now boarding for eye-catching art
New 'artport' programs by Houston airports surprisingly surpass iconic global venues for number of daily viewers
Truthfully, the average U.S. traveler probably doesn’t pay too much attention to the décor at the airport while they’re sprinting through to catch a plane or whizzing out to head home.
Even those with more time on their hands due to layovers or — ugh— cancelled flights might only have shopping and eating on their minds.
But thanks to several groundbreaking new programs and an enviable permanent collection, Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport are fast becoming “artports.” Essentially, they’re bringing some visual interest and razzle-dazzle to millions of travelers’ experience in H-town.
“Art in the airport is a globally growing trend, and arguably the airport is becoming the new museum,” Alton DuLaney, curator of public art for Houston Airports, tells CultureMap. “You’ve got a captive audience with time to spend and enjoy. We want to make that experience in our airport as pleasant as possible. And the ‘wow factor’ is our Public Art program. We’ve heard of passengers arriving early just to enjoy the art!”
More eyeballs than ... The Louvre and MOMA?
And there’s plenty of eyeballs experienced that enjoyment. According to Houston Airports statistics, some 54 million people passed through the city’s two major airports in 2022 (41 million for Bush-IAH; 13 million for Hobby).
By the numbers and by comparison, the famed Louvre Museum in Paris, France (aka “Mona Lisa’s Crib”), only notched 10 million visitors. New York City’s Museum of Modern Art reached just 7 million.
Houston Airports currently has a total of 350 works in its collection, most on display and valued at a whopping $28 million. That makes it one of the largest public art collections in the entire aviation industry, and features works by predominately Texas-based artists.
This collection includes everything from paintings, sculptures, digital works, mixed-media objects, jewelry, and photography to the 75-foot tall Radiant Fountains illuminated towers by Dennis Oppenheim. It greets every visitor driving to or from Bush-IAH on JFK Blvd. and was the recipient of an extensive conservation project last year.
According to DuLaney, the program and funding for the Public Art program began in 1999 with a City of Houston ordinance deeming that 1.75 percent of all eligible construction project budgets would be designated for art to beautify those facilities. An in recent years — given the amount of never-ending airport construction projects — that ends up being considerable dollars set aside for public art.
Big money for great work
“We have a constantly replenishing budget,” DuLaney laughs. “And because it comes from airport fees, there are no tax dollars or taxpayer money spent.”
One of the more interesting new aspects begun last September is the Artist in Residence Program at both Bush-IAH and Hobby. A local, usually full-time artist will set up a mobile studio right in middle of one of the terminals, creating art and talking to passersby for several hours each day. The artist receives a stipend and funds for supplies, and whatever they produce at the end of their three-month residency becomes part of the HA’s permanent collection.
“Currently we have the only active airport with an Artist in Residence Program in the nation,” DuLaney offers. “The idea came a few years back when we had some murals put into the airport, and we noticed that passengers loved to talk to them while they were working. So much that some of them had to come in at night just to get anything done!”
The program was then launched by Dulaney and Liliana Rambo, chief terminal management officer of Houston Airports. DuLaney notes that each artist and their worked are then also shared to a vast audience around the world via passengers’ social media. There are also cultural collaborations with entities like the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, NASA, Houston Botanical Gardens, and the Airport Terminal Museum.
Walking to soar
Another arty addition to Bush-IAH is the Healthy Art Walking Tour (HAWT!). Five works of art are spread throughout the airport, each with a QR code that links to a YouTube video in which DuLaney talks a bit about the piece and trainer Zach McNeil demonstrates a related simple low-impact exercise.
Like a sculpture of a human hand leads to a palm-and-finger workout; a large tree inspires stretching; and a hummingbird in the Greetings from Houston mural takes flight in jumping jacks (though that last one might earn you some curious stares).
Finally, DuLaney is currently at work on creating specific “Gallery Areas” throughout the airports that are specifically designed more like museums. And he’s got a hint for CultureMap readers to the best one so far.
“It’s a hidden gem on the Mezzanine Level of Terminal D by the American Express Centurion Lounge,” he says. “I’ve got about 20 paintings by mostly Houston artists that you can view completely uninterrupted by the usual airport hubbub. There are no gates, no concessions, no overhead announcements, and no carts whizzing by!”