"I love Amsterdam, though I hate Paris," Houston Arts Alliance's director of civic art and design Matthew Lennon says, talking about the cities' respective airports.
When he worked as a public art curator in Newcastle upon Tyne, a borough in North East England, and as an independent temporary art project director in County Cork, Ireland, Lennon was a frequent traveler who, while waiting for his many departures, would admire — and critique — airport design; a pleasurable experience in some, he couldn't get out fast enough from others, like Charles de Gaulle in Paris.
Lennon doesn't travel as much since joining HAA's team in 2008, though he's researching how flight commuters manage their down time.
The artists whose works are on view in LAYOVER: Houston Airport System Portable Art Collection Preview at Alliance Gallery could relate. The small assemblage, on view through Aug. 24., comprises 10 paintings, sculptures and mixed-media pieces that represent roughly 15 percent of Houston Airport System's growing Portable Art Collection.
"What we have on display is a taste of a program being developed with Pam Ingersoll (Houston Airport System public art program director) for both George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and Hobby International Airport," Lennon explains. "With the expansion of both facilities, it's the right time to think about how we can intensify the travel experience with a sense of what Houston is through art."
"People will always talk to you about art that they have seen elsewhere. This collection will get people talking about what you can see here."
The complete Portable Art Collection offers a glimpse at the output of a melange local artists, including some who previously haven't been featured as part of any public art initiative. Alongside airport officials, Houston art savants were involved in the selection process, among them Houston Center for Contemporary Craft executive director Julie Farr, Menil curator Michelle White, Galveston Arts Center curator Clint Willour and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston CORE fellow Gabriel Martinez.
"People will always talk to you about art that they have seen elsewhere," Lennon says. "This collection will get people talking about what you can see here."
Lennon describes the holdings as bold, in-your-face and unusual in color and design, crafted by established Texas masters and emerging creatives.
A vibrant Plexiglas sculpture by Jonathan Leach layers harsh geometry with intensely hued rhythmical lines. Also by Leach, Mainland is a hot pink, celeste and green acrylic-on-canvass that befits the Bayou City's spirit of economic development, innovation and quirkiness. Mary Helene Gagneux's kiln-formed glass piece, Harmonius Void, has a striking presence, yet the undulating navy blue shades soften the otherwise imposing, decisive shape.
Moreover, fine art by Karin Broker, Jeff Forster, Dixie Friend Gay (whose Houston Bayou adorns a wavy corridor at IAH), Katrina Moorhead, Howard Sherman, Damon Thomas and Randy Twaddle will complement the airport's current commissioned and donated works, including Jim Hirschfield and Sonya Ishii's Beads, Dennis Openheim's Radiant Fountains, David Adickes' Winds of Change, Leamon Green's Passing Through and The Art Guys' Video Ring and Travel Light.
The cash comes directly from the airfield's capital improvement fund. A civic art city ordinance decrees that 1.75 percent of construction costs are to be set aside for art beautification.
"When we prepare a contract for public art installations, the money stays locally," Lennon says. "Part of the funds go to engineers and contractors to make things happen. It money gets spread out between a lot of people and businesses."
"I want artists working in cities like London and Berlin to feel they have to get to Houston, that they want to work in Houston, because we are doing exciting things."
Though the budget for art acquisition and installment costs starts at $1.1 million — $300,000 for Hobby and $800,000 for IAH (IAH's allowance will be implemented in two phases) — what LAYOVER reveals is only the beginning of Houston Airport Systems director Mario Diaz's vision to morph both facilities into 21st century destinations, where the aesthetic quality of the space matters.
Discussions for the Portable Art Collection began more than a year ago. Display cases were designed so that they would be mobile and wouldn't require electrical wiring. At Hobby, art will be installed in easily accessible public areas by the end of August.
By mid October, art at IAH will pop up pass security points of Terminal D, around the seating areas, between posts and in the line of vision of travelers walking to or from their gates. The second phase of the Portable Art Collection at IAH will enrich Terminal A.
The pieces will rotate in an effort to move away from static exhibits. QR codes will pull up information about the work and its artist.
"I came to Houston because it's a city that puts its money where its mouth is, though we are often too modest about it," Lennon says. "Houston is a city of experimentation, a city that isn't afraid to take risks. I want artists working in cities like London and Berlin to feel they have to get to Houston, that they want to work in Houston, because we are doing exciting things.
"Maybe in the next decade we can accomplish that."