When Willem-Alexander, Prince of Orange, gave his blessing to a revolutionary project in Amsterdam, it put the royal seal of approval on a flourishing trend in airport culture.
Following a groundbreaking initiative between a major hub airport and a world-famous museum, all passengers passing through Schiphol could feast their eyes on original paintings by Dutch masters.
The Prince opened the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam Schiphol in December 2002, making Rijksmuseum the first in the world to have an annexe in an airport.
More recently, in December 2009, a new exhibition of masterpieces opened at Moscow Domodedovo featuring world-famous paintings by Russia's ‘Silver Age’ painters – all presented in 3D. Paintings, photographs and graffiti have been displayed at the Domodedovo Art Gallery for the last three years, in 25 different exhibitions.
Major artworks have even been known to move between airports. Two massive murals depicting American pioneer life, which spent almost 50 years in the American Airlines terminal at New York JFK, have now found a home at Miami's South Terminal following a major restoration.
Almost imperceptibly, the airport industry's flirtation with art, which in the case of New York goes back half a century, has blossomed into a full-blown love affair.
Airports were never intended to become art galleries, so why this explosion of popular culture? What has brought on this airport ‘art attack’?
The fact that passengers are spending more time at airports – enhanced security has seen to that – may provide a clue. Airport authorities face the constant challenge of providing a pleasant environment for passengers confronted by flight delays, mislaid luggage or unruly children, and anything that can help alleviate the strain is worth its weight in gold.
“We get letters all the time from passengers who are surprised to find museum-quality art at an airport,” says David Vogt, who manages Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta’s art programme.
The variety is huge, ranging from classic paintings dating back centuries to the work of modern day sculptors. Then there's the weird and wacky, as anyone who has seen ‘Corncorde’ at Atlanta (a supersonic corn-on-the-cob) or the vivid magic carpets suspended from the ceiling at Tucson, can testify.
At Spokane, Ken Yuhasz specialises in light-hearted sculptures created from household appliances (his latest offering, ‘Aer O Toaster’, is a 14ft flying machine), while the baggage claim area at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta presents ‘Brute Force’, representing a giant ant colony which, in its busy and highly organised structure, mirrors daily airport life.
With the possible exceptions of the Arctic and Antarctica, there isn't a continent in the world where the cultured traveller can't find an ‘artport’. It's a global phenomenon, which brings priceless Chinese jade to San Francisco International Airport’s international terminal.
In an exhibition running until June entitled ‘The Resplendent Stone’, animal figures, incense burners and paperweights dating back 300 years are among 80 jade pieces loaned to the airport by the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
When Lennee Eller took over as programme manager and curator of Phoenix Airport Museum 21 years ago, the airport's art collection numbered just 20 pieces, gathered by a group of businessmen who wanted to highlight Arizona's culture. Today that collection numbers around 650.
Eller is responsible for the main art collection, an historical archive, and free exhibitions which started, she remembers, with a display of posters promoting dental sealant for children!
The Phoenix archive includes a history of black aviators featuring old photographs of pioneers like Bessie Coleman, who, in 1921, became the first black woman to be granted a pilot's licence. She trained in France, because US flying schools would not accept black students until the 1930s.
Says Eller: “We now have 24 exhibition spaces where we can showcase Arizona's cultural resources. It's about building a legacy for the community we serve, and the airport community we work within.
“Public art and exhibitions are investments. This is a very diverse programme appealing to many different types of people.”
Rosemary Vassiliadis, deputy director at Las Vegas McCarran adopts a similar view. “Displaying artwork at McCarran enhances the airport experience for all our customers, whether they’re from out of town or local residents,” she says.
“Artwork – particularly created by local schoolchildren – is a fantastic way to show visitors that there’s more to Las Vegas than the things they experience on the Strip.
“People feel a sense of ownership when they see the names of children they know displayed in an exhibit, or realise that a mural or painting at McCarran may have first taken shape at a school in their neighbourhood.”
Young artists are given similar encouragement at Liverpool–John Lennon Airport in the UK, where the work of five local artists and 119 children from three local schools is displayed.
Phil Redmond, creative director of Liverpool Culture Company, says: "JLA (John Lennon Airport) provides a platform for local artists to showcase their talent to an international audience. To embrace art and culture throughout a public building such as JLA is fantastic.”
So popular has art become at airports across the world that it now attracts hits online courtesy of Airport Art, a group of enthusiasts who post pictures on their own website. Santa Ana's John Wayne Airport parades a sculpture of the famous gunslinger, while a statue of George Washington at Pittsburgh International is incongruously situated in front of a hoarding advertising ketchup.
Memphis passengers gaze at a giant poster exhorting them to “let Elvis rock you to sleep at the Heartbreak Hotel.”
Copenhagen Airport has even published its own guide to the airport's art, which shows how the various exhibits complement the modern architecture in which they are showcased. Among the unusual pieces is ‘Four Winds’, a sculpture by Henrik Starcke in copper, stainless steel and enamel.
Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) too, produces an artworks brochure featuring sculptures, paintings and terrazzo floors. There's even an element of art interaction at the gateway; travellers can walk through a maze of glass, which, augmented by sound and light displays, envelops them in their own ‘son et lumière’ show.
Lambert-St Louis International Airport gives arriving passengers new incentives to stop and explore before they grab their bags. Its latest exhibition is ‘Black Americans in Flight’, a 51ft mural paying tribute to the aviation achievements of African- Americans from 1917.
Nashville International ran an exhibition last year called ‘The Art of the Lost Boys from Sudan’, and a recent Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta project, ‘A Walk Through Atlanta’, uses video screens along a 500ft passenger walkway to reflect the history of indigenous Indian tribes and the area's involvement in the civil rights movement.
Airports also use international events held in their city to showcase local art. Hosting the 1996 Olympics, for example, gave Atlanta and its airport arts programme the boost it needed. And during the G20 Summit last year, numerous arts organisations were invited to exhibit at Pittsburgh International.
Running a quality art programme does not come cheap. But it's a worthwhile investment according to Sharon McCloskey, vice president of marketing at DFW.
“When we built Terminal D, we incorporated a $6 million art programme precisely because we wanted to exceed our customers’ expectations,” she says. “Not only do our local passengers appreciate it, but we believe that the artwork helps influence people’s decision to use DFW as a connecting airport.”
Atlanta, one of the first airports to receive government funding for art back in the 1970s, receives between $1 million and $2 million per year to maintain and expand its art collection. But for airports on tight budgets, art may be one of the first luxuries to be ditched; the annual ‘Arts in the Airport’ workshop run by the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) was cancelled last year.
At most airports, however, the show goes on. International arriving passengers at Vancouver are greeted by an on-loan sculpture called ‘Arriving Home’ by Dennis Oppenheim, and Bill Reid's ‘The Spirit of Haida Gwaii: The Jade Canoe’, is photographed by thousands of people every day.
In July 1998, Philadelphia International Airport established a visual arts initiative “to provide visibility for Philadelphia's unique cultural life, and to enrich the experience of the travelling public”. The gateway currently has 17 exhibitions across six terminals covering subjects as diverse as the city's baseball legends to the history of the Stars and Stripes.
The UK government, meanwhile, is planning to showcase masterpieces from the country’s national collections at Heathrow's newest terminal.
A wealth of art in public collections is simply “lying around in store rooms”, according to Louise de Winter, director of the National Campaign for the Arts. “This is a real opportunity to enable some of those gems to see the light of day and T5 lends itself well to exhibiting sculptures and figurative works of art,” she notes.
Two new works of art were unveiled on the top floor of T5 last autumn and displayed for two months as part of the London Design Festival. They are ‘Taking Place’ – a multimedia light installation with video imagery from the departure lounges of airports all over the world – and ‘Arc’, a rainbow-shaped structure illuminated by white light behind frosted perspex.
Another artistic creation at T5, ‘Cloud’, is a digital sculpture suspended above the escalators. On top of an aluminum body sit 4,638 dots that turns from silver to black in one quick flick.
The click-click noise as the cloud changes colour is reminiscent of the old-fashioned arrivals and departures boards in airports and railway stations before TV monitors took over. Ah, those were the days!
Airport World 2010 - Issue 1