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Reimagining Airport Art

Leap by Lawrence Argent (Photo: Ed Asmus Photography)

We’re all familiar with the public art installations and exhibits that line concourses in airports around the world. San Francisco International (SFO) actually has an American Alliance of Museums accredited art museum with exhibitions and collections throughout its terminals. Airports have iconic works that create recognized landmarks functioning as wayfinders while providing unexpected moments of discovery for the weary traveler. Think of Sacramento International’s (SMF) Leap by Lawrence Argent (left). Known to frequent SMF travelers as the Red Rabbit, it not only provides a visual cue that directs passengers to the escalators but can delight, create a memorable moment, and provide a landmark for meeter-greeters.

At one time, public art programs in airports were a new and innovative way to support the airport’s goals for ambiance and superior customer service. It’s no secret that airports can be stressful places – security checkpoints, long layovers, tired kids, unfamiliar terminals – and public art programs are one way airports help travelers relax and shift their focus to something that brings them pleasure. San Antonio International Airport’s Art, Music and Culture Specialist, Matt Evans was recently quoted as saying “Flying is famously not an experience we look forward to, but we’re working to reframe that narrative with art.

At my home airport, San Diego International (SAN), where I’ve been on a team developing a new master plan for the SAN Arts Program, there are already live performances of music and dance as well as a Performing Arts Residency Program that provides opportunities for artists to create a new site-specific work over a six-month period. Airport customers can watch the artists in rehearsal and see them perform both pre- and post-security. Most recently Astraeus Aerial Dance Theatre (below) took full advantage of the double high ceilings so often found in airports.

Astraeus Aerial Dance Theatre (Photo: Alan Hess, San Diego International Airport )

While researching airport art for the SAN Arts Master Plan, I’ve become very aware that airports are closed environments with limited space for art installations. Furthermore, airport art programs must work to connect with customers in different ways as audiences’ arts engagement desires change. As a result, airport art programs are reimagining what’s possible. Want interactivity? Singapore’s Changi Airport has an Art Rubbing Station for children. Take your experience home with Asheville Regional’s Music on the Fly pop up concerts – some of which are also accessible via podcast. My SFO favorite is the Peephole Cinema where silent film shorts are screened through dime-sized peepholes.

All of this is not without challenges. The airport’s target audience is airport customers who want to get to their gate to wait for departure or go directly to baggage claim and the exit upon arrival. Plus, there is TSA to consider. But what if there were performances pre-security that residents could attend even if they aren’t traveling? How does an airport with an art collection that has many pieces exhibited post-security make that collection accessible to more than the traveling public? And finally, why would an airport want to do this when their primary mission is to provide a safe and efficient environment for air travelers?  The quick answer – today people expect more than superior customer service, they expect a superior customer experience and airports operate in a competitive environment. Imagine choosing your connecting airport based on the arts experience you can have while you wait? Thankfully, I believe that day is not so far away.

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