From Banksy prints in Austin to skateboard decks in Phoenix, you’ll find intriguing art at airports across the Southwest, so leave a little time for looking during your holiday travels.
PHOENIX, AZ—If you wanted to see a Banksy artwork, you probably wouldn’t visit your local airport. But that would be a mistake if you live in Austin, Texas, where the airport will be showing six of his works through the end of March 2022.
“Airports are a great way to showcase art, especially for people who aren’t spending a lot of time in museums and galleries,” says Cory Anne Hurless, program manager of art, music, and graphics at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
It’s one of several airports in the Southwest where you can find an intriguing array of exhibitions, installations, murals, outdoor sculptures, and more.
“People are captivated by seeing art in the airport, especially because they don’t expect it,” says Heather Kaufman, director of arts and events at Denver International Airport, where the best-known artworks include Mustang/Mesteño by Luis Jiménez, a massive blue horse sculpture with glowing red eyes that some people insist on calling “Blucifer.”
Controversial pieces may garner more attention, but they’re just a tiny fraction of what you’ll encounter during your holiday travels.
“We really focus on local artists,” says Austin’s Hurless. “We want the airport to feel like an extension of the local arts community.” The artworks on view at Austin-Bergstrom are for sale, although the city won’t let the airport post prices. Text panels help people connect with artists when they want to purchase artworks, and the airport doesn’t take a commission.
That local focus is prevalent in airports across the Southwest, so taking time to explore a city’s airport art can bring insights into its larger cultural landscape. “Every airport has a unique mix of art,” reflects Gary Martelli, manager and curator for the Phoenix Airport Museum in Arizona.
At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, for example, ninety percent of artworks are located in pre-security areas, which makes it easy for community members to explore the artworks. “You don’t need an airline ticket to view the art,” explains Martelli. The Phoenix Airport Museum is distinguished by its sizable art collection, comprising more than 900 pieces, and the fact that Sky Harbor Airport has two traditional gallery spaces.
More often, airports show art in display cases dotting assorted indoor spaces.
In Albuquerque, Southwestern architecture helps set the airport apart, as do works by well-known artists such as Pop Chalee, Allan Houser, and Fritz Scholder. There’s even a secret tunnel with mosaic artworks, though it’s decommissioned and closed to the public.
Recent exhibition themes at the Albuquerque International Sunport have ranged from lowriders to hot air balloons. Works installed along Sunport Boulevard include Rogelio Madero’s La Serpentina, which looks like a long, flowing piece of pink taffy.
If you’re eager to explore airport art during holiday travels, you’ve got two basic options. You can stumble onto artworks as you make your way through airport spaces, enjoying the serendipity that comes from making random discoveries. Or you can spend a little time online before you travel, checking out the art sections of websites for the airports on your itinerary. Either way, Martelli of the Phoenix Airport Museum suggests allowing extra time to explore the art.
“Traveling in general can be stressful, and people often find lines or security procedures dehumanizing,” Martelli says. “Pausing to look at art can help to counter those feelings.”
Most airports have art in unexpected places, which adds to the sense of discovery.
Look up inside the main concourse at Dallas Love Field and you’ll see a giant ring of 3,000 flying objects with LED lighting (Brower Hatcher and Marly Rogers, Sky, 2013). Look down inside a PHX Sky Train station and one will notice elaborate terrazzo floors designed by artists with vastly different aesthetics.
Typically, airport art is in flux due to rotating exhibitions or major construction projects that involve commissioning new works of art, so it’s likely you’ll encounter different pieces every time you travel.
Meanwhile, major expansions are bringing new artworks to airports in Salt Lake City, Houston, and Denver, among others.
In August, for example, the Houston Mayor’s office announced the largest art acquisition to date for Houston airports, which includes the addition of seventy-four works by Texas-based artists at the George Bush Intercontinental and William P. Hobby airports. At Denver International Airport, they’re implementing a multi-year $1.5 million construction project that will add thirty-nine new gates and a significant number of new public artworks.
Currently, travelers in Austin can check out a brand-new immersive installation near gate fourteen. Created by Janet Zweig, Interimaginary Departures lets travelers choose a ticket to one of more than 150 fictional destinations from Hogwarts to Wakanda. These experiences are especially important now, according to Hurless.
“As our culture shifts from COVID-19, people are becoming more insular and not getting out as much,” she says. “Airports are one of the few places where people may be seeing art.”