The art of travel: Where to find museum-worthy artwork at the airport

My love affair with art began in 6th grade, when my art teacher, Miss Sappington, introduced me to impressionists Henri Matisse, Paul Klee and Edward Degas. I fell in love with the bright colors and abstract shapes and people painted by these great artists. I bought — and framed by hand — my first piece of art when I was 16.

At home, my walls are filled with a mix of classic Art Deco travel posters, signed lithographs and giclées by African-American artists, along with original photos. My parents’ home is also filled with a great mix of art, ranging from original Looney Tunes cartoon gels to a lithograph signed by Marc Chagall that holds a place of honor in the library.

So, as someone who travels regularly, I’ve really appreciated how airports are showcasing local art and bringing a sense of place to travelers. Below I outline my favorite airports with great art programs.

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) 

A Douglas DC-3 airplane seat from the SFO Museum
A Douglas DC-3 airplane seat is displayed in the SFO Museum’s exhibition. “Aluminum: The Miracle Metal of Aviation.” (Photo by SFO Museum.)

To me, my original hometown airport is tops when it comes to art, thanks to a mix of rotating displays in its terminals, along with the SFO Museum, which actually has accreditation from the American Association of Museums. Exhibits I’ve enjoyed include “The Golden Gate Bridge: Spanning the Strait for Seventy–Five Years,” “China Clipper,”  “When Art Rocked: San Francisco Music Posters 1966–1971” and “Aluminum: The Miracle Metal of Aviation.

Miami International Airport (MIA)

A marine life art exhibit in Miami International Airport
A marine life art exhibit is featured in Miami International Airport, South Terminal. (Photo by Benet J. Wilson/The Points Guy.)

If San Francisco is my top pick for airport art, Miami is a strong second. Back in August 2007, I got an extensive preview of the new South Terminal. The airport has a great mix of art exhibitions in specific areas of the airport. It features local artists in its terminals under Miami’s Art in Public Places program. There’s also the Hall of Aviation, which features exhibitions that showcase the city’s long-standing fascination with flight. The hall’s first exhibit was “A Century of Flight: The Story of Aviation in Miami,” that included vintage images, uniforms, model airplanes and other artifacts chronicling the growth of Miami as a commercial aviation hub.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL)

During a two-year stint living in Atlanta, I enjoyed going to the world’s busiest airport and visiting the original international terminal, Concourse E, just to see the Airport Art Program exhibitions. You could check out displays that represented the city’s place in the civil rights movement, including items from the King Library and Archives. You can currently see “Courage Under Fire,” a series of historic photos of the Freedom Riders during the civil rights movement or the amazing airFIELD, a series of crystal discs that change from opaque to transparent based on the airport’s flight traffic data.

Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX)

“The Phoenix” by Paul Coze. Courtesy of the Phoenix Airport Museum
“The Phoenix” by Paul Coze rises in Terminal 2. (Photo courtesy of the Phoenix Airport Museum.)

I was stuck at Sky Harbor when it was still an America West Airlines hub and found myself with time on my hands. I stumbled into the Terminal 4 gallery which featured a wonderful display on the art of baseball, in which artists used various media to represent what the sport meant to them. Terminal 2 first opened in 1962 and is home to “The Phoenix,” artist Paul Coze’s historic 16-foot x 75-foot mural made up of 52 materials including gemstones, sand and glass that highlights the city’s past, present and future. The mural will be moved once Terminal 2 is closed by 2020.

Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI)

“Celestial Passages” by artist Guy Kemper is located in Concourse A. (Photo courtesy of BWI Marshall Airport.)

Maryland First Lady Yumi Hogan, an artist in her own right, oversees a rotating series of juried exhibits from artists based in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., that hang in D Concourse past security at my current hometown airport. The International Terminal features work from artists of diverse ethnicities under themes that rotate every six months. Space is given to the Arts Council of Anne Arundel County to show off local artists and those exhibits rotate every four months. An exhibit in the Observation Gallery displays children’s art from around the state and the Thurgood Marshall Tribute is a timeline of the first black Supreme Court justice’s life and highlights of his many accomplishments.

What are your favorite airports for art? Share in the comments.