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From Issue #21 July 18, 2013

Terminal Curiosity

The country’s highest-visibility museums cater to an itinerant audience.

By Brittany Shoot Twitter icon 

Air travelers come in at least three main varieties. The exhausted, just off a flight of one hour or 18, eyes downcast as they desperately plod to a connection, a hotel, or home. The jet-setter, inured to airports and jaded, striding confidently forward with eyes straight ahead. And the delighted, almost exclusively small children for whom each trip is a never-ending sequence of new experiences.

But they have one thing in common: all three categories may falter in their footsteps (and tots may also clap and scream) when they encounter in a terminal connection hall of the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) a full-scale Hummer replica constructed of discarded polystyrene foam, or stop dead in their tracks to take in an Italian motorcycle display in the International Terminal Main Hall.

Maybe it’s because public art jolts passengers out of the routine and expectations that the sometimes deadening experience of flying can instill. If the most inspiring art is ephemeral, experienced as a fleeting moment of whimsy, it stands to reason that the most innovative exhibition spaces are those built along that otherwise mundane route from one destination to another.

And if you’re more worried about your heavy hand luggage or eventual destination, you have to remember to stop and look when you whiz past an expertly curated, unusually in-depth exhibition on the history of mountain biking from Northern California to Rwanda.

Hidden in plane sight

When I moved to San Francisco two years ago, SFO was the first real taste of my new home — both the free-spirited city and my quirky local airport. For a travel writer, a home airport means more than the collection of airstrips closest to one’s apartment. A home airport is a public space where I work and make memories. Taking notes on humanity’s humdrum pace between here and wherever is just as important as my myriad departures and reunions, all simultaneously giddy and tearful.

In between all the modern amenities, there was art. I discovered that the painstakingly constructed displays at SFO are the work of an unsung team of bright thinkers and meticulous craftspeople that runs the SFO Museum. The museum received accreditation in 1999 from the American Alliance of Museums, an organization that supports 21,000 museums, historic sites, arboretums, and the individuals and organizations who run such spaces. It remains the only airport museum to have received that recognition.

That nod from the AAM aids its ambition. The SFO Museum produces a staggering 40 exhibitions each year, from construction to curation, from concept to public show. “Nobody does the number of exhibitions we do,” curator Tim O’Brien explains, noting that directors and curators at traditional museums are often forced to focus more on driving membership than on fulfilling their creative aspirations.

Not at the SFO Museum. With a built-in captive audience, a robust budget, and a full-time staff of 30 coupled with partnerships with local and national museums like San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and the Fowler Museum at the University of California Los Angeles — not to mention objects on loan from museums around the world — the SFO Museum can crank out exhibitions at a mind-blowing rate.1

Another secret is the museum’s on-site production facility, housed since 2000 in a low-slung, nondescript ecru building on the airport grounds just below an AirTrain station that to a non-employee seems to serve no one in particular. Most traditional brick-and-mortar museums outsource at least some part of the production process, whether it’s the assembly of climate-controlled display cases or the printing of dazzling, full-color booklets and brochures.

But in the earthquake-prone Bay Area, there are seismic considerations in addition to cabinet capacity and lighting issues. Keeping construction in-house gives total collaborative control to cabinetmakers, welders, and curators tasked with keeping the objects (and viewers) safe in case of a sudden shake. (Consider a recent exhibit on Hindu deities, which required hiding mounts behind 800-pound granite and slate statues.)

Such specific on-demand cabinet production also means that every case is designed to blend in seamlessly with its surroundings. It’s no accident that the displays in various terminals match the color scheme and materials of the atrium or hall — not to mention the items on display, from sober Shaker furniture to colorful contemporary plastics. The backdrop and casing is all meticulously planned, sometimes years in advance.

Traffic patterns

In 1980, the SFO Museum began as a collaboration between the San Francisco Airport Commission and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. It was such a hit that as the terminals expanded and were later renovated, the museum followed along, claiming corridors or even prime real estate next to the international departures security checkpoint. While that checkpoint is the last spot to bid farewell to a loved one heading off to ultima thule, an unencumbered traveler might choose to spend a layover gawking at the current exhibit, Souvenirs: Tokens of Travel.

The morning I visit O’Brien, he has a two-hour window between planning meetings. Tall and genial with artfully stylish eyeglass frames, he speaks quickly as he leads me through the sprawling production facility, stopping to point out remnant fixtures from the time when the building was an airline food production facility.

As we walk, I stop to shake hands with a series of designers, the in-house photographer, and a registrar who tracks the flow of upwards of 30,000 objects in a given year. The museum staff is an impressive cadre of trained artists, skilled technicians, and meticulous administrators. O’Brien and his fellow curator Nicole Mullen are an appropriately curious pair with divergent interests; her background is in ethnic and folk art, while O’Brien favors technology and pop art.

Another thing that sets the SFO Museum apart: a focus on non-aviation-related shows. In fact, that’s what drew O’Brien to the museum nearly two decades ago. “One of the things that attracted me to this museum was the inclusion of popular culture in the programming,” he says. “I’m fascinated by material culture and its larger meaning.” He also notes that there are almost no boundaries for what the museum will or won’t display. “There are few subjects we aren’t comfortable handling,” he says.

Aviation geeks aren’t forsaken; rather, they have their own entire permanent collection. Just to the left of security on the east side of the International Terminal, there are six aviation curators who run the San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum. Inside the two-story reading room, a full-time research librarian will be happy to answer your questions about airfield oral histories or leave you to enjoy a quiet respite from rush at the nearby United and Lufthansa counters.

It’s even a bit ironic; that aforementioned captive audience is another reason why the museum curators can be so forward-thinking. “We’re reaching people who might not voluntarily go to a museum or a gallery,” O’Brien explains. “What we have is truly unique: a diversity of exhibitions presented in a public space.” All told, the museum has upwards of 44 million visitors a year.

Such a high level of foot traffic mandates that curators be painstakingly detailed and intentional with every object and display. “Each label has a self-contained story,” explains O’Brien, gesturing to the tiny placard in front of a vase on loan from the Asian Art Museum. That one-size-fits-all model, he explains, offers insight to every type of museumgoer. Visitors who only have five minutes can have a complete experience with one item, just as travelers with an hour to kill can feel immersed within an entire collection.

I inspect the sign, and sure enough, the description makes sense without seeing any other part of the display. Yet in my case, I’m left wanting more, my eyes already scanning the next showpiece.

The people saying weepy goodbyes just feet away from where I’m inspecting ancient ceramics cause me to look up and pause. I glance at O’Brien, who gives me a knowing smile. “The International Terminal is a very humane place,” he says quietly.

Aim high

Just by the numbers, SFO Museum exhibitions offer unparalleled exposure for budding and renowned artists. Consider the Recology exhibit, currently on display just after the security checkpoint in the United Terminal. Over the past 23 years, garbage, recycling, and compost collection agency Recology’s Artist In Residence (AIR) program has hosted more than 100 sculptors, painters, and mixed media artists. Working toward a zero-waste goal, Recology reasons that art made from trash is more powerful than a pamphlet.

In the Bay Area, the project is known and loved. But the SFO show is the largest in the history of Recology’s program and showcases inventive work by 45 artists in a 100-plus-item exhibit. O’Brien estimates that more than 2.5 million travelers will pass the exhibition during its eight-month run.

Dawdling down the concourse or zipping by on a moving walkway, visitors will see everything from an iridescent blue-green ball gown made from plastic bags used to wrap the Wall Street Journal and New York Times for home delivery to an enormous whale tail constructed from old rope and fishing line.

Oh, and that full-scale polystyrene Hummer. There’s that, too.

Taking off

Because of its designation and forerunner status among airport art facilities, it’s unsurprising that airport museums across the nation look to SFO as a model. For example, at the Denver International Airport (DIA), art was always part of facility planning. DIA opened in 1995 — the last international airport in the United States built-out before 9/11 — under a 1991 mandate from the city of Denver that required 1% of any large capital-improvement project to be set aside to pay for public art.

Matt Chasansky, the Director of the DIA Arts and Culture Program for the past six years, came to the airport by way of Denver’s Museum of Outdoor Arts, where he focused on education and exhibit curation. As he describes it, DIA isn’t just a gateway to Denver, Colorado, and the West. The terminals count 53 million passenger trips each year, which counts repeat travelers multiple times. The total non-overlapping audience is still vastly greater than the population of Denver. As a result, Chasansky says, “We have this responsibility for DIA to be representative of the greater aspirations of the people of Denver.”

One way that the DIA art program achieves that lofty goal is through actively recruiting emerging artists. “Public art processes are notoriously bad at encouraging new people to apply mainly because of a legitimate reason: when you get a group of residents together on a panel who are responsible for protecting the public trust and dollar, you want to pick an artist who has delivered in the past,” Chasansky explains. “It’s a correct way to protect the public’s interest but one that leaves a lot of artists out. We try to fill that gap.”

Most artists at DIA are encouraged to use the space, even if that means touring the facilities for days on end in search of inspiration. Take, for example, Mexican artist Humberto Duque’s Lighting Blues Express, which was inspired by the artist’s days of watching people saying goodbye at various departure points around the airport. He hired seven college students, bought them black suits, and sent them ambling through the concourses, dragging an amp (disguised as a wheeled suitcase) that played honky-tonk songs about saying goodbye. The most interesting part in a video clip of the piece is how people attempt to avoid responding to the passing students, or are truly so tired and tuned out as to seem not to notice at all.

Comparing other airport art programs with the SFO Museum seems unfair, even if others look to the west for inspiration. The DIA 30-piece permanent collection is modest, though remarkable in its diversity and scale. And in just 2012 alone, DIA hosted 14 temporary exhibits.

Chasansky acknowledges the difference in scale by pointing out a critical distinction. “At DIA, we have a public art collection,” he explains. “It’s not quite a museum here, but it is a profound cultural experience.”

Permission to land

Airport art is what you make of it. The Hilo, Hawaii, airport may have luau dancers at one end of a terminal — performance and art — but as you mosey over in their direction, look also for the unpretentious dark wood curio cabinets of seashells and urchin husks. In Philadelphia, 18 current Art at the Airport exhibitions showcase Philly’s history through everything from a city-specific literary history display to a piece entitled “Domestic Edifice” by local artist Lauren Dombrowiak. Dinnerware stacked to form fragile towers seems an especially amusing nod to the very tenuousness and ephemeral nature of travel.

Tampa’s WPA murals are more than just historic decoration. The restored masterpieces, commissioned in the 1930s for the then newly opened airport, are the work of Florida muralist George Snow Hill (who also painted a number of New Deal–era U.S. Post Office murals). Open only two months as of this writing, Terminal 4 in New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport is home to an entirely new series of murals that celebrate flight. Orlando is even home to a gaming arcade — admittedly not a conventional museum, but perhaps a living monument to a dying culture of sorts.

As far back as I can recall passing through airport terminals, I remember the art and design inherent in each space: swooping pterodactyls in a Tampa International domestic arrivals wing, gray carpets interspersed with rainbow swatches in Indianapolis, and in Phoenix, indelicately named gift shops like Pueblo Spirit. For all the ways travelers lament how the pleasures of air travel have diminished, our glorious surroundings have radically improved. In my short lifetime, an imaginative industry has risen up as my curiosity has soared.

Photos courtesy SFO Museum.


  1. Other frequent SFO Museum collaborators are the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum at the University of California, Berkeley. Many exhibition partners are Bay Area institutions, but some of the SFO Museum’s most memorable exhibitions were borrowed from private collections and institutions located around the world: toys, parasols, jewelry, and beauty products from Japan; automata from France; silver from Sweden; and decorative hand fans from Spain. 

San Francisco-based journalist Brittany Shoot, the managing editor of The Magazine, writes about fascinating people and far-flung places. She is a contributing writer to Mental Floss, Spirituality & Health, and Sojourners, and also writes for magazines including Time, San Francisco, and Islands.

You can purchase our complete archives, almost 300 articles, as a DRM-free ebook in PDF, EPUB, and MOBI formats. We ceased publication of new work on December 18, 2014.
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