Megan Wilson
Writings > San Francisco International Airport

San Francisco International Airport
by Megan Wilson
Feature for Public Art Review

Spring 2002

Rigo 99, Initial proposal for the San Francisco Art Commission for the San Francisco Airport, 1998

I remember the first time I really noticed the public space of an airport. About fifteen years ago, I was walking through a corridor at Chicago O’Hare and encountered a light installation by Michael Hayden in the United Airlines terminal that created the sense of a tunnel. I loved it. The atmosphere it created seemed so sophisticated and alive—different from how I was accustomed to experiencing airports as cold, boring, and generic. The installation was later removed due to negative feedback.

It’s hard to say what my response to this work would be now, but what was important then was the awareness it brought to my understanding of public space. After this pleasantly surprising incident, I became much more attuned to how I felt in the public domain of air travel. As an artist, this awareness has become almost second nature. For many people, however, the impact of civic surroundings on one’s inner state is probably not understood in terms of deliberate design. Yet, the power of such constructs can mean the difference between beginning a trip with hope and great expectations or with stress and anxiety. It can also mean the difference between perceiving a city as dull and cramped versus lively and engaging.

In 1994 the San Francisco International Airport undertook a $2.4 billion expansion of its facilities to meet the demands of increasing international air traffic, including a new 2.5 million square foot (the equivalent of 35 football fields) International Terminal, the largest such facility in North America. As part of this large project, the Airport Arts Program commissioned seventeen new works of art through the San Francisco Arts Commission in accord with the city’s “percent for art” ordinance, which provides an art enrichment allocation equal to 2 percent of a new or renovated civic structure’s construction cost. The total budget for the art (including administration) was $11.1 million, with individual pieces ranging in cost from $91,389 to $1,638,637. Included are works by Vito Acconci, Juana Alicia and Emmanuel Montoya, Squeak Carnwath, James Carpenter, Enrique Chagoya, Lewis deSoto, Viola Frey, Su-Chen Hung, Mildred Howard, Joyce Kozloff, Rupert Garcia, Carmen Lomas Garza, Ann Preston, Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, Rigo 02, and Keith Sonnier.

The result is impressive. Seven of the works are large-scale installations that have been integrated into the architecture. These include California artist Ann Preston’s You Were in Heaven, an elegant, cloud-like, sculptural wall piece made from fiberglass and installed on five, sixty-foot curving concave walls. The work was chosen for its relaxing and rejuvenating effects as a respite between a traveler’s long flight and upcoming immigration lines. Artist James Carpenter worked with the main terminal’s design team to develop a series of light-diffusing tensile sculptures that are integrated with the skylights and central trusses of the main terminal roof. The billowing structures reinforce the idea of the new International Terminal as a visual metaphor for flight. San Francisco-based artist Su-Chen Hung created an installation on the arrivals level that incorporates colloquial greetings in over one hundred languages cast in five-foot prismatic glass slabs.

The remaining eleven works are smaller museum-quality pieces in a variety of media. Korean-born New York artist Ik-Joong Kang drew on personal memories, experiences, and reflections to create an intricate and impressive composite of fifty-four hundred separate images on three-inch square canvases, ceramic tiles, wood blocks, and cast acrylic cubes installed in a grid formation. ¡Baile!, by San Francisco artist Carmen Lomas Garza, transforms the fragile medium of paper cutouts into laser-cut copper forms, mounted on panels of cobalt blue powder-coated steel. The work, inspired by the artistic traditions of Mexican and Chinese tissue paper cutouts, is a lively image of Mexican folkloric dancers.

I was interested to learn more about this ambitious public project and curious whether the participants’ experience reflected the smooth exterior of the final product. I also wondered about the effects of September 11th and how new security measures have reflected on the project. To that end, I talked with three of the people directly involved with the project.

Susan Pontious, Public Art Program Project Manager

Susan Pontious has twenty-two years of experience as a specialist in developing public art programs. Since 1990 she has been a curator and senior project manager for the San Francisco Art Commission’s Public Art Program. Her responsibilities for the SFO project included (1) forming an Airport Art Steering Committee, (2) developing a Memorandum of Understanding between the airport and the Arts Commission, (3) selecting the artists in conjunction with committees from the Arts Commission and the airport Commission, (4) coordinating art installation with the general contractor and construction management team, and (5) developing a master plan.

MW: What do you see the role of art to be at the airport, specifically these new works?

SP: The art and architecture soften and humanize the space. I also think that a place like the airport is promoting the culture of your city and the region. So I think the airport is where a city makes its first and last impression; the art is part of ensuring that that impression is a good one. The intent of art at SFO is to celebrate and promote San Francisco and the Bay Area as a place that is sophisticated, ethnically diverse, and culturally vibrant.

MW: Were there guidelines the artists were asked to follow?

SP: In general, proposals had to work within the operational realities of the airport; the work had to be maintainable. We asked artists to consider that the work would be viewed by a very diverse audience. All work had to meet ADA physical access requirements. The projects designed for the gate room walls had to use materials that would not degrade when exposed to high light levels. Also, some adjustments in imagery were necessary to make projects appropriate for the airport environment. For example, Mildred Howard’s first proposal had to be abandoned because her pile of suitcases reminded people of a crash site.

MW: What were the biggest challenges?

SP: Coordinating eighteen projects at once, some very complicated, into the construction of the airport. Perhaps the most difficult was the installation of James Carpenter’s structural steel, which had to be attached to the bow trusses of the central skylights, ninety feet in the air. We wanted to attach the pieces before they erected the trusses. We couldn’t do that, so we had to wait until the trusses were up and then had to hire union installers.

MW: Did you look at other projects, such as the Denver airport, as models for the public art process?

SP: We looked at Denver’s process but rejected it early on as a model. It seemed too chaotic. I think the process we used was pretty much the process we use on all our public art projects, the main difference being scale.

MW: Did you think the process was effective?

SP: Yes. I believe it was effective because we established the ground rules early on so that there was a clear process. The participation of high-ranking individuals from the airport on the AASC ensured that the committee’s recommendations were adopted. Support of the airport’s project managers ensured that issues relating to the coordination of the artists’ work with the architects and the general contractor were facilitated and resolved appropriately.

MW: How have September 11th and current policies at the airport changed the project? Do you think those changes will affect future public works?

SP: It makes things more difficult, which is unfortunate. The boarding areas are no longer accessible by persons not having a valid ticket. Of course, the works are still seen by thousands of people on a daily basis. It is too early to say what effect this may have on future works.

Rigo 02, Artist, Balmy Alley, Boarding Gate G

Portuguese-born Rigo Gouveia, whose official artist’s name changes with each new year, drew on traditional Portuguese stone mosaic and a community art philosophy for his gate room wall portrait of a youth engrossed in painting a circle. The work is an outgrowth of an earlier mural (Colors) that Rigo 02 painted on Balmy Alley, a narrow one-block stretch in the heart of San Francisco’s culturally diverse Mission district.
Rigo 02 is well known for his large-scale murals that subvert the ubiquitous iconography of street signs to communicate greater social concerns. For instance, his public mural One Tree, a wall-size painting at Ninth and Bryant Streets in San Francisco, is modeled after a one-way sign and points to an actual tree along one of the main routes to the Bay Bridge. Rigo has shown widely in the Bay Area, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gallery Paule Anglim, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, UC Berkeley, and many public projects; and abroad, including the creation of a series of stone mosaics on a pedestrian walkway in Lisbon, Portugal, as part of EXPO 98’s Urban Art Project. Most recently he exhibited in New York City with the Deitch Project.

MW: What do you think the role of art is at the airport?

R 02: Compared to other airports I know, the art is clearly more prominent in this one. I think that’s a positive thing. It gives art a role that’s more than just decorative—at least it’s like glorified decorative. The airport itself is so vast that the art might function as something you unexpectedly run into as you walk around.

MW: Do you think the art acts as a stand-alone rather than just as a backdrop?

R 02: I think both things happen, and some responsibility lies with the artists to address the context of the public space and not just have the outcome be a translation from studio work.

MW: What was the process of this project? Did you meet with the architects or other artists?

Rigo 02: There wasn’t much dialogue between the artists that I’m aware of. We got to see each other’s proposals, the one’s presented to the Arts Commission. We never met with the architects, but mostly worked with Susan (Pontious) about the fabrication, work time, and when we could be there.

The initial community for the work ended up being the construction workers at the airport. They offered both criticism and endorsement. One guy predicted there would be an incredible outcry when the airport opened to the public because I was painting a tagger—a graffiti artist. A lot of people asked why I wasn’t doing the Golden Gate Bridge—something more “San Francisco.” So then begin this dialogue that will ideally lead to growth on both sides. At the end there was a clear bond.

MW: Did the process go smoothly for you?
R 02: It did go pretty smoothly, aside from the initial reaction to the design. I submitted two designs. The one that wasn’t selected was a young girl with long braids sitting on the front steps of a house reading a superhero comic book and wearing a superhero mask. I liked that design better than the one they chose, but they thought some people might think she was a highjacker. Also, she had a skateboard behind her, and they thought there was something kind of phallic about the skateboard. I think their concerns were out of bounds because they supported the idea that kids are a threat. I did like that the work they chose, the kid painting, sort of functioned as an advertisement for art.

MW: What were the biggest challenges?

R 02: The time and the labor intensity were trying. Also, I was working with two professional tile setters and eventually brought in a third person, so I felt I had to manage their enthusiasm—or lack thereof—for the process. When we started it was really slow. We started in July of 1999 and by the third or fourth day they were asking what I was going to be doing for Christmas. I said I’d be going back to Portugal, and they said no, no, we think you’re going to be here setting tiles. So it was a big joke whether we were ever going to finish. Of course I wanted them to be in a good mood and believe in the project, which happened at the end.

MW: Did you feel like the project was a success—for you and overall?

R 02: I think so. I’m definitely satisfied with the way my project turned out, the experience of doing the work, the final result, and the presence it has there. I think there is something of a street presence or comic book presence about it. In terms of the overall presence the art has there, I think it’s successful. I’m sure it could be better. In terms of the art that was happening in San Francisco then, the works at the airport don’t reflect everything that was going on. There isn’t any video-based work or different media. There’s no sexuality or night culture expressed or celebrated in any of the works, and that’s a big part of San Francisco identity.

MW: What do you think about the effect of September 11 on the project?

R 02: As society tries to address gang violence as something we should be concerned about, wars between countries and aggressive turf-grabbing attitudes are causing violence. So I think gang violence has spread from safely remote societal areas like blighted inner cities to the most sanctified realm of the World Trade Center. The turf wars of inner-city gangs have spread to the extent that we need to have armed soldiers patrolling the airports because we’re afraid the other gang might attack. I think it’s a step backward in terms of what kind of public space we’re allowed to have. Things always felt much more paranoid in London or Israel—the constant security reminders—and now it’s here. So I guess the future is a little less Utopian now than it was a few years ago. Instead of this place where people from different nations can shop together and get to know each other’s cultures, people are now paranoid, looking over their shoulders. It’s a much more Orwellian space.

Harry L. Overstreet, Gerson/Overstreet Architects, San Francisco

The Airport Commission wanted a consistent design theme throughout the International Terminal. Thus, G/O collaborated with architectural teams for the International Terminal and Boarding Area G to develop a common exterior building vocabulary for window wall, structural, mechanical, and electrical building systems, while encouraging each architect to explore his or her own expression of the interior volume in order to produce variety, interest, and richness reflective of the diverse and dynamic flavor of the San Francisco Bay Area.

MW: What role do you see the art having at the airport?

HO: It’s an enriched space. The art adds to the quality of the space. It’s an abstract quality of life that’s hard to articulate. You have it, you may not notice it all the time, but if you don’t have it, you notice it. We take so many things for granted, and art is something that improves the quality of one’s life.

MW: What criteria were used in selecting the artists?

HO: We looked at a public space where diverse people would come. We looked at pieces we thought would make a positive statement to San Francisco and its culture. We looked at things we thought would fit well with the airport environment. I didn’t want to have anything in our area that was going to be high maintenance because no public agency is going to maintain it, and the airport can’t maintain it.

MW: How much contact did you have with the artists?

HO: We had regular meetings. I remember Ann (Preston) coming into the office five or six times as she developed her concept. There was concern if a fire took place whether any toxic material would be released. We were also concerned about its weight and if it would fit within the building frame. So there was a lot of collaboration that was not impacting her concept as such but that led to a better understanding of what she was going to do. And I think that was true not only with Ann, but also with most of the artists. With Mildred (Howard) we had to work with her design to make sure that we had the structure prepared for the work.

MW: Did you look at any other airports during this process?

HO: SFO has a whole art staff and director. It was easy for this airport to embrace the public art concept because it was already so well developed and had such a large collection of works. And that made it very easy for us as architects to also embrace it. I don’t think most airports can compare with what San Francisco has done with its public art. The only one that I think might be comparable to San Francisco would be Atlanta’s airport.
MW: How have the recent new policies at the airport changed the project?
HO: The new policy at the airport is affecting the large number of people who would have had the opportunity to visit and enjoy the work. Now much of the work will only be seen by the passengers. It’s no longer a gallery.

MW: Was the project a success?

HO: I think it was a fabulous project. San Francisco puts a high value on its culture. The airport reinforces that. You look around San Francisco and there’s so much emphasis placed on the arts culture, and you look at the airport and it reinforces that. Even before this project, the airport already had a $100 million collection.

Interviewing three people involved in the art commissioning project at San Francisco International Airport made it clear that the project was successful, both individually (for the artists) and collectively (for the airport). As a highly visible representation of the city, the airport can offer an impression of the art being created there. Precisely for that reason, I was disappointed that the artwork is not more reflective of the vibrancy and freshness of the contemporary art being created in the Bay Area during the late 1990s. As an artist myself, I reacted like Rigo 02: the project felt safe, neutral, and predictable. It would have been interesting and exciting to see a portion of the project devoted to time-based and multi-media works produced with the assumption that they would be temporary and subject to change. But what is a public art commission to do when faced with a culture in which California artist Thomas Kincaid is touted as the “most collected artist in the world.” What does this say about the public that should be considered when developing a project of this nature, or the standards from which to measure?

Yet it is possible to subversively present work that at first glance appears to meet the standards of middle America but upon closer viewing reveals a more authentically human experience. Such is the case with artist Ik-Joong Kang’s small three-inch by three-inch canvases in the departures lobby. While a number of these miniature blocks communicate a celebratory message (“Happy Landscape,” “Happy Speculation,” “Happy Oregon,” “Happy Resistance,”), mixed within these are darker ideas: “Cruel Hands,” “Forcing Girls,” “Homosexual Envy,” “Echoing Gunfire.” Kang’s work is a great example of the tricky balance that is needed, but possible to achieve, when the general public and the art world meet. When that happens successfully, it can be a magnificent experience.

Megan Wilson is San Francisco artist, writer, and fundraiser for arts organizations living in San Franccisco.