Airport expects art to make big impression: Array of visuals should grab attention of city visitors

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Since the mid-1990s, cities have been trying to take advantage of a captive audience by incorporating major public art installations into airport expansion projects.

Long before Indianapolis began forging an ambitious public arts plan for its midfield terminal project, airports in Miami, Denver and Washington, D.C., commissioned millions of dollars’ worth of statues, mosaics and fountains.

Smaller airports, such as Austin-Bergstrom International in Texas, which is on par with Indianapolis in terms of passenger counts, also have latched onto the trend.

When Austin rebuilt its airport in 1999, it set aside $365,000 for art, according to Megan Crigger, administrator of the city of Austin’s Art in Public Places program. Advertising revenue at the airport supports additional commissions, including a $250,000 contract for a memorial sculpture in 2002.

“Airports are busy places,” Crigger said, noting that commissioned art has to be on a large scale to grab people’s attention. “You have to get people to pause and experience the gateway of a city and give them a clue about where they’re about to visit. It’s critical to creating a sense of place.”

Public art efforts at Indianapolis International Airport’s new midfield terminal will easily outpace Austin’s commitment. And unlike most airport art programs that take place in localities with local ordinances requiring a percentage of construction costs go toward art commissions, Indianapolis International Airport’s $3.89 million commitment was voluntary.

“[Typically], if there isn’t a percent-for-art ordinance, you just don’t have a lot of people voluntarily doing it,” said Julia Muney Moore, public arts administrator for Indianapolis-based Blackburn Architects Inc.

The Airport Authority contracted with Blackburn to line up the art commissions and consult on passengers’ experiences at the new terminal. At just under 1 percent of total construction costs, Indianapolis’ commitment is roughly in line with other cities’ mandated programs.

“Art has been part of the development from the beginning, not just an afterthought or an accessory,” said John J. Kish, project director for the new terminal, which is slated to open by late 2008. “It was important for the project to communicate to travelers the importance of arts and culture for the Indianapolis region.”

It’s a concept that’s been around for years, according to Michael Rushton, a professor of public arts administration at Indiana University. Take, for example, New York City’s leading position in the arts world and the beauty of its Grand Central Station.

“It’s an issue of civic pride,” Rushton said. “Your airport is your front door and you want it to be welcoming.”

Some of the final works will go up at the new Indianapolis terminal as early as next month. But the artist-selection process started in 2004 when Blackburn oversaw a general call for artists to submit qualifications, including examples of past pieces, a resume and artist statements.

A panel of seven judges screened more than 500 applicants, winnowing the field to just 52 and eventually to 18 projects proposed for specific sites. From there, 15 artists received commissions to do work for the first round of installations, slated to debut with the new terminal.

With more than a year and a half to go, some of the pieces are already making their way to Indianapolis.

Panels for British-based artist Martin Donlin’s enormous glass murals were hand-blown in Germany and shipped to Minneapolis where they’ll be shipped to Indianapolis and installed in April.

Painted bronze pieces for the whimsical piece “Baggage Claim” by Brooklynbased artist Ron Baron are being cast in

Spencer, a small city about an hour southwest of Indianapolis. And at least one plum contract is yet to be awarded. Eighty-five artists put in spe- cific proposals for an artwork and landscape design to cover a seven-acre site at the entryway from Interstate 70 to the airport, almost two miles from the new terminal.

Moore said the field has been narrowed to six candidates, and the group has one artist it heavily favors, but it has yet to nail down a contract.

Backers hope there will be many waves of commissions for permanent works and temporary exhibits at the terminal. Blackburn has scouted 56 locations in the building and on the grounds and marked them as prime art opportunities. Moore said the plan is to set up a separate not-for-profit by the end of this year to take donations to keep the art presence growing and to make sure travelers are continuously wowed.

“The airport’s a gateway,” Moore said. “We want to give people a good impression so they understand that Indianapolis is a very arts-aware and arts-friendly city.”

Greg Charleston, president of the Arts Council of Indianapolis, agreed.

“It will be a major addition to public art in the city and be the first thing most visitors see when they come to town,” Charleston said. “It tells you a lot about the community and makes the city unique.”

Charleston said that once the terminal is open, the council would include airport art in promotional materials. The project is already creating some buzz in the public arts world because of its price tag alone.

“With that kind of budget, everybody’s going to be watching,” said Austin’s Crigger.

Keira Amstutz, administrator of the Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission, helped pick the artists and said the city is pleased with both the Airport Authority’s commitment and the results.

“This will be a great opportunity to promote Indianapolis,” Amstutz said. “There are going to be some very iconic pieces of work that will become part of the regular stock images used for Indianapolis.”

And though the works aren’t up for view yet, the project is already helping lure visitors to the city. The International Sculpture Center has committed to bring its 2009 national conference-themed “airport as site”-to Indianapolis.

And the city is lobbying to host the American Association of Airport Executives’ annual conference about public art in airports in 2008 so they can take peers on a hard-hat tour before the terminal opens.

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