David Darling photograph of Vivienne Westwood’s shoe collection in the British Airways lounge. (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

JFK Airport, Queens, NY — On my way to Cape Town, South Africa I got bumped off my flight but upgraded to business on a flight four hours later. Free drinks and dinner in British Airways business class lounge and to catch up on some work poses no problems. Walking in to a new space I regularly take note of the art hanging on wall. At first glance the “toned down” works amongst the decor of the lounge appeared to be a traditional “hotel” selection and I was about to let it be when, on closer inspection, I realized I was surrounded by a collection of (admittedly toned down) work by some of the world’s leading artists.

Christo and Jeanne- Claude photograph series of Running Fence, California, 1972-1976.

It was the large Christo and Jeanne-Claude photograph series that first caught my eye — a triptych of “Running Fence,” a project the couple completed in September 1976 only to be removed 14 days later by officials. The “intervention” was themed around the notion of crossing boundaries and borders. At the time the piece was quite literally groundbreaking consisting of an almost 25-mile long fence across the private as well as public land comprising the Colorado Continental Divide. Transcending territories is a aspirational theme for any international airline, and these photographs are lasting documentation of the project.

I ask Andrea, a passenger in the lounge, what her thoughts are on the collection:

I hadn’t paid much attention … I’m waiting for a plane. I did see the shoes … she contemplates … I like it because it’s not obtrusive.

The shoes are a large series of photographs lining the entrance wall by fashion photographer David Darling. The piece is a commission and shoes are from the Vivienne Westwood Collection of shoes. They are certainly eye-catching and as any fashionista would tell you the shoes are fabulous.

Donald Judds appear to blend in.

Ironically, behind Andrea’s head are two Donald Judd aluminum steps. They hang camouflaged above a side table bearing a large pot plant and what looks like a Williams Sonoma vase. The artwork label is hidden behind a freestanding lamp that has been inadvertently pushed in front of it. A lady opposite is asleep in her chair.

Around the corner there are two small Peter Halley abstracts above a side table balancing an array of fashion and inflight magazines that juxtapose the neon and black squares of his composition. They look like sketches for larger paintings and their imprecise finish battles with the perfectly art directed glossy front covers.  I ask the airline receptionist if she can tell me anything about their art collection and she replies, “ Oh no have no idea — I know they redecorated a little while ago, these two guys.”

In the ladies restroom I am treated to an Ilya Kabakov drawing in the center of the entrance wall. It a pretty mediocre example but its placement next to the bin still feels like a slap on the cheek. I look down respectively while I wash my hands.

Peter Halley paintings above magazine table. Photo the author.

I later find out the collection is curated by Artwise Curators and Consultants, who are based out of London and close to British Airways headquarters. I may have expected to see more YBA’s (Young British Artists), but Artwise states of their curation:

Working within a defined budget, Artwise has developed a structured and sensitive approach to its acquisitions policy, sourcing artists with a relationship to the countries in which the Lounges are located.

I can’t quite see the correlation between the work and “America” or even “New York” other than perhaps these artists has all spent time here. But, I resolve that if there is space where people will spend time with art (even surreptitiously), it may as well be discursive contemporary art. The subconscious is a powerful thing and maybe something does indeed resonate before the gate is called.

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...