Flying Should Be More Like Going to Art Museums

Music, film and visual arts are improving the travelling experience.
October 2018
“Flight Paths” appears between Terminals A and B in the Atlanta airport. (Flickr/Tess Dixon)
Alex Marshall
By Alex Marshall  |  Columnist
An urban affairs and infrastructure columnist for Governing

When I’m inching beltless and shoeless through a long security line at an airport, or searching to buy an expensive, stale sandwich for an otherwise meal-less ride through the sky, or sprinting between distant gates to make a tight connection to my next flight, I am, like most air travelers, pretty stressed. But passing through the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport on a recent trip, I found a bit of something one rarely associates with the modern air travel experience: peace.

The mechanism for this stress reliever was something called the See 18 Film Screening Room. Just off the main walkway of Concourse C, I saw people quietly watching local art videos or just sitting and resting. They lounged on seating units that are essentially slabs set at an angle in symmetry, making the whole room a giant piece of art. Calm pervaded the space.

Where did this come from? And who paid for this lovely space, which could have been prime retail square footage? I learned that the film room was made possible by the airport’s “1 percent for the arts” program. It’s part of a larger movement across the country, with cities, states and independent facilities such as airports requiring or encouraging that construction or renovation contracts for public facilities set aside funds for artworks. It’s a good thing, helping to weave color, space and creativity into the fabric of our lives.

The state-led Metropolitan Airport Commission operates the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, with board members appointed by the governor and the mayors of the two cities. In 2006, it approved the 1 percent for the arts program in its capital budget. The nonprofit Airport Foundation runs the arts program and makes recommendations, with the board approving all major art installations.

Other airports, including those in Atlanta, Baltimore, Denver, Phoenix and San Francisco, have similar programs. But I have not seen one as nice as the Twin Cities’. The program not only created the film room, but also provided the guitar-playing singer my wife enjoyed on one trip, as well as art-filled display cases here and there. It will pay for an “arts park” in front of a new hotel that recently opened, art in the new parking garage and a sculpture that will fill the two-level space between the ticketing and baggage claim areas.

The notion of having government directly paying for arts is a red flag for some, of course. “I had board members who didn’t think government should be supporting the arts, pure and simple,” says Dan Boivin, chair of the airport commission board. Despite that, the board unanimously approved the 1 percent program.

To Boivin, the notion always seemed like a good one for the Twin Cities, which is unusually strong in music, dance, theater and museums. “We have a vibrant community of the arts, and I wanted to bring that into the airport,” he says. After all, it’s the gateway to the region and, with 40 percent of its traffic due to connector flights, it made sense to give travelers who have a choice a reason to connect through Minneapolis-St. Paul.

If managed well and creatively, such programs are good policy options for enhancing livability. They help convert art from a rarified, elites-only domain into something enjoyed and discussed by everyone. I’d like to see governments expand these programs to new areas, such as roadways. How about giant sculptures in the grassy medians? Why not make more of our journeys efficient as well as colorful, engaging and thought-provoking?