“A universal shudder.”
That could be the description of post-COVID airline travel, as thousands of flights have been canceled or delayed, sometimes in a single day. But the phrase, by noted author Gertrude Stein, is actually now appearing in a mural installation by artist Eve Fowler at a unique venue — the baggage claim level of Terminal 2 at Los Angeles International Airport.
The murals are part of myriad artworks and other unique features at airports worldwide that are supposed to calm and orient harried travelers, offer directional guideposts, help them identify with the particular locale where they’ve touched down, and even plunk down more money for overpriced snacks or souvenirs.
“It enhances the customer experience, and it helps drive revenue, people linger longer,” said Heather Kaufman, director of arts and events at Denver International Airport. “It’s sort of an intuitive way of finding your way, you can tell someone, ‘look for the giant mural at the end of the walkway. But mostly it’s an area of respite … public art helps reduce that visual noise if you will. Otherwise we’re all ads and noise.”
Art, a staple at some major airports for decades, is being augmented by other amenities. Singapore’s Changi Airport has a butterfly garden, Denver’s offered a free, onsite miniature golf course this summer, and Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar, was voted the world’s top airport in 2022 by passengers surveyed by SkyTrax, partly due to its disinfectant robots in high-traffic areas.
Closer to home, Palm Springs International Airport in its entirety makes an artistic statement. Architect Donald Wexler’s sleek, powerful mid-century modern design for the original terminal, which opened in 1966 on the site of a World War II military base, deliberately frames the towering San Jacinto mountains through nearly 30-foot-high windows.
“It was Don’s love letter to the city, he said it was his favorite piece of work,” said Michael Stern, owner of The Modern Tour, which provides tours of seminal homes in the city, though for security reasons, not the airport. “Palm Springs is a very unique place, this is the Southern California desert, and Don wanted you to have that feeling that you’d arrived someplace singular and special,” said Stern.
Sitting in a wheelchair by the front door on a recent Friday, unable to reach her son to fetch her because her phone wouldn’t work, Christine Gargirello of Bridgewater, New Jersey, gazed skyward out the windows.
“It’s beautiful, I’m just sitting here looking at this, I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “Once I get out there, I’m taking a picture of that right away,” she said of the mountainscape.
The airport has had an eclectic selection of sculptures on display for two decades, and has begun the process of augmenting them with new, donated pieces and other works that sit unseen in the Palm Springs Art Museum collections.
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One writer for the website Thrillist went so far as to buy the cheapest airplane tickets he could find, just so he and a pal could party at the airport before heading to Joshua Tree National Park.
All that art can make you hungry
It’s no accident that many airports now devote a small but real portion of their budgets to sculpture, concerts and other amenities. A 2020 National Academy of Sciences technical paper on visual arts at airports found numerous benefits for a modest cost, and no apparent downside.
Compiled from a review of available research and in-depth interviews at 13 airports across the U.S., from LAX to the tiny Truckee/Tahoe Airport, it identified a range of benefits.
“Airport users have an overwhelmingly favorable opinion about the exhibition of art in an airport setting,” it found. “Collectively, these 13 airports present visual art exhibitions to more than 365 million viewers each year.”
The report found visual arts programs support “passenger well-being: by creating a more pleasing, calming environment that relieves stress. It added that “the comfortable, relaxed atmosphere created by airport arts programs … not only supports a favorable customer experience, but also increases concessions spending.”
Art programs at some airports are now nearly half a century old. “San Francisco’s is the creme-de-la-creme,” said Kauman of Denver’s airport. “But ours is one of the originals too, and is looked to as a beacon by others.”
Among the most popular, high-flying or downright strange artworks at airports are the following:
A horse, a hare and an ear of corn
Denver International Airport’s rearing statue of a wild horse, “Mustang,” is mounted on a median near the entrance and has been nicknamed “Blucifer” because of its cobalt sheen and glowing red eyes. The 9,000 postatue killed its sculptor, prominent Mexican artist Luis Jimenez, when its heavy head fell and cut an artery in his leg. Like much modern art, it was initially criticized by some, but has become an integral part of the place.
“People would be mad if we moved the mustang,” said airport spokeswoman Stephanie Figueroa.
Hop on over to Sacramento for another outsized experience, where a giant red rabbit appears to leap downward to Terminal 2 baggage claim, in particular a suitcase with a vortex in the middle. Sculptor Lawrence Argent told an interviewer in 2011, when the $800,000 work was installed, that he chose the rabbit because travelers are leaping into the unknown, and they all bring their own stories on their journeys.
The design was also a way to integrate the art with the three-story-high terminal and agricultural fields outside.
“I wanted to play around with the idea that something has come from the outside and leapt into the building,” Argent said.
Airlines also use art to add oomph to what might otherwise be drab or even unnerving spaces. United Airlines commissioned Michael Hayden and others to create a $1.2 million moving experience called “Sky’s the Limit” for travelers at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport so they can tote their luggage through an 800-foot tunnel between Terminals B and C in 1987.
The ever-shifting neon rainbow overhead and undulating bars of color along the walls are anesthetizing, even calming, despite a mechanical voice repeatedly warning that the moving walkway will soon be ending, and drowning out specially commissioned music that sometimes plays.
There are perhaps blooper moments – Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s “Corncorde” sculpture by Craig Nutt at Gate E12 is the largest ear of corn you’ll ever see, and resembles a giant yellow phallus at certain angles.
But the airport, which reclaimed its title as the world’s busiest in 2021, has thousands of other pieces. As in Denver, permanent artwork and conservation are funded by a city public art ordinance, via which a percent of all funds for capital projects is set aside to buy and conserve works.
With nearly 76 million captive visitors coming through Atlanta’s airport last year, that tops the world’s top 100 museums combined, which in 2021 had a total of 71 million visitors.
Duane Hanson’s “hyper-realism” piece, titled “Traveler,” is perhaps the most fitting ode to current air travel. Installed at Orlando International Airport in 1986, it gained new fans in 2021, when a TikTok video of it was posted.
Theories about its origins raged online, including some who claimed a passenger who’d died had been embalmed. In fact, it was sculpted from a live model by Hanson, who then painstakingly painted on minute details from head to toe. Eyes closed, slumped over a regulation-size bag, the figure surely is art imitating life.
Janet Wilson is senior environment reporter for The Desert Sun, and co-authors USA Today’s Climate Point newsletter. She can be reached at email@example.com or @janetwilson66 on Twitter