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Airport Art Is Not an Oxymoron, at Least Not at SFO
NEW YORK TIMES

April 1, 2011

Even in these hard economic times, the Bay Area overflows with vibrant art institutions, among them the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Cartoon Art Museum, the Oakland Museum of California and the San Francisco International Airport. Yes, that last one is correct.

With an annual budget of more than $3 million and 27 full-time employees, about 20 gallery spaces housing six-month-long temporary exhibitions on a variety of esoteric subjects like Japanese pottery and platform shoes, an Aviation Museum dedicated to commercial air travel and a vibrant commissioning partnership with the San Francisco Arts Commission, SFO is home to a world-class art collection.

Although not a museum in the traditional sense, the collection includes museum-quality works by top Bay Area artistic talents like Wayne Thiebaud, James Torlakson, Roy De Forest, Hassel Smith and Lee Mullican, all of whom can be found in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The holdings also include works by international art stars like Arnaldo Pomodoro and Seiji Kunishima.

Many airports display art — the San Jose International Airport has a cutting-edge video installation on the sensitive theme of surveillance, for example — but the San Francisco International Airport’s exhibition program is the only one in the country to have received accreditation from the American Association of Museums.

Few airport galleries have the resources to undertake the process, which takes two to three years. But for SFO, which initially received accreditation in 1999, it was worthwhile.

“The accreditation is a valuable check to see that we continue maintaining the highest professional standards in both policy and practice,” John Hill, curator of the Aviation Museum, said.

Now, with the opening of the remodeled Terminal 2 on April 14, the art experience at the San Francisco International Airport is becoming even more enticing.

In addition to reinstalling 20 works from the airport’s permanent 60-piece art collection, the San Francisco Arts Commission is introducing five newly commissioned pieces.

Passengers in the airy, naturally lighted $388 million terminal will be able to propel iridescent-winged acrylic “butterflies” up wires using a mechanical hand crank in the local artist Charles Sowers’s interactive kinetic sculpture “Butterfly Wall.” Visitors with long layovers can take a cellphone audio tour covering the terminal’s complete art collection. Local musicians from the airport’s "You Are Hear" music program like the alt-cellist Zoe Keating and the Nice Guy Trio, a jazz group, will perform live.

The integration of art into Terminal 2 is a bold move in an era of tightening budgets and aviation-industry woes. But airport officials say that culture improves the quality of service.

“Our investment in the arts provides an engaging and less stressful experience to our passengers and employees,” said John L. Martin, director of the San Francisco International Airport.

The new works were financed through $3.7 million in “art enrichment funds” from a city ordinance that earmarks 2 percent of the total cost of civic public works projects for public art.

The airport’s emphasis on art also points to the increasingly blurred line between traditional cultural institutions and other destinations for high-quality art.

“I think airport museums are gaining the stature of more traditional museums,” said Ford W. Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, a service organization in Washington D.C. “Every major museum realizes the importance of bringing art to the people, as well as the other way around.”

Artists are drawn to the vast, diverse audience that airports attract. According to Mr. Martin, nearly 39 million passengers passed through the San Francisco International Airport in 2010 and an estimated 10 percent actively engaged with the airport’s art. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art welcomes an average of about 700,000 visitors a year.

“I am excited about the chance to interact with so many people,” said Janet Echelman, the creator of the newly commissioned artwork “Every Beating Second,” a trio of giant red and purple woven sculptures that hangs in the concourse, post-security.

But audiences can be uneven and unpredictable.

“It gets eerily quiet,” said Chuck Prophet, a singer-songwriter who has performed at the airport. “Then it heats back up out of nowhere.”

The design of Terminal 2, a close collaboration between the Gensler architecture firm, airport staff and the San Francisco Arts Commission, melds the utilitarian aspects of the space and its arts offerings.

Instead of hard, institutional seats, airport visitors can sit in cozy armchairs surrounded by a triptych of colored tapestries depicting Bay Area gardens by Mark Adams.

It may be awhile before people start viewing the San Francisco International Airport as a cultural destination. But things seem to be heading that way.

“Two of our performance areas are pre-security,” said Marc Capelle, the curator of “You Are Hear.” “So we get folks that come out and listen to music and dine at the airport.”

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