Photos submitted by The Arts Partnership
For years, I’ve stepped into airports in other communities—in fact, every other community I have ever flown in to—and been welcomed with art in the airport. And not just some art, but a lot of art. Airports from Oslo, Norway, to Rapid City, South Dakota, to Phoenix, Arizona, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Montreal, Canada and so many others all have scads of public art positioned on walls, covering benches, hanging overhead, embedded into the floors and situated in the most heavily trafficked portions of the airport.
There are likely many reasons for it, but I would argue the biggest reason why airports install art in their public areas is because for a visitor, or a prospective or new employee or investor, the airport is the first welcome to a community they receive, the first impression. And we all know the old saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
If that’s true, then what, until very recently, was the first impression people had getting off a plane at Hector International Airport?
For years, it was some taxidermied animals, seemingly endless taupe walls, electronic advertising screens, an early airplane and some heavy moving equipment taking up space in front of the baggage claim area where, in other airports, public art entertains those waiting for their bags. And then, in winter, the long, flat, cold landscape of white out the windows.
Hardly the warm welcome we want to convey to potential transplants from just about anywhere else in the world.
I have to give Fargo City Commissioner Tony Gehrig credit for introducing me to Hector’s Executive Director Shawn Doberstein a number of years ago to talk specifically about putting art into the airport. The Commissioner didn’t have any interest in the airport funding art, but he felt that there was ample space for art to be included.
Unfortunately, The Arts Partnership doesn’t sit on piles of extra money to install art everywhere it should be in the Metro, so while Shawn and I both agreed that art going into the airport was a good idea, neither side had the money to make it happen.
But as I traveled more and more, I continued to hold out hope that I could keep making my case and we could find a way to engage the Airport Authority Board of Directors.
That opportunity happened earlier this year.
A little backstory:
My Director of Operations Tania Blanich and I rented a car from Avis and drove to Kansas City, Missouri. Coming home, we met with various business and arts leaders in the Quad Cities along the Illinois and Iowa border. One stop was the Quad Cities International Airport in Moline, Illinois.
In that airport, hardly bigger than ours, there is a full-sized gallery, curated by an organization very much like The Arts Partnership called Quad Cities Arts. With large wooden and glass cases to display art and artifacts that are beautifully lit, the gallery is situated in a pre-security portion of the airport where every person who enters has the opportunity to enjoy it.
Quad Cities Arts’ Visual Arts Director Dawn Wohlford-Metallo told us people use the gallery as a way to relax before getting on a plane. She noted that you often see people physically unwind when they encounter the space, coming or going from a flight.
But because the glass cases are filled with art created by regional artists, in addition to providing a welcome de-stresser, the gallery also introduces travelers to the people, traditions and culture of the Quad Cities.
Airports across the country and globe understand the very real benefit of having art in their facilities. In fact, in 2017, the American Association of Airport Authorities hosted their 15th annual Arts in the Airport conference at the Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas.
Alex Irrera, from the Houston Arts Alliance wrote:
When situated in an airport, the role of public art is given another dimension. In addition to symbolizing a place, the work now serves the traveler—welcoming, grounding, or inspiring them. As passengers do look up from the busy activity of a trip, thoughtfully curated artworks can be humanizing reminders of travel’s gift of discovery.
So, as I was returning the car from our trip, Tania and I both looked around at the blank walls in the baggage claim area. Determined to see a change based on all my travel, I wrote to Shawn from the airport to set another meeting.
He agreed, and we presented him with a simple program to get started. He put us on the agenda of the next Airport Authority board meeting. Long story short, they unanimously and enthusiastically said yes to hanging art.
So in September, we hung our first curated show at the Airport through our ArtWORKS program. Read about the program on the west wall of the baggage area, then step back a bit and look up. You’ll see six fabulously large canvases and frames filled with cows from some of our area’s best artists for the next three months. Then they’ll switch out to the next show, changing every four months.
The Metro has a lot to offer transplants, but because the arts are rarely talked about as the asset they are, this is a fabulous first step to introducing visitors and new citizens to the creative side of the Metro.
Take a look at the show next time you’re at the airport. I guarantee you’ll smile when you see those cows, and you’ll get a little feel for the kind of community we live in. Show them off and see if they don’t help you attract the employees you need.
Our hope, along with the airport’s, is to continue to grow the program, expanding where art is displayed and how it’s utilized to delight, engage and inspire those returning home and those considering making the Metro their home.