The art of travel: Where to find museum-worthy artwork at the airport

Apr 4, 2021

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My love affair with art began in year six, when my art teacher, Miss Sappington, introduced me to impressionists Henri Matisse, Paul Klee and Edward Degas. I fell in love with the bright colours and abstract shapes and people painted by these great artists. I bought — and framed by hand — my first piece of art when I was 16.

At home, my walls are filled with a mix of classic Art Deco travel posters, signed lithographs and by African-American artists, along with original photos. My parents’ home is also filled with a great mix of art, ranging from original Looney Tunes cartoon gels to a lithograph signed by Marc Chagall that holds a place of honour in the library.

So, as someone who travels regularly, I’ve really appreciated how airports are showcasing local art and bringing a sense of place to travellers. As we slowly begin to travel again, I’m sharing U.S. airports with great art programmes. I hope you get a chance to browse — safely — as you wait for your next flight.

Related: These 7 airports have such stunning artwork, they’re like museums

In This Post

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) 

A Douglas DC-3 airplane seat from the SFO Museum's exhibition. "Aluminum: The Miracle Metal of Aviation." Photo by SFO Museum
A Douglas DC-3 aeroplane seat is displayed in the SFO Museum’s exhibition. “Aluminum: The Miracle Metal of Aviation.” (Photo by SFO Museum.)

To me, my original hometown airport is tops when it comes to art, thanks to a mix of rotating displays in its terminals, along with the SFO Museum, which actually has accreditation from the American Association of Museums. Exhibits I’ve enjoyed include The Golden Gate Bridge: Spanning the Strait for Seventy–Five Years,” “China Clipper,”  “When Art Rocked: San Francisco Music Posters 1966–1971” and “Aluminum: The Miracle Metal of Aviation.

Miami International Airport (MIA)

An aerial view of Miami International Airport (MIA) in 1976. (Photo courtesy of HistoryMiami Museum)

If San Francisco is my top pick for airport art, Miami is a strong second. Back in August 2007, I got an extensive preview of the new South Terminal. The airport has a great mix of art exhibitions in specific areas of the airport. It features local artists in its terminals under Miami’s Art in Public Places programme. There’s also the Hall of Aviation, which features exhibitions that showcase the city’s long-standing fascination with flight. The hall’s current exhibit is Miami From the Sky, a series of aerial photographs from HistoryMiami Museum’s collection.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)

The exhibit Good Trouble: A Tribute to Congressman John Lewis. (Photo courtesy of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport)

During a two-year stint living in Atlanta, I enjoyed going to the world’s busiest airport and visiting the original international terminal, Concourse E, to see the Airport Art Program exhibitions. You could check out displays representing the city’s place in the civil rights movement, including items from the King Library and Archives. You can currently see the Good Trouble exhibit in the airport’s east side of the Domestic Terminal atrium. Artefacts displayed are a pen that President Lyndon B. Johnson used to sign the Civil Rights Act given to  Lewis; the Medal of Freedom awarded to Lewis by President Barack Obama; and a programme from Obama’s inauguration signed by the 44th president with the words: “Because of you John.” At the top of the Lewis tribute wall is a 22-foot-long painting by artist Alexi Torres showing images and icons from Lewis’s life.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)

An Airwest Airlines flight attendant uniform, 1969-1971, a gift of Jeannine Moyle. (Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Airport Museum)

I was stuck at Sky Harbor when it was still an America West Airlines hub in the early aughts and found myself with time on my hands. I stumbled into the Terminal 4 gallery, which featured a wonderful display on the art of baseball, in which artists used various media to represent what the sport meant to them. Style in the Aisle, a current exhibit, celebrates the spirit of the golden age of jet travel through displays of flight attendant uniforms and airline amenity items from the 1960s and 1970s.

Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI)

The Thurgood Marshall Tribute in Concourse C near Checkpoint C, pre-security. (Photo courtesy of BWI Airport)

Maryland First Lady Yumi Hogan, an artist in her own right, oversees a rotating series of juried exhibits from artists based in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., that hang in BWI’s D Concourse past security at my current hometown airport. The International Terminal features work from artists of diverse ethnicities under themes that rotate every six months. Space is given to the Arts Council of Anne Arundel County to show off local artists and those exhibits rotate every four months. An exhibit in the Observation Gallery displays children’s art from around the state. The Thurgood Marshall Tribute is a timeline of the first black Supreme Court justice’s life and highlights his many accomplishments.

Featured photo at BWI Airport courtesy of Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy

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