Art Trends | Art on the Fly

Kinetic Light Air Curtain by William Maxwell and Antoinette Rosato at Denver International Airport. photo, southwest art.
Kinetic Light Air Curtain by William Maxwell and Antoinette Rosato at Denver International Airport

By Norman Kolpas

This month brings the debut of San Francisco’s most spectacular venue yet for the display of major artworks. It’s a stunning structure with soaring ceilings, sweeping expanses of glass, and vast corridors. Unlike the acclaimed new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, however, this new building is not a museum at all. It’s an airport—more precisely, SFO’s just-completed International Terminal.

The project showcases 17 new, specially commissioned, permanent works of art by 20 artists (some of whom worked as teams), 13 of whom are local to the Bay area. In a 1,000-foot-long corridor, for example, environmental sculptor Vito Acconci mounted translucent acrylic panels lit with fluorescent beams that traverse the entire ceiling. The city’s vibrant diversity is celebrated in Viola Frey’s World Civilization, a colorful ceramic-tile relief in a boarding area. For a two-story-tall wall, Berkeley artist Mildred Howard fashioned Salty Peanuts, a collage of 130 old brass saxphones flanked at top and bottom by the opening bars of Dizzy Gillespie’s famous composition “Salt Peanuts.”

Mountain Mirage by Doug Hollis at Denver International Airport. photo, southwest art.
Mountain Mirage by Doug Hollis at Denver International Airport

Although the San Francisco program may seem refreshingly unusual in its scope, the trend is being manifested more and more frequently throughout the nation. When the new Denver International Airport (DIA) opened in February 1995, for example, its master plan called for some 27 major artworks. Similarly significant integrations of art and architecture have taken place in airports from Miami to Philadelphia and Washington, DC.

Thanks are due in large part to civic “percentage for the arts” programs, by which local laws mandate that a portion of construction costs on public projects be earmarked for artwork. At San Francisco International Airport, that led to an art budget of $11.1 million based on 1.5 percent of project costs. Denver, by contrast, requires that only 1 percent of construction costs be set aside; but, as DIA was an entirely new airport built from scratch, the art budget still came in just shy of an impressive $9 million.

That’s a lot of money to encourage the arts. And where any huge public project is concerned, such figures can also understandably raise doubts about the quality of work the public is getting for its money. In a related situation, articles earlier this year in the Los Angeles Times questioned whether much of the art commissioned for the city’s beleaguered new Metro subway system terminals was of any lasting value or interest.

At both SFO and DIA, however, conscientious efforts seem to have been made to ensure that the works of art meet high aesthetic standards. In each case, the selection process was overseen by a panel with representatives from the airport commission, the architects, the civic arts council, and independent artists and curators. Artists’ proposed works were chosen for both their aesthetic merit and their site-specific nature.

Which means that the kinds of museum pieces people ordinarily have to stand and contemplate just wouldn’t make the cut. “We had to take into account the fact that our audience is in motion and give people art that they can experience while they’re walking through a space,” says Susan Pontious, senior project manager of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Public Art Program. Adds Mimi Moore, director of the DIA Art Program, “It’s about enhancing people’s experience of the airport via the artwork.”

At both places, that goal can sometimes lead to the rare opportunity to walk on a work of art. For Concourse B at DIA, 21st Century Artfacts by Carolyn Braaksma and Mark Villarreal uses colored terrazzo, stone tile, precast concrete, and bronze inlays to place the geologic, geographic, and cultural history of Colorado literally at the feet of passersby.

“That kind of element of surprise and discovery is not something you’ll find very often at a museum,” says Moore. Indeed, it’s just the sort of experience that could make airports like SFO and DIA as much cultural destinations in their own right as they are points of embarkation and arrival.

Featured in December 2000