains that make metro systems elsewhere look like the work of children. But art? The sheer scale of the metro operation has a lot to do with it. While $140,000 has just been spent on buying the 14 mostly bold, bright paintings to launch the Open Gallery, the result is (virtually) one painting per station, the effect of which you might like to muse on as you wend your way through the MTR's labyrinth. There is also no specific budget for the arts programmes. Money is being found from within operations costs. The volume of passengers may provide another explanation: there is much to take into account before sticking a picture on a wall or letting a dance group loose to hoof it in Central station. 'Our stations are very busy. We can't form obstructions, or put paintings where they'll be a hazard,' points out director of operations Martin Brown. Not all materials are suitable. Acrylics and oils would suffer in the humidity (hence the Open Gallery works are actually high quality reproductions). Everything has to be low maintenance. Framing and stretching has taken some working out. And nobody wants a passenger flattened by a falling painting that might otherwise have brightened their lives. So slowly-does-it seems to have been the way forward. This has been exacerbated by all the MTR departments wanting a voice in choosing the Open Gallery paintings, all by local artists. 'We have to be very careful there is nothing that will give offence or is scary,' Brown says. So no nudes, then. And perhaps this committee approach accounts for the decidedly suburban notion that choice was in part dictated by the colour of the stations. Under the broadest of briefs, 160 works were submitted for the Open Gallery and it took several months to whittle them down. Certainly, there are restrictions. Although huge paintings are appropriate in a vast space like the airport, in most underground stations there simply isn't the room to display big works. Using reproductions means smaller works can be blown up to fit the space. The Open Gallery, though, is something to be devotedly wished for, and not just by passengers. For artists, there is huge prestige in being displayed in places so public. The gallery includes works from artists as diverse as Wong Kee-chee and Lam Tian-xing to Diana Wong and Leong Kam-seng. Two of Lam Tin station's access routes were covered in 70 paintings from four local schools in February, and parents are still being dragged along to admire and for photo sessions. Such has been the success that other schools are queueing up to do something similar. The pictures will regularly change. The MTR, learning as it goes, is now looking at more permanent artwork, and perhaps that means to greater effect. As stations like North Point are renovated, the MTR has been looking at incorporating art into the floors and structure. There are lessons to be learned from as far afield as London and Paris, Lisbon and Moscow. To date, the emphasis has been on works that appeal to many. Live performances are now involving students. Some of the scenes on station walls are of Hong Kong landscapes after the corporation realised many people had little experience of life outside conurbations. Something other than the local paper to brighten up the daily commute is what today's public wants. 'For 20 years, the MTR has worked at being a good mass transit carrier, but has missed out on the fun and enjoyment of a trip,' says Brown. Feedback indicates passengers are now looking for more. The young wants more technology, others just want more variety in their journey. The programmes are set to evolve. The Roving Art display, for instance, which provides an opportunity in specially designed cylinders to show sculpture as well as paintings, started with art from disabled groups; next in line is work from avant-garde gallery Parasite. Third parties have also been getting involved in the MTR series, keen to sponsor works. And Brown is hoping more artists will come forward with ideas, inspired by what they see. 'We want people to come to the MTR and appreciate art,' he says.