Musicians, dancers and masked revellers – the brightly dressed crowd pops with movement and excitement in the richly coloured murals. The handiwork of the late Brazilian artist Carybé, Rejoicing and Festivals of the Americas is one of two 53ft-long painted panels that greet passengers at the new South Terminal at Miami International Airport (MIA). In a facility self-described as the “gateway to the Americas”, the murals are a popular sight for visitors – but they very nearly didn’t make it. They were originally created for JFK Airport in 1960, where almost half a century of wear left them tattered and seemingly unwanted. With the terminal that housed them due for demolition, they would have formed part of the rubble were it not for a chance conversation between an airline employee and a concerned passenger. In 2009, a partnership between American Airlines, Brazilian engineering firm Odebrecht and the Miami-Dade Aviation Department saw the works restored and happily resituated in MIA’s new terminal.

“It was sad for JFK, because [the murals] had been there since 1960 and were part of their identity,” says Dr Yolanda Sánchez, MIA’s director of fine arts and cultural affairs. “But the construction company funded the project, and it was really good timing for us because this was an area that was being built, and today it looks like the murals are a site-specific installation. They just fit in beautifully.”

It’s one of the more original acquisition stories – although competition is rife. Arguably the most famous concerns Luis Jimenez’s Mustang, the demonic blue horse that stands at Denver International Airport despite causing its creator’s death in 2006 when a large piece came loose.

More than anything however, the Carybé murals are testament to the connection that passengers and staff often feel to the works on display in an airport; far from simply sharing a space and time, art and airport become part of a shared history.

It’s a phenomenon of particular interest in light of the increased time that travellers are spending in the airport due to heightened security protocols. In response, operators are recognising the value that artwork can provide in entertaining passengers and improving the quality of the environment. For some airports, however, this recognition dates back much further.

Art project

Established in 1973 and one of the first of its kind in the country, the Miami-Dade County Art in Public Places (APP) programme allocates 1.5% of the construction cost of new county buildings for the purchase or commission of artworks. With the county’s largest construction programme, MIA is also the biggest recipient of APP funding.

Since joining MIA in 1995 as the liaison to APP, Sánchez has overseen the installation of a great many site-specific works. Christopher Janney’s interactive walkway, Harmonic Convergence, is one of the best known, while the work of South Floridean artist Michele Oka Doner is often found below travellers’ feet, in her distinctively decorated terrazzo. It’s when she’s describing MIA’s other art programme, despite its comparatively ‘shoestring’ budget, however, that Sánchez’s voice especially lights up: the rotating exhibitions that she first founded in the late ’90s.

“I saw that this was the wave of the future because it keeps the art programme very fresh and thought it would be so interesting to have changing exhibitions for the frequent traveller, and also to have a vehicle for showcasing many of our resources from South Florida,” she says.

Starting from a single gallery, the programme now has several, all focusing on different areas, including fine arts, children’s, hand-made and photography. An exhibition area for small sculptures and objects is another recent addition. The exhibitions programme was in fact initially modelled after what Sánchez warmly describes as the “grandmother of us all’ at San Francisco International (SFO).

Founded in 1980 by the Airport Commission in collaboration with the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, the SFO Museum (SFOM) today spans rotating exhibitions across more than 20 galleries throughout the terminals, as well as an aviation library and an aquarium. As the only museum based within an airport to be accredited by the American Association of Museums, its mission statement – to differentiate SFO from other airports – is clearly working.

When it comes to the organisation’s other aim, to ‘humanise’ the airport environment, one need only think back to what came before, according to Blake Summers, SFOM director and chief curator since 1999.

“If you think about historic pictures of SFO, terminal shots from the early to mid-’60s where you just have these stark white corridors with white floors and hard benches, it’s remarkable in contrast to the kinds of terminals we’re building today,” he says. “In the early ’80s, Terminal 3, or the North Terminal as it was known then, was just opening, and the idea was to have softer materials, plants, drinking fountains – and art. You can see that it really changed our thinking regarding how airports should be built.”

Exhibitions typically last six months, with each gallery commissioned separately, but on occasion, one will be extended across several, as is the case with SFOM’s current ‘Fashion in Flight’ exhibition.

Flight of fancy

Central to SFO’s programming, as it is to MIA’s, is a sense of place – specifically, the cultural life of the San Francisco Bay Area. By commissioning artworks from across the region and collaborating with galleries such as de Young, SFOM roots the airport in its locale and simultaneously raises the profile of the area. Similarly, at MIA, partnerships with the likes of Perez Art Museum, as well as projects to engage local communities, are vital.

Summers is keen to emphasise that the locality of the material at SFOM in no way necessitates a narrow focus.

“The bay area is an international hub, so we can say we focus locally but create exhibitions from across the world,” he says. “We did an exhibition a couple of years back on Hmong textiles, borrowed from a local collector, and there’s a local Hmong community here. It’s an example of an internationally flavoured exhibit that has very local roots.

We also have materials that try to bring people closer to the subject. It’s not just about hanging a pretty picture but also something that inspires a dialogue with people. I don’t mind if they don’t like it, as long as it makes them think.

“In our mission statement, we’re talking about the diversity of human achievement, so we feel like almost anything is fair game for us but, by definition, we like to stay fairly local.”

The audience, too, is diverse. A long way from the art-loving niche found in private galleries, it is an international and multigenerational general public that curators must appeal to. These are also viewers whose state of mind may be in flux as they travel through the airport. Keeping works accessible on numerous levels is therefore essential.

Summers explains: “We try to provide something that is a very easy takeaway as you walk past. As you glance over your shoulder, you think ‘Wow, such and such is at the airport now’. There’s that kind of viewer, and then there’s the person who decides to get off the moving walkway and go through the exhibition to take in a little more.

“Then you also have the viewer who’ll stand there and read every label and ID. So we try to make it accessible for all of these passengers.”

Likewise, the content of the work must not be exclusionary, Sánchez emphasises. “We stay away from anything that’s violent or overtly political,” she says.

“The goal is to educate the travelling public and those who work at the airport about contemporary art, sometimes stretching the envelope a bit such that they kind of question, ‘What is this, is this art?’, but we also have materials that try to bring people closer to the subject. It’s not just about hanging a pretty picture but also something that inspires a dialogue with people. I don’t mind if they don’t like it, as long as it makes them think.”

Making a statement

It’s this reflective reaction – in viewers who might otherwise not be reached – that UK artist Ros Burgin hopes to arouse. Her 12-piece installation, Skylines, which she intends to tour around airports, celebrates the current generation of female pilots. Burgin’s work often explores the role of women in society, and inspiration for this piece struck when she met a female pilot and realised, with dismay, how surprised she was.

“I thought, ‘This is ridiculous, why hadn’t I ever heard a female voice from the cockpit? Why isn’t it a common reference to think pilot and female?’,” Burgin recalls. After researching the subject further, Her fears were confirmed. Women make up just 5% of airline licensees in the UK and 4,000 (3%) of the 130,000 commercial airline pilots worldwide.

“It’s an astonishing case of gender inequality, but the stories of those in that minority group are romantic and inspiring, not only to aspiring pilots, but also to people in all walks of life and occupations about how it is possible to realise their potential.”

After an appeal via the British Airline Pilots Association, 301 women pilots, some of whom were among the very first female commercial pilots, ‘donated’ their names to the project. In its finished form, Skylines gives them a rare visual namecheck, spelled out in orange text on the sculptures’ blue swirls. Made from materials familiar to the airport – the latex of escalator handrails – the extruded spirals emulate the pilots’ flight paths around the world.

While Skylines relates directly to its intended environment, Burgin is also excited by the dynamics of the airport space more generally and the challenges it presents.

“It’s such a large building in terms of volume. For artists, they are very interesting spaces – but if an artist were to ignore the scale of the building and the dynamic of the building, I think you would question why that artwork was there.”

With the addition of social media to the mix, the potential reach is also appealing to Burgin. Indeed, Sánchez recounts that certain MIA artworks, like Jen Stark’s eye-catching Meltdown, are popular landmarks for picture-taking passengers. Meanwhile, flash mobs organised as part of MIA’s performance programme, such as a pop-up appearance by the Florida Grand Opera, add to the buzz.

Significantly, this engagement can also translate into revenue. This is apparent at SFO in the implementation of its Revenue Enhancement and Customer Hospitality (REACH) manifesto, which outlines the means of enhancing the customer experience, including via arts and culture.

While major gateway airports tend to perform best overall, a close-up on terminal performance tells a very interesting story: SFO has found that its renovated Terminal 2, which reopened in 2011 and was the first to adopt REACH principles, has one of the highest spend rates per passenger in the US.

It’s a reality likely to push art higher up the list of priorities in airports internationally, although the pace of the phenomenon will probably remain gradual for now, Summers believes.

“Most communalities have the percent for art built in [to the budget], so you already have a lot of permanent art – but it’s the changing exhibitions that have now become interesting to people. I don’t think it will explode, because it’s a little too hard to just do it at a huge scale, but we will see it creep across the world.”  