20 years after launch, curated art program at Philly International Airport going strong

Since 1998, Philadelphia International Airport has been trying to slow down passengers running to catch a flight so they can take a second to appreciate local contemporary artists.

“We’re entering terminal E, on the secure side,” said Leah Douglas. “This is where all the passengers flow.”

Douglas led me on tour down a mile of walkways and waiting areas through all seven of the airport’s terminals, where she wrangles 20 art exhibitions sites scattered throughout. Since the beginning of the airport’s curated art program, she has been combing through the ranks of regional artists to find material for her constantly changing exhibitions.

The first stop is a case 40 feet long and 8 feet high. It’s impossible to hustle past without looking up. The backdrop is painted a bright, sunny yellow. On it are hundreds of small glass pieces crafted by artists Anna Booth and Nancy Cohen. They are loosely inspired by Tibetan Buddhist art.

“What works best in the airport is when we have something that is grand and large, and when you get closer and engage with it, other things start to reveal themselves,” said Douglas.

Every day, 82,000 people walk through the airport, most of them laser-focused on catching a flight — admittedly, not the most ideal place to contemplate contemporary art. Nevertheless, Douglas said, artists jump at her invitations to make large-scale work — for potentially millions of eyeballs.

“The great thing is, people are not expecting to see art, yet we have it,” she said. “It’s really a place to get people from one location to another. We have wonderful opportunities to show artwork.”

An arts community service

Douglas does not handle the airport’s permanent pieces, which are installed with newly constructed expansions via the city’s One Percent for Art program. Rather, she rotates work into her cases every six months, constantly showcasing new artists and new art forms — paintings, blown glass, textiles, and mechanical sculpture.

There’s a 100-foot-long cartoon illustration, “Farewell to Night” by Christine Larsen. It began as a series of five illustrated panels, each 11 inches by 40 inches, that were enlarged to 20 feet wide to fit between the columns of a long, otherwise banal hallway passengers schlep through to make a connecting flight in another terminal.

The cartoon’s story can be read from either direction as you come, or go, through the hallway.

“It’s the characters saying hello to morning,” said Douglas. “It’s a very imaginative landscape world that Christine has come up with. She’s a cartoonist, so she has created some fantastical characters and scenery.”

With 20 spaces that need refilling every six months, Douglas is tirelessly scouring gallery openings and art blogs in the region to find local talent. Many times the work — such as “Farewell to Night” — is made site-specific for the airport. The airport does not collect the work; after the exhibition, it goes back to the artist.

“I view the program as a community service to the arts community and the culture community. To show more work by one artist in a space is good for them,” said Douglas. “It’s also easier for the passenger to understand. They see a body of work that is a singular expression.”

Douglas is starting to add more street artists into the mix. Right now, there are two exhibitions: a yarnbomb installation by an artist who goes by Marbufs; and one by Michel Delgado, who makes paintings based on arrangement of gumspots — pieces of chewed gum spit out on the pavement and blackened with age.

The curated art program is funded with $400,000 form the airport’s operating costs, paid for by its tenants — the airlines and concession companies.

Part of Douglas’ job is to also consider the overall look of the airport’s interior. The often means trying to brighten and soften an environment colored in variations of white and gray and overwhelmed with signage and advertising.

She created a sitting area built from used shipping pallet planks, dressed up with hanging plants. In the center is a book exchange kiosk, regularly stocked with books found in American Airlines seatback pockets.

“They are books that passengers have left on airplanes,” said Douglas. “So these books keep flying around the world.”

Later this year, to celebrate the airport’s 20th anniversary, Douglass is asking 20 artists to make work for one particular moving walkway corridor. Instead of installing work in the hallway, the artists will make art out of the its architectural features — the columns, ceiling tiles, furniture, and moving walkway handrail. To her knowledge, no airport has ever tried that.

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