If you've ever walked through Mineta San Jose International Airport, you may have noticed a 26-foot sculpture called "Space Observer." Balanced on three legs, this artwork created by by Björn Schülke has propeller arms holding cameras that take live images.
This unexpected installation is supposed to celebrate the interaction between humans and technology, and it's a good fit for this particular airport. Mineta is the nearest hub to Silicon Valley, the center of the tech revolution. "Space Observer" and another permanent installation called "eCloud," which consists of hundreds of suspended tiles that change from solid to clear in a pattern based on real-time weather data, join a host of temporary exhibits placed around the airport.
A renaissance for airport art?
Airport art is becoming more common at hubs in the United States and around the world. As in San Jose, most of the installations are often inspired by the region the airport serves. Some airports, such as San Francisco, Toronto and Miami, have full-time staff members in charge of art and cultural programs inside the terminals. The goal is to bring highlights from the city inside the airport, so visitors can get a taste of the local flavor, even if they're only laying over.
This trend can also help local arts programs that provide works for display, and airport contracts can provide income to fund other programs, too. Both Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson and San Francisco International have spent millions on art in recent years.
De-stressing the airport experience
The Rijksmuseum inside Amsterdam Schiphol. (Photo: Kat Walsh/flickr)
Though airports have been installing art for decades, the trend became much more apparent after 9/11.
Since then, air travel has become more stressful. With enhanced security screening, people have to spend more time in the terminal, and they sometimes arrive stressed after dealing with ticketing and the TSA. Art installations go along with new food courts and retail space, all of which are meant to make flying less stressful while also earning some extra income for expensive-to-operate airports.
More formal art museums and galleries
Some airports have full-blown museums. One of Europe’s most important hubs, Amsterdam Schiphol, has a satellite of the famous Rijksmuseum inside its terminal. The Espace Musées at Paris Charles de Gaulle hosts rotating art exhibits provided by different museums in the city. The displays change every six months.
At galleries in London Heathrow (the T5 Gallery) and Edinburgh (The Airport Gallery), you can purchase a work of art before you board.
Standout airport art examples
Crystal Mountain is a sculpture at Dallas International. (Photo: Marc Smith/flickr)
Denver International Airport has some impressive installations that have earned it praise as the best airport for art. The most famous work is a 32-foot-tall outdoor horse statue called Blue Mustang. The horse has glowing red eyes and is the source of many urban legends because its creator, artist Luis Jimenez, was killed when a section of the sculpture fell on him. Spooky stories aside, the airport has an amazing array of murals, modernist hanging sculptures, art glass, light installations, and exhibits that celebrate Colorado’s Native American population.
Seattle Tacoma International was one of the first airports to invest in art. It set aside several hundred thousand dollars for art in the 1960s and has continued funding and installing permanent and rotating art over the decades. Today’s collection includes everything from "kinetic" sculptures and stained glass to panel paintings, mosaics and folded paper art.
Dallas International is another noteworthy airport. Its public art program is mostly located in Terminal D, though it also has an outdoor sculpture garden. The headlining display is Crystal Mountain, an aluminum sculpture featuring whimsical skyscraper-like towers.
Incheon International Airport is the largest airport in South Korea. (Photo: sandwich/flickr)
Some airports have a more general focus on culture rather than on art displays. Seoul Incheon, a major transpacific hub, boasts two Korean Traditional Cultural Centers. These venues have exhibits, performances and interactive experiences for transit travelers who might not be spending time in South Korea.
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, another international transit hub (and the world’s busiest airport), has a "Walk through Atlanta History" in between concourses B and C.
More and more people will be taking to the skies in the coming years, so airports will undoubtedly remain stressfully crowded. Art may continue to play a role in distracting travelers and also offering them insight into a region’s culture.