Art Should Travel Too

article written by Erika Sampson

I am fully aware that a single piece of art cannot be universally appreciated. Every person has a slightly different (or hugely different) definition or criteria of ‘art’. Art that I enjoy is certainly not the favoured art of many of my friends, and that is perfectly fine; no issues there. However, I think there is a problem when high volume areas in our communities do not even try to encompass ‘art’, whatever medium that may be. Just because people have scattered opinions regarding art does not mean a business can skip out on having art. Art can also be very expensive, but I believe it is a cost that needs to be strategically factored in when looking at designing spaces. This, ladies and gentlemen, leads to my adventures at four international North American airports, and the overall lack of artistic representation that I felt when travelling among them.

Now look, I get it, airports are not art galleries, and I am not suggesting they become them (or wait, actually that would be sick!). What I am hoping to prove through this blog post is that, theoretically speaking, airports are supposed to be public spaces that induce calmness and joy. Yet, when I was travelling last week, the majority of the airports that I was in felt like a mix of Times Square and a hospital. Each had sections with surplus advertisements that made it feel like a corporate money grab, which was then paired with a sterile, barren environment.

Airports are used by thousands of travellers everyday, and I think because of that there is an added level of creative necessity. Airports and their image have an impact. Airports cannot only showcase white walls and ads, there needs to be colour and life, or else travellers not only feel like they are in a lull, but also they do not fully get to grasp the culture that is present in that major city. Airports hence must visually showcase the diversity and integrity of the area in which they are placed. They need to represent local artists, and they need to do it in a way that will cater to large audiences. Thematically, said art should probably stay away from death, politics, religion, or controversial subjects in history. In a perfect airport setting, art would be a mixture of paintings, sculptures, and even perhaps live music. Had I been surrounded by art it would have been a welcome distraction from travelling alone.

So now onto my trip. I flew from Toronto to Vancouver, then Vancouver to Portland, then Portland to Calgary (I hate layovers), and finally Calgary to Toronto. In every airport I snapped pictures of the art I could find, and honestly in three out of the four, hunting for art at the airport was nearly impossible. This was something that really shocked me, especially because I spent hours in these airports, and was sorry to report that they were dull buildings.

First stop: Toronto Pearson International Airport. I travel through Pearson probably four times a year, and I thought for sure my city would not let me down. I thought that certainly Toronto would have art up, as Toronto itself is very culturally creative. I am not kidding when I say I made this blog post my mission for the week, next to relaxing of course. I searched high and low all over Pearson for any form of art, nada. The only piece that I managed to find is the one below, which for Toronto I think is pretty pathetic.

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There was no artist or title listed. It is not exactly clear what it is, so I will leave that one up to you. I had to snap this picture on a moving conveyor belt, that is how out of reach it was. This abstract work was at the end of the airport, on the opposite side from where my flight was departing. There were very few people and gates on this end of the airport, which is fitting because there is quite literally nothing to see here folks!

Speckled across Pearson, much to my dismay, were advertisements. Which especially sucks, because imagine if you were travelling to Toronto for the first time, and your first impression of this city is that all they do is push products in your face. It was exhausting, and I would also like to point out, anything but relaxing.

Second: Vancouver International Airport. Let me tell you, completely different narrative in Vancouver, folks. This airport did not disappoint in the art department, it was flooded with art on both sides of the gates. I was struck by the sight of these stunningly tall totem poles just after exiting my plane. I think the Vancouver airport wholeheartedly embodies this notion of representing cultures and heritages of its peoples. You are hit with this wave of recognition and worth from simply spending moments in the airport.

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There is value in having a tidbit of initial information about British Columbia upon arrival, and perhaps over corporatized airports overlook this idea. I cannot stress this enough: airports have high traffic levels from all over the world, and they might not know much about the place they are landing, or having layovers. Therefore, the place in which they touch down first should hold a plethora of visual tales from the location. That is the bare minimum.

In Vancouver too, these sculptures specifically had plaques with titles and artists. Sure, these huge sculptures take up a lot of space in the airport, but they leave a lasting mark on spectators. Speaking for myself here, there is a level of added appreciation for Vancouver because its airport is so beautifully planned out. To me, and hopefully you too, art like this creates worth.

Third: Portland International Airport. Like in Toronto, I was very disappointed in Portland’s airport. There was one, (I repeat only one!), piece of art that I found after purposefully arriving early to hunt for art. It is strange to me because the slogan of Portland is “Keep Portland Weird”, yet their airport was anything but thought provoking.

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It seems to be a glass case filled with fabric made jellyfish and a matching ocean floor. It was interesting, but was surrounded by endorsements and washrooms; not exactly ideal real estate. Thus Portland disappointed me, and unfortunately the trend continued on to Calgary.

Four: Calgary International Airport. I had a layover here that was nine hours, folks, let that sink in. I was going stir crazy, there are only so many books and shows you can watch. So I walked around a lot, and this was useful for art searching purposes. In my experience, not only was the Calgary airport huge, it was also incredibly lacking in the ‘art’ department. The only photo that I managed to take of art is the one below.

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This painting (which is very beautiful) was the only one I could find in an airport that was bigger than uOttawa’s campus. Talk about disappointment. Although it does touch on an Albertan tourist attraction, you can only see this yourself once exiting the plane, directly above the gate door. Apart from that, the physical airport waiting space lacks artistic visual stimulus. Calgary had huge walls of dazzling windows, which let in natural light, and displayed planes taking off. This is great, until the sun sets, and suddenly it’s just a wall of night. Had there been art around, perhaps waiting for my eleven pm flight would not have been so horrific.

In closing, I get it. I really do. Not all people appreciate art in the same ways that others do. I am not saying that airports need to become the next National Art Galleries, but I think there needs to be a compromise. Lacking provincial or state representation in your international airport speaks highly of where your priorities lie.  

I would challenge you to look for art in every instance in your life. Search in coffee shops, in large corporate buildings, in schools, and see what sort of messages they are trying to convey. Are they intentional (which I would argue art has to have intention behind it), or is the art you find merely a placeholder? In my opinion art has a purpose, and needs to be used and witnessed in all walks of life. Perhaps my airport experiences would have been more enjoyable had there been more to look at.

Your city’s international airport is unfortunately given the task of representing the area at first glance, in its most generalized sense. Your international airport should showcases narratives that embody your city, or province, or state, because if you have travellers from overseas their first impression of your location is going to be your airport. So yes, keep it clean, keep it classy, but I would argue you also need to keep it aesthetically and culturally authentic.

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