Hanging on Air

Airports as a venue for public art

by by Pierie Korostoff

illustration by by Diane Zhou

This September, the Southwest Florida International Airport announced an addition to the terminal: the airport is acquiring “Dawn Forest,” a three-ton sculpture by abstract expressionist Louise Nevelson. On a two-year loan from the Naples Museum of Art, the multi-million dollar sculpture consists of 12 white geometric forms that will hang from the ceiling and stand free in the center of the space. There are few places capable of housing it properly—the airport is one of them.

According to the American Association of Museums, the median attendance for art museums in the United States is about 44,000 visitors a year. JFK International in New York, on the other hand, has at least 40 million travelers passing through its doors annually. Despite this sheer volume, airport patrons are clearly different from the crowds found in art museums—it’s safe to say that few of them are there for the art.

With this large but preoccupied audience, airports face an issue typical of public art but heightened in their circumstances—how to draw people into an experience that is different from the one they expect in a particular place and time. Though airport visitors are often subject to long waits, they must still be persuaded to notice the art around them in a scene that is far from the traditional art museum environment. “We’ve had to think hard about how to maximize opportunities for people to experience the art and to access the rest of the collection on the basis of one encounter,” wrote Todd Bressi, an urban planner and public art consultant who has worked for airports across the country, in an email interview. “There is a disconnect between where people spend their time (in line, at the gate) and where you tend to see art at airports.”

To combat this problem, the Denver International Airport took an integrative approach—placing pieces at key points along a passenger’s path through the airport and working to keep the art cohesive with the airport design. Leni Schwendinger, for example, created a mile-long light installation that passengers view only in passing on the train connecting terminals. The success of this endeavor was mixed: “In our research we learned that people remembered seeing a lot of the art in the airport, but they did not necessarily realize it was art—they just felt it was part of the airport’s overall design aesthetic,” says Bressi.


In an opposing trend, public art in cities has been gravitating away from permanent pieces that blend into the space, and toward pieces grounded in brief transformation, interaction, and spectacle. Christo and Jean-Claude’s project “The Gates,” commissioned in 2005 for Central Park, is a high-profile example of this kind of artwork—their installation of saffron-colored archways temporarily altered the landscape of the park and demanded extensive viewer participation. Cities have been increasingly attracted to the sense of accessibility in this kind of temporal public art, encouraged by the news-breaking aspect of temporary and interactive pieces. Artists, likewise, are drawn to the experimental and dynamic qualities that temporary art allows. “The Drift,” a floating platform that provides a way for creative projects to interact with the Pittsburgh waterfront, is an example of a piece that allows artists to continually respond to city conditions.

Temporary pieces can be less expensive, logistically simpler in cities, and more exciting, but fitting this type of art into the constraints of the airport is challenging. Airport use has been shifting to more time ‘airside’ than ‘landside’, meaning more time is spent behind security lines, especially since 9/11. The result is more art airside, necessitating security clearings for all artwork and anyone involved in the creation of a piece. Anything centered on performance, collaboration, or group engagement is thus logistically complicated.

There is also a lack of flexibility in art funding for airports, and “a general level of top-down control,” which puts a damper on temporal artwork, suggests Bressi. Add to that the difficulty of fitting interactive work into a busy and distracting environment—most people dragging carry-on luggage to their gates are not inclined to engage with art the way spectacle-based pieces often demand. The more common trend in airport art is toward exhibitions that change several times a year, providing variation without the logistical challenges of temporal and performance-oriented work. However, even just switching out the pieces in an exhibit requires careful planning to complete without disrupting the airport operations, so permanent exhibits (like the imposing Richard Serra sculpture that the Toronto Pearson International Airport commissioned in 2006) and long-term loans from museums also remain popular.


Though creating and maintaining art in airports is complicated, certain airports worldwide have demonstrated a commitment to the visual experiences of their customers. San Francisco International Airport’s (SFO) program is one of the largest, allotting more than $3 million for artwork each year and maintaining 27 full-time employees and 20 gallery spaces, each with 6-month temporary exhibitions. The work on display ranges from the classical to the contemporary: current shows include ancient Hindu sculpture, mid-century Scandinavian ceramics, “From Art Nouveau to Pop Day-Glo: Levi Strauss Advertising as Art,” contemporary metalwork, and a show on the origins, evolution and global reach of the mountain bike. The shows that are located before security check points make a free museum that is open 24 hours a day.

The art program at SFO started in the late 1970s, when the city’s Arts Commission launched the airport’s art program in conjunction with the construction of a new terminal. Over the next 20 years, nearly 70 works were commissioned, created, or acquired; all in accordance with San Francisco’s art ordinance, a program that allocates two percent of the construction or renovation cost of civic structures to arts enrichment. More instrumental than the efforts of the Arts Commission alone, however, was the establishment of the SFO Museum in 1980—the first and only airport collection to receive accreditation from the American Association of Museums. Though the accreditation process takes at least two years of review, the airport has found it to be worthwhile: local museums and institutions are more generous with loans to an accredited museum. The museum maintains a ‘Design Lab’ on airport property where staff store, protect, and prepare pieces for exhibition. Other workers build and customize structures for each of the nearly 40 shows of varying size that are exhibited each year. This is an enormous number of shows, even compared to most museums—the Philadelphia Museum of Art presents about 25 exhibits per year.

Though high-profile pieces like Louise Nevelson’s “Dawn Forest” and the accreditation of the SFO Museum have received plenty of attention, arts administration at airports is still frequently overlooked. When Todd Bressi worked with airports in the past, the biggest challenge he saw was that no one was in charge of the common spaces: “There are people in charge of concessions (shops and restaurants), people in charge of maintenance, and people in charge of branding (slogans, logos, colors and fonts). But nobody overall in charge of the experience of the place,” he says. Airlines, who hold a substantial amount of power in dictating how airport money can be spent, have few concerns about the feel of the environment on the ground. Meanwhile, a particular clause of the FAA’s policy complicates things further: under the Diversion of Revenue rule, money derived from airline operations can be used only for the operation of the airport. It is easy for art to be disqualified as part of airport operations and lose airline funding entirely.

Last August, the Indianapolis International Airport announced the removal of “Chrysalis,” a piece by local artist James Wille Faust. The airport paid around $150,000 for the piece in 2008, part of a new terminal construction that involved a $4 million collection of public art. In 2011, facing low revenue in the economic downturn, “Chrysalis” was replaced with an LED video wall that displays digital media as well as advertisements. The reality of advertising mixing with original artwork on the LED video wall, however, remains controversial in the Indianapolis art community. Lingering below the embrace of arts and culture by airports is the fundamentally commercial nature of the airport space. Airports, for the most part, are not museums—they are free from the responsibility that museums face as explicit cultural centers. When pieces like James Wille Faust’s Chrysallis in Indianapolis are rejected in favor of advertising, this contrast becomes strikingly clear.


In many places around the country, though, airports are still working on their art enrichment. There is a movement toward attempting to illuminate local creative energy. Differentiating one airport and community from the next is always a goal, so this trend appeals to arts administrators in airport corporations, who often work closely with local municipalities and arts agencies. Future airport exhibitions may involve more partnerships with local arts institutions, including museums, galleries, cultural organizations, historical societies, science organizations, and design firms. We may see airport exhibitions overlapping more and more with city-oriented shows and projects, like the Toronto Pearson International Airport, which is a venue for an annual citywide photo exhibition. Though the logistical constraints that accompany art in airports show no sign of diminishing, the enormous and varied audiences continue to provide an enticing venue for arts administrators and artists alike.

PIERIE KOROSTOFF B’16 sits in the concourse, sees the food court, stays put.