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A New Artist Residency Lands at LaGuardia Airport

Though it’s best known for cramped terminals and perpetual traffic jams, New York City’s smallest air travel hub will soon boast a rather unique amenity.

Rotunda of LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal A, featuring the now-gone Hudson News kiosk, where ArtPort’s artist-in-residence will work (photo via Wikipedia)

LaGuardia Airport is getting a new arts program that might make visitors’s experiences memorable for reasons unrelated to traffic troubles. This month, the Queens Council on the Arts (QCA) launched its ArtPort Residency, the first-ever artist residency program to reside at LaGuardia. Far from a traditional residency, this one takes place entirely in the public eye. The airport has designed space in Marine Air Terminal, or Terminal A, for an artist’s studio, providing the opportunity for thousands of people to engage with the resident’s work every day.

The call for applications, accessible online, is now open through April 5. Only Queens-based artists can apply, as QCA and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), which operates the airport, want to showcase art that provides a gateway into the borough’s cultural life. The QCA website also notes that work that has “an innovative way of engaging the public” will be given priority.

“Queens is often overlooked for many reasons, and being that almost everybody who comes into the city comes through Queens, we want them to experience a flavor of Queens,” Lynn Lobell, QCA’s Grants & Resource Director, told Hyperallergic. “As an arts council, we also wanted the general public to be able to experience art in unexpected places and to see how the artist process works.”

Interior of Marine Air Terminal in 2015 (photo via Wikipedia)

For this inaugural season, QCA is selecting four artists for the three-month residency, with the first to begin working in mid-April. Each will receive a $3,000 stipend and keys to the 110-square-foot space, formerly a Hudson News stand, during the terminal’s open hours. The space sits in the rotunda of the Art Deco building, which is landmarked (and arguably LaGuardia’s most pleasant terminal), below a 235-foot-wide, WPA-era mural by James Brooks, “Flight.”

Being at an airport, of course, means that artists will have limitations that might pose some challenges. The list of banned materials is so long that QCA didn’t share it online. Most of it covers the obvious, including any toxic materials. Artists will also not be allowed to wield loud machinery or welding tools. Those shortlisted will have to undergo an interview process so QCA can further judge whether their proposals are appropriate for a highly trafficked and highly secured area. Additional terms that may not sit well with some artists include restrictions on making certain types of art that are violent, obscene, or politically partisan.

“It’s not our nature to be so sensitive of art,” Lobell said. “But there’s a whole litany of do’s and dont’s the airport has put in place, and we have to be mindful that this is not exactly a traditional space for artists to work.” The ArtPort Residency also receives funding from New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs, so this is one big bureaucratic boat that can’t be rocked.

The high security, however, does provide residents with one major benefit.

“One of the team members of Port Authority said that whatever is brought into this space is going to be the most protected art in the world,” Lobell said. “Because of the security guards, army, the state troopers.”

It’s taken almost a year for Port Authority to come to terms with the idea of a residency at one of the country’s busiest airports. The idea originally came from one of QCA’s grant panelists, who also worked at LaGuardia. A meeting with the airport’s general manager led to further conversations about how artists can provide a different user experience of the transit hub. It helped that LaGuardia is currently undergoing massive construction.

“That can be a little harrowing, and they wanted to try and get people to feel a little bit at ease,” Lobell said.

Marine Air Terminal in 1974 (photo via Wikipedia)

QCA is experienced at organizing residencies in nontraditional spaces. For two years, it has run a similar program at various hotels in Queens, where artists work in highly public spaces made available by a host establishment. Both the ArtHotel and ArtPort Residencies emerged out of conversations QCA has been having with artists from all over Queens, Lobell said, particularly on how its rapid gentrification is impacting their livelihoods.

“There are not as many galleries and studios, especially in the Long Island City area, not to the extent there were five, six years ago,” Lobell said. “This community is being torn apart by the building of apartments and skyscrapers. Artists talk about not having studio spaces anymore, so this is an opportunity we thought we could provide them. ArtHotel worked out well, so we thought, why not an airport?”

If ArtPort, too, goes smoothly, it’s possible that the program will move into LaGuardia’s main terminal, Terminal B, upon its completion, which is scheduled for 2021. Port Authority might even set up a similar residency at John F. Kennedy International Airport, according to Lobell.

The initiative is a new one for New York City, but ArtPort is not the only program of its kind. Other airports that host artist residencies include Pittsburgh International Airport, San Diego International Airport, and Brisbane Airport. Many airports also take care to establish art programs to enhance their spaces with revolving exhibitions. Toronto Pearson for instance, has a robust one, as does Denver International Airport — whose installations have even fueled conspiracy theories — and San Francisco International Airport. Two years ago, travelers flying into the City by the Bay were stopped by artist Michele Pred, who enacted a memorable performance to mark the passage of the Patriot Act, passing out pocket knives. And from time to time, artists also inadvertently disrupt an airport’s normal flow, as the work they travel with can turn out to be quite unorthodox.

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