Airport Art Programs Find Creative Ways to Survive Tough Economy

Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 

It takes an entirely new vein of creativity to manage an airport art program these days. Aesthetics are still paramount; but the financial aspects are tougher than ever given the bleak landscape of the air travel industry. It's almost like being trapped in an Edvard Munch painting.

Cancellation of the American Association of Airport Executives' annual Arts in the Airport Workshop, scheduled earlier this spring, is a sign of the times. "Budgets are extremely tight," explains one director who had planned to attend. "It just isn't a good time to travel."

Despite the current economic squeeze, airport art managers are finding original ways to keep their programs financially viable and pertinent to the traveling public - an aspect that has become even more important as passengers are required to arrive at airports earlier to allow time for increased security measures.

Siesta, handcrafts from the Wayuu tribe in Colombia - Miami International Airport

Infusion in Atlanta

The Airport Art Program at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International is getting an estimated $5.5 million associated with the new international terminal that's currently under construction. Per the citywide Percent for the Arts program, the airport's Planning and Development Department systematically receives 1% of the total cost of new capital projects to "engage artists".

The program also submits annual budget requests to maintain and expand the airport's collection - usually ranging from $1 million to $2 million per year, reports David Vogt, one of the program's two managers.

"We have wonderful, constant support from the airport's management managers," notes Vogt. "They appreciate how art enhances the passenger experience. We get letters all the time from passengers who are surprised to find museum quality art at an airport. It's an unexpected pleasure that makes their travel experience more memorable."

It also offers pleasant distractions for travelers stranded by weather delays or extended layovers. "They check out one of our exhibits, and their mood changes for the better," says Vogt. "Suddenly they don't mind having an hour or two at their disposal."

Brute Neighbors by Joe Peragine - Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International

The program has, however, weathered tough times - even though Hartsfield-Jackson was on the leading edge of the art-in-airports movement back in the late 1970s. "We were actually the first airport to receive Department of Transportation funds for art," notes Vogt. But without staff in place to manage its initial installments, the program fell dormant. It was revitalized when the entire city of Atlanta prepared to host the 1996 Olympics.

These days, Vogt and his counterpart Katherine Marbury use three main devices to keep it thriving: rotating exhibits, permanent pieces of commissioned art and performing musicians. "It's a very vital program," says Vogt. "There's constant activity - a new installation going up, another exhibit coming down - and we're always planning years ahead."

The airport partners with local and national artists, museums and private collectors to stock its rotating exhibits. The Atrium Gallery, which often features contemporary two-dimensional work, changes every six weeks. Two long display cases near the new south security checkpoint change once a year. Material in the youth art galleries in Concourses D and E and near the T gates rotates every three months.

"The youth work is so uplifting and positive," says Vogt. "It's also very exciting when they sell a piece." Throughout the years, hundreds of students have sold pieces displayed at the airport, with prices ranging up to $100.

Hartsfield-Jackson's permanent collection of commissioned art includes about 300 elements. Select pieces from particularly resonant rotating exhibits are often added to the permanent collection. "We're enriching the airport with a tremendous collection that documents the work of artists throughout Georgia," notes Vogt.

The collection also spans state and national borders. Twenty large Zimbabwe stone sculptures located in the Transportation Mall are some of the airport's most popular works. "They're very tactile pieces," explains Vogt. "And they address universal subjects like the sense of family and our connection to the environment."

Brute Neighbors, a collection of oversize ant sculptures climbing on and through the walls and ceiling of the North and South Baggage Claim areas, is one of Vogt's personal favorites. "An anthill is a wonderful metaphor for a busy airport like ours," he notes. "There's a lot of activity - streaming lines of quickly moving people, parents carrying babies on their backs, passengers toting baggage that's bigger than they are."

One of the airport's largest projects is currently being fabricated for installation in the first quarter of 2010. A Walk Through Atlanta will feature evocative original productions running on video screens along a 500-foot pedestrian corridor. The videos address significant subjects in Atlanta history, including the area's original Native American tribes, the Civil Rights movement and one of airport's namesakes, William Berry Hartsfield. Three-dimensional graphics and artifacts from the various time periods will support the videos.

"It should really enhance people's understanding of Atlanta and hopefully pique their curiosity to learn more," says Vogt, who hopes to eventually have major installations in each of the airport's five main corridors.

Vogt and Marbury also focus on displaying a broad range of artistic approaches in an effort to connect with as many airport visitors as possible. "If you don't like what you see at a departure gate, walk 40 feet and you'll find something different to consider," relates Vogt.

Flight Paths, Hartsfield-Jackson's largest project in physical scope and cost, is temporary on hold due to "economic issues." The experiential exhibit will deliver the sights and sounds of a Georgia forest canopy, complete with simulated fireflies, birds and even a summer rain shower.

"It's shovel-ready, and we hope to have it back on track next year," Vogt says optimistically.

After Labor Day, installation of three large floor mosaics will begin in concourses A, B and C. One will depict a circa 1850 map of Atlanta in a labyrinth presentation; another is a realistic portrayal of Stone Mountain. The third is a circular abstract piece 18 to 20 feet in diameter, with visual references to an aircraft propeller.

Art or Infrastructure?

At Fresno Yosemite International Airport, it's hard to tell where the terminal's architecture ends and its artwork begins. That's because artists recently transformed four bland boxes that mask support columns into life-size replicas of the giant sequoias, the area's trademark tree. The previous visual eyesores that cluttered the ticketing and security checkpoint area are now compelling and interactive attractions for airport visitors.

"It's a Kodak moment event minute of the day," reports Vikkie Calderon, the airport's public information officer.  "Everyone wants their picture taken in front of the sequoias."

The cedar split rail fencing that surrounds the trees has become de facto seating. "It's a great place to enjoy a snack and take it all in," notes Calderon.

Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park inspired aviation director Russ Widmar to champion the project. "The sequoias are so big and magnificent, they look like they could hold up a roof," explains Widmar. "I've always wanted to do something that really reflected the beauty of this area, and the ticketing area really needed an upgrade. It was very dark and dingy. The trees and other improvements have really opened the area up."

Widmar rolled the $1.025 million project into a three-year plan with other terminal improvements totaling about $17 million. Work on the sequoias was temporarily postponed when a parking lot project presented a more urgent priority. "We were growing so fast that we couldn't wait for the parking lot," recalls Widmar. "We ended up re-bidding the terminal area projects, and the timing worked out perfectly for the trees to coincide with the other work."

Architecture firm CSHQA teamed with NatureMaker, a company that specializes in handcrafted, artificial interior landscaping, to create the "forest." The National Park Service was consulted to ultimately authenticate the final results.

"The artists did a wonderful job making the trees realistic," notes Widmar. "We told them we wanted Disney quality and they really delivered it."

Securing necessary funds for the project from the city council was reportedly not a tough sell. The airport's proposal, in fact, received unanimous, even enthusiastic, support. "We've built up credibility with them throughout the last five years," explains Widmar. "We always come with a realistic spending plan, and they've seen us deliver previous projects on budget and on time."

Improvements to the rental car area made in 2008 actually came in $1 million under budget, and the more recent addition of a solar farm cost the airport nothing to build, but saved it $200,000 in utility costs its first year in operation. (See Airport Improvement, January/February 2009 for more details about the solar farm.)

"We take a businesslike approach to our projects," says Widmar, "and the council sees the results."

The airport unveiled its new sequoia forest in May before it was fully complete so the public could see the artistic process in progress. One area showed an exposed column covered with fireproofing material; another illustrated tree sculpting in progress; yet another showcased the final result.

Other pieces of artwork at the airport include three large photomurals of local landscapes and six original photographs of local national parks that were taken and signed by Ansel Adams.

Rejoicing and Festival of the Americas and The Discovery and Settlement of the West by Carybe were recently relocated from JFK International to Miami International.

Miami Nice

The new darlings of Miami International's art collection spent six months with a restoration expert and took a long truck ride before they were unveiled at the airport's South Terminal in late June. The two large murals - Rejoicing and Festival of the Americas and The Discovery and Settlement of the West by the Brazilian artist Carybé - depict scenes of celebrations and pioneer life in the Americas. Before their recent arrival in Miami, they adorned the American Airlines terminal at JFK International for nearly 50 years.

The murals, which won first and second prizes in a 1959 competition sponsored by American Airlines to bring public art to JFK, are considered some of the most important works of art associated with U.S. aviation. The historic works were nearly destroyed, though, when JFK's old American Airlines terminal was demolished in 2007. The airline initially tried to auction off the famous murals to help fund new artwork for the new terminal. When such efforts proved unsuccessful, the murals were destined for demolition with the rest of the terminal until a chance meeting between a skycap captain and a first-class Brazilian traveler turned the tide.

Siesta, handcrafts from the Wayuu tribe in Colombia - Miami International Airport

When the skycap bemoaned the impending fate of the murals, as he had many times before, the passenger immediately recognized the artist's name. Carybé was not only a fellow Brazilian but also a former acquaintance. After she returned home, she contacted other acquaintances at Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction company that in 2002 after South Terminal built Miami International's South Terminal and is currently building its North Terminal and new people mover through a joint venture.

Long story short, American donated the panoramic murals to Miami-Dade County and Odebrecht paid millions to have the artwork removed from JFK, restored and shipped to Miami International.

"Saving the murals not only rescued a Brazilian art treasure, but also one of the most iconic pieces of aviation-related art in the U.S.," says Gilberto Neves, CEO of Odebrecht's U.S. operations. "As a Brazilian company founded in Bahia, where Carybé lived and worked, Odebrecht is proud to have contributed to saving these murals so that millions of passengers, who had admired them for 50 years at JFK, will continue to enjoy them at MIA."

The two-year effort to remove, restore and re-install the iconic works was more complicated (and expensive) than expected because the murals were painted directly onto the walls rather than on canvas or panels. Their size - each 16 1/2 feet tall, 53 feet long - added another twist.

The admittedly perplexed company hired to remove and restore the historic works cut the murals into 12 panels, each eight feet long, taking the wall and even metal building frame with the murals. Together, the pieces weighed two tons. The art conservator heading the process considers the rescue project a "feat of structural engineering."

It took art restoration experts a half-year to mitigate nearly 50 years' of aging, which included sunlight, dust and even bird excrement. Coins, mosaics and other three-dimensional items that had fallen off the murals were reattached, fresh coatings were applied and metal structures were created to support the heavy panels and facilitate display in Miami.

After a long truck ride from the Bronx restoration warehouse, the newly restored pieces were received in Miami with open, and grateful, arms. "We feel extremely honored and privileged to receive these art treasures from American Airlines and Odebrecht," said Miami-Dade aviation director José Abreu. "As the Gateway of the Americas, MIA is the perfect place for Carybé's murals, and we look forward to being their home for generations to come."

The murals joined an abundant art collection at MIA that is supported by Miami-Dade Art in Public Places, a program that provides 1.5% of county construction funds for site-specific permanent artwork.

The airport inaugurated its MIA South Gallery earlier this spring with an exhibit called Siesta, featuring 40 vibrant ceremonial hammocks (chinchorros) handmade by women from the Wayuu tribe in northern Colombia. The exhibit, sponsored by Chevron Petroleum Company (Colombia) and SURevolution, is part of the airport's new program titled, Hand-Made, that promotes awareness and interest in a wide variety of cultures by fostering appreciation of their handcrafts.

The MIA Children's Connector Gallery, located between Concourses D and E, features the artwork of children from Miami-Dade County Public Schools, kindergarten through grade 12. In October it will premier an exhibit that allows students to explore contemporary artists who have created transparent and layered images with materials such as glass, plastic and Mylar.

The airport also regularly uses its exhibits and displays to showcase the diversity of South Florida artists and to support local non-profit organizations. Shake-A-Leg Miami, which helps children and adults with physical, developmental and economic challenges, is being promoted through next spring in Concourse J.

Creativity Endures

The fortuitous "recycling" of the Carybé murals is just one example of how art is prevailing in airports despite current economic challenges. Fresno's ability to fashion architectural liabilities into popular, interactive sculptures and Atlanta's capacity to keep projects on track while placing a major exhibit on hold illustrate the enduring spirit of those who champion the cause of airport art.

Watch for additional features on projects at other airports determined to keep their collections flourishing.


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