Arts in the Airport
In 15 years, Nashville has grown its program into one of respectability
NASHVILLE — The Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority recently unveiled what is to date the crowning achievement in its developing arts program, a $90,000 lumetric sculpture which guides travelers along the moving walkway from the airport’s new parking lot to the terminal. The high-tech visual passageway symbolizes how far the airport’s cultural initiative has come since it was started in the late 1980s.
To label the latest piece of airport art a sculpture may seem to many a misnomer. It might be better described as a series of flashing tubes guiding one along a sea of light. Nashville International Airport (BNA) describes it thus, "the lumetric sculpture is composed of four spiral forms that intertwine in pairs, creating helixes. Each helix captures and emits light with the use of LED technology." The work spans some 134 feet through the third-floor walkway. Travelers who have traversed the neon underground walkway to the United terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport will recognize the work of renowned light artist Michael Hayden.
For Carole M. Willis, director of communications and marketing for BNA, the Hayden sculpture represents
another stage in the cultural and performing arts program, known officially as Arts in the Airport. She has been with the airport authority some 14 years, about the same tenure as the arts program itself, which got its start with development of a new airline terminal in 1987.
Explains Willis, "Robert Lamb Hart was our lead (terminal) architect from New York, and he actually built into his budget money for an arts in the airport program, which was quite visionary. It was wonderful that our board also saw the vision in that.
"This was just beginning to occur at other airports around the country, but certainly not at the level it is today. Hart enabled us to have seed money to begin an arts program in the airport, and that money has been perpetuated through the years. The seed money was $50,000 and it was then up to the authority to build the program with additional monies." Since the program was officially begun in 1989, the authority has continued to budget the annual sum of $50,000 for the program," she says.
Scope of the Program
The BNA arts program began to develop, says Willis, after authority chair Bob Mathews sought out a local arts patron to head up an arts committee that would visit various airports in the U.S. which had programs already in place. Of those, she says, ones at Orlando, San Francisco, and St. Louis stood out.
"The thing that most impressed them in those cities was that they seemed to be better organized because they were affiliated with a city agency," she says. "Their suggestion to our board was that we contract the actual production of the program with an arts commission, which the city had in place with the Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission.
"We do airports; we don’t do art, but we wanted art in the airport and in public places. We believed in it, so we did contract with the commission."
Susan Knowles, who has a masters in arts degree and had worked with local museums, was then an employee of the Arts Commission, and became involved in starting up the Arts in the Airport program, which today is a non-profit foundation. She now contracts directly with the authority to serve as the part-time curator, accounting for one-fifth of the arts budget.
Explains Knowles, "It’s not enough and that’s a problem because the airport arts program could be a full-time job."
As a result, Willis and Knowles say the airport has learned how to make that $50,000 budget "grow" by way of getting grant monies.
Says Knowles, "There’s an art to that, too."
Adds Willis, "The program has become so successful that usually when we apply for grants we are successful, and that’s helped grow that $50,000. Becoming a respected program helps a lot; then when you have the artists behind you, it speaks volumes."
The Nashville airport program is guided by an arts committee made up of local artists and art patrons, according to Willis. Her staff and Knowles make recommendations on the rotating exhibits each year to the committee, which then makes final recommendations to the airport board. Committee members are volunteers. "They’re people who are in a position to be involved with public art issues, and they serve with no compensation," explains Knowles.
The emphasis of the program from the beginning has been to highlight Tennessee artists and performers, according to Willis. Consequently, to be considered by the program an artist needs to be a Tennessee native or have lived or worked in the state.
The intent, says Willis, has been to get the community vested in the arts initiative, while also serving as a positive impression to travelers.
"We truly believe that the airport is the first and last impression of the city," explains Willis, "and that’s a big draw for artists because such impressions can be lasting ones. The natural light in the terminal also lends itself to public display."
Adds Knowles, "We’re really trying to be public about this, so we do selection by a public process. We really try to run this program so it not only means exposure for artists but it’s chosen by people who are representing the public.
"The connection to what’s happening in the arts communities is key. That, and we try to adhere to the principles of public review that started with the Metro Arts Commission involvement — making everything open to anyone who wants to know."
Since the program began, the airport has collected some 80 works of art in its permanent collection, some of which are used to enhance the airport offices located in the upper level of the terminal. In time, says Willis, permanent works will rotate back to the main passenger areas.
For Willis and Knowles, a very important aspect of the Arts in the Airport program from day one has been to make it a program of diversity and mixed media. In a city known as a national music center, it is only natural that performing artists are central to the program, and in fact are featured each Friday afternoon in the terminal complex.
Explains Willis, "Unfortunately, we can only afford to have performing arts every Friday from noon to 2 p.m. It has become well-known, and local musicians and writers and (recording) labels recognize the Arts in the Airport program.
"The passengers love it. We have had musicians go through the terminal and literally put down their luggage and pick up an instrument. That’s a thrill for passengers, seeing Mark Knoffler or Johnny Cash. It’s not just country music, it’s everything from gospel to jazz to strings to piano."
Many of the art exhibits in the airport are changed out quarterly, and both Willis and Knowles favor a mix of permanent and rotating exhibits. "I would never want to see the rotating exhibits stop and just rely on permanent exhibits," comments Willis. "It’s a way to ensure that there’s always going to be opportunities for other artists and different media to show at our airport. I think that’s what keeps the program alive. Every three or four months there’s something new."
Among those new artists are students, says Knowles, who are often at the airport via workshops put on in conjunction with local events and airport art displays.
"When we hosted the National Figure Skating Championships in Nashville," says Knowles, "we had kids out here and held class workshops for them. We had a group doing live drawings, another group doing clay sculptures. It made quite an impression on the people coming to town for the figure skating events.
"If there’s a way that we can be a part of something important that’s going on in Nashville, we try," she explains.
A Nashville Sampler
Some of the exhibits from Nashville International Airport’s Arts in the Airport program, which has some 80 permanent pieces in its collection, include ...
• Michael Hayden’s lumetric sculpture, which features fiber optics integration and five computer programs that continuously change the light display, keeping the work from appearing static.
• A current display (through June 4) featuring nationally recognized printmaking artists Sheri Fleck Rieth and Cynthia Marsh. In conjunction with the display, the program sponsored a student printmaking day with two local printmaking instructors.
• The Airport Sun Project by sculptor Dale Eldred, known for his work displaying the properties of light, was one of the airport’s first permanent pieces. It consists of glass and metal panels mounted on structural beams and rafters in the terminal.
• Flights of Fancy, a mosaic bench and play area by Sherri Warner Hunter, a Tennessee artist, located in front of the terminal.
• Dancing on Air, by Tennessee artist Jack Hastings, featuring two 15-foot aluminum mobiles that use the airport’s vent currents to gingerly float above the traffic flow of passengers below.
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