SAN FRANCISCO — On a recent trip through SFO airport, I came across an intriguing exhibition. After walking through security, I saw a wide variety of sculptural objects, almost all of them repurposed from waste materials. They were part of a fully curated exhibition in United Terminal 3, a celebration of San Francisco Recology’s artist in residence program. On another trip to the airport, this time at the international terminal, I came across a lovely selection of basketry from Cordillera Central in Luzon, Philippines. This time, the exhibition came from UCLA’s Fowler Museum, which houses an important collection of art from Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.
Hyperallergic has previously looked at airport art, when my colleague Ben Valentine looked at some of the challenges of art in North American airports. We’ve all seen them when we take a trip, an odd sculpture in a major thoroughfare or a painting along the people mover. These forms of art create an image that the city wants to project, as Valentine noted:
Issues of setting aside, airport art can present us with a sliver of what a city wants to say about itself. Which artists are chosen and what type of work is on display are indicative markers of political, economic, and cultural aspirations. For instance, Denver represents itself with a colossal, satanic-looking mustang (seen at top) to 28 million travelers every year. To put that number into context, the population of Texas is just over 25 million. It’s not exactly a warm welcome from Colorado, but it says a lot about the rugged Coloradan image — there are even still a few wild mustangs in the state.
If our first impressions of a city are often framed by the airport, then SFO makes up for its lack of architectural grandeur with its own unique culture. Many have pointed out that it is one of the few, and perhaps only, airports to have a dedicated yoga room. But what makes it stand out more, to me at least, is that it has its own museum project, the SFO Museum, with curated exhibitions that encourage browsing and consideration — each work has its own placard, explaining the artist’s intent or the object’s cultural value — rather than a quick glance while zipping through.
“We’re proud to be a true ‘museum without walls,’ but that can make it challenging to determine our impact on passengers,” noted SFO Museum assistant curator Megan Callan in an interview with Hyperallergic. Callan, who’s been working with museum for five years, estimates that about 10% of the airport’s 40 million annual visitors interacts with their exhibits, which include the Aviation Museum and Library in the international terminal. The museum relies on social media and Google Alerts to gauge visitor interaction.
“I get to work on a broad range of subject matter and present unique exhibitions to the public, such as Japanese Toys, which you’d be hard-pressed to find in a traditional museum setting,” said SFO Museum curator Nicole Mullen, who’s been working at the museum for five years. “Because we are located within the airport terminals, we are able to reach a large, diverse traveling public and expose visitors to material that they might not see or learn about otherwise.”
The exhibition map highlights just how extensively the museum works — there are multiple exhibitions in each terminal — from Japanese toys in Terminal 2, Classic Plastics in the International Terminal, and, at the airport’s Aviation Museum and LIbrary, aircraft factory photos of women at work during World War II. You might be surprised to know that the SFO Museum has been hosting exhibitions since 1980, and they were the first (and only) museum in an airport to be accredited back in 1999 by the American Alliance of Museums. This has helped them build relationships with many outside institutions that, Callan notes, are often impressed by the high standards of museum.
“We’ve been told repeatedly by frequent travelers and airline staff that they try to get to the airport with enough time to take in the exhibition in their terminal,” Callan says. And I have to admit that I’ve done the same, knowing that there’s probably going to be something interesting to see and learn about. For the tens of millions of people who pass through and the thousands who work there, it’s a pretty compelling way to bring more cultural objects to the general public.
“We’re really fortunate to have such a wide variety of visitors (even if they’re unsuspecting) to cater to,” Callan says of the unique opportunities of curating for an airport. “We like to think that the ephemeral nature of traveling lends itself well to the serendipitous experience of coming across our exhibitions.”