As the gateway to a city, airports are the first and last place that air travelers experience; they are a doorway for passengers and visitors alike. An airport has a broad range of functions, but its visual impact can run the gamut from a blank canvas to a celebration of sights and sounds.
When I landed at Sacramento Airport, I was delighted to see the airport’s massive art installation, the 56-foot-tall red rabbit titled “Leap” that artist Lawrence Argent paired with an enormous suitcase. Stepping off a flight at San Antonio, I was enveloped by bold images and displays from the NCAA Final Four, the collegiate basketball championships. And, sports and the arts share center stage at Indianapolis Airport during the famed “500” car race when artists are asked to celebrate the event, all part of this airport’s highly regarded arts initiatives.
Whether it’s Christopher Janney’s interactive glass installation integrated into the Mover Station at Miami International, or the Bonnaroo-themed artistic skylight exhibition at Nashville International, or the brilliant use of mosaics, in floor medallions and massive columns, at DCA and Sea-Tac respectively, airports nationwide have chosen to celebrate the arts in myriad ways—some controversial, like the giant Blue Mustang in front of Denver International, and many memorable, including the innovative rotating exhibits at Philadelphia International or the showcasing of “collections” at San Francisco, home of the first airport art gallery in the nation.
When an airport chooses to introduce travelers to the arts and cultural assets of a region and beyond, wonderful things can happen. From ceilings to walls to floors—inside and out—art programs are as varied as the airports themselves: Chicago O’Hare’s amazing neon light installation, by Michael Hayden, connecting Terminals B and C; ceiling enhancements such as LAX’s “Elevate” by Joyce Dallal; the cascade of color and patterns, designed by Jen Stark, at Miami International’s North Terminal; the transformative architectural enhancements included in César Pelli’s renovation of Terminal B/C at Reagan National; Clayton Merrell’s terrazzo floor at PIT that celebrates the City of Pittsburgh; and even youth art galleries at Hartsfield Atlanta and Nantucket Memorial Airports. Each artistic effort says to travelers that not only do the arts matter, but also that the aesthetics of an airport are important.
As the canvas on which impressions of a destination can be formed, airports have an opportunity to tell their story through permanent and temporary installations as well as through performing arts.
However, sometimes when I travel, I am acutely aware of blank walls and missed opportunities, as I recently saw at both Detroit Metro and BWI. This surprised me as both cities have shown an incredible love for the arts—from stunning murals to iconic architecture to impressive art collections to renowned universities—yet little of this is revealed at these airports. To me, “blank walls” mean a blank community; they also mean a chance not taken.
So, what can an airport do to create a sense of place? How do you connect an airport to the arts, culture and institutions?
First, make a commitment to include the arts in any new or renovated spaces in the airport. Start your arts planning when you start your architectural planning.
Second, engage the services of public arts professionals as they know “how to do it right,” making it a cost-effective effort.
Third, develop a master plan working with the community and other stakeholders. Use local resources such as schools and art associations. Know what your goals are and how you will measure success.
Fourth, develop guidelines that respect the artistic community and your particular community—know if you will promote the arts of just your region, or the world.
Airports have choices: They can invite local, regional, national, or even international artists to be part of a varied and arts-related initiative that can create a sense of place. Airports can even consider an artist-in-residence program as they do at San Diego and Tampa, along with many foreign airports.
Making an airport a memorable gateway—by using art such as the bold medallions and designs in the terrazzo floors at DFW’s International Terminal or the multi-terminal, inventive exhibitions and art gallery at Phoenix Sky Harbor—should be the goal of management.
From my experience, as someone who has written airport arts master plans and created airport galleries, I recommend starting small, thinking big, and knowing on which road you want to travel. Remember that airports are generally considered pathways to and from a journey. Yet the transitional, transactional nature of the airport doesn’t preclude travelers from enjoying artwork along the way, as an airport is, quite simply, a place to create who you are as a community.
As Malcom Miles, a British professor, has said, “Public art is not an art form, it’s simply a way of improving and changing a dynamic environment through the arts.”
Join Americans for the Arts for an online Public Art Showcase featuring airport art Wednesday, June 27, from 1-2 pm ET on Facebook. RSVP and join the event here.