Worth the Flight: Art Installations to Enjoy at U.S. Airports

December 30, 2021

Business travel may still be full of starts and stops, but one pleasant aspect remains untouched — and even enhanced. Unique art displays in airports across the country provide a captive audience with aesthetic, sometimes experiential, escapes. While we could all remain heads-down in our seats at the gate, catching up on emails or drafting reports, engaging with or viewing art has significant health benefits that can even boost job performance.

In The Healing Power of Art, Jacob Devaney is quoted as saying, “When you observe a profound piece of art, you are potentially firing the same neurons as the artist did when they created it, thus making new neural pathways and stimulating a state of inspiration.” Viewing art enhances brain function and improves our sense of well-being. Park West Gallery, headquartered in Southfield, Michigan, notes that “a trip to the art gallery or a museum can positively impact your health and well-being in several essential ways, like lowering anxiety and depression and boosting critical thinking skills.”  

When you’re faced with an airport layover, take advantage of this built-in opportunity to give your body and soul a well-deserved boost. Following are just a few of our favorite installations.

“Make Yourself at Home,” San Diego International Airport

In September 2021, San Diego International Airport’s Art Program unveiled the new “Make Yourself at Home” installation, which features 16 exhibitors that explore “how the concept of home differs for each person and shapes our memories, identities, and sense of belonging in an increasingly nomadic world,” according to The Times of San Diego. This is a particularly poignant and interesting theme, given the context of the past 18 months and the increased time travelers spent off the road and in their homes. Exhibitor work includes sculpture, painting, photography, video, woven textiles, ceramics, and more.

Part of the "Make Yourself at Home" installation, by artist Cat Chiu Phillips

The San Diego International Airport also offers a performing arts program that showcases live dance, theater, and music performances to enrich the traveler experience. A schedule of performances shows offerings from jazz to Puerto Rican bomba music and even a live performance by the San Diego Padres ballpark keyboard player.

Detroit Airport tunnel lights

For a true on-the-go experience, the Detroit Metropolitan Airport connects passengers on a moving pedestrian walkway between Concourse A and Concourses B/C with a 700-foot underground light tunnel. The tunnel in the McNamara Terminal features nearly 9,000 feet of glass panels with sand-blasted art illuminated by LED lighting. The display is further enhanced by an original musical score that runs throughout the experience.

(For the comfort and safety of all passengers, the airport website also notes: If the combination of light and sound is uncomfortable, passengers can suspend the program for a five-minute period by pressing the button at each end of the tunnel. The button is located to the right at the bottom of the escalators.)

Above ground, in the center of the terminal, travelers should also take in the 39-foot-wide water feature, inspired by the lines of a flight map. All coins tossed into the fountain are donated to charity.

New York water show at LaGuardia

Another waterfall escape can be found at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. There, Terminal B boasts two 25-foot indoor water fountains that, with special light effects, provide floor-to-ceiling shows to celebrate the city. Describing the installation at its debut, the New York Post noted a montage of New York City images, including “a pink Brooklyn Bridge, an orange Empire State Building, a green Statue of Liberty, and a mock-up of the entrance to the Bronx Zoo, complete with animated animals.”

The water-video installation at LaGuardia Airport. Photo credit: LaGuardia Gateway Partners

A forest at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport offers a one-of-a-kind creative diversion through its immersive, mixed media experience. The “Flight Paths” installation stretches 450 feet between Concourses A and B and simulates a rain forest through special effects in lighting, video, and sound. According to Atlanta Magazine, the installation includes nearly 13,000 individual leaves and 24,000 LED lights to create a “fantasy forest” feel. Under the simulated tree canopy, travelers will be surrounded by bird calls, insect noises, and will feel as if a thunderstorm is brewing.

The airport’s art program doesn’t stop there. Pre-security, travelers can view “Good Trouble,” a tribute to the late U.S. Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. The exhibit includes the pen used by President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act, Lewis’ Medal of Freedom, and a program from President Barack Obama’s inauguration signed by Obama with the words, “Because of you John.” The Morehouse College Glee Club’s recording of “We Shall Overcome” provides background music to videos of Lewis’ speeches, and the tribute wall features wood charred in the style of Japanese shou sugi ban in a nod to strength and resiliency.

John Lewis: Good Trouble. Designed by Gary Lee Super, Domestic Atrium

Hidden gems and more to come

Fun, surprising art isn’t only found in large airports. Mid-sized Bradley International Airport, just north of Hartford, Connecticut, and not far from the LEGO Group’s U.S. headquarters, for example, showcases scale Lego models depicting the state’s iconic Mark Twain House and Museum as well as the Goodspeed Opera House.

And a bonus: Just next to Bradley is the New England Air Museum. According to its website, the museum collection contains more than 100 aircraft, from early models through supersonic jets. Throughout three display hangars and one extra outdoor viewing area (weather permitting,) guests can take in more than 55 military and civilian aircraft models including a human-powered helicopter, early gliders, and both original and replicas of aircraft from the 1930s and ‘40s, in addition to more modern planes and helicopters.

Photo credit: New England Air Museum

There is much to look forward to as momentum around airport art continues to build. As NPR reported, Kansas City International Airport will debut the largest public art project in the city in 2023. The first four exhibits chosen through an open call include Nick Cave’s “The Air Up There,” for the ceiling at check-in, Soo Sunny Park’s “Molten Swing” for the escalator to baggage claim, Nassia Inglessis’ kinetic, motorized “Fountain of Resonance” for the Node A area, and the Neil Chambers, Lillian Cho, and Willie Cole collaboration “Ornithology” bird sculptures to be suspended from Node B ceilings.

As more regular travel resumes, it’s important to take advantage of ways to de-stress, recharge, and give your brain a creative boost. Art installations in airports bring unique, restorative experiences right to you during otherwise open, often empty, pockets of time.

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Deem Editorial

The Deem editorial team brings important, informative commentary and data to travel managers and everyone interested in technology and the corporate travel industry.

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