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From Flyover to Fly-to Country: Art in Midwest Airports

by Cinnamon Janzer

A brightly colored art installation with geometric patterns and lines. The artwork is mounted on a large wall by a set of escalators.
Photo Credit: Arts@MSP
Liminal_MSP (2022), a permanent installation by Monika Bravo, near Gate G17 at Terminal 1, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Photo courtesy of Arts@MSP, a program of the Airport Foundation MSP.

Art has taken off at airports across the region. Today, there’s an exciting world of creativity to discover at our ports of aerial entry.

As visitors proceed from the public lobby of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport towards the three-story hall it leads to, two giant arms—one that’s approximately 27 feet and another that’s closer to 31 feet—extend from matching white walls to reach towards each other. Suspended anywhere between nine and 34 feet above the escalators below, the installation by New York-based artists Hank Willis Thomas and Coby Kennedy sought to infuse an often impersonal, transition-focused space with “interconnectivity and togetherness,” the duo said in a statement last year.

REACH was just one of 19 commissions that featured more than 20 artists at O’Hare last year—and, across the Midwest, O’Hare hardly stands alone. 

Chicago’s Midway Airport isn’t missing out on the action. Above baggage carousels seven and eight, travelers can enjoy sprawling dye dispersion prints from Dawoud Bey that capture Chicago’s diversity, offering a glimpse of what they’ll find outside the exit doors.

Last summer, Fargo, North Dakota’s Hector International Airport brought back its mini concert series for a fifth year as part of its ArtsWORKS at the Airport program. The eight-week series comprises weekly performances that feature a range of musicians, from full-blown bands to stand-alone singer-songwriters. “It’s a great way to keep travelers relaxed, but I gotta say the TSA guys love it, the employees who work for the airlines love it,” Tania Blanich, the program’s interim executive director, told InForum last year. “You can see it, when people come up the escalator, [they’re] smiling when they hear the music, when they come out of the gate area.”

A person gestures with their arms raised as they look at an art installation.
Photo Credit: Arts@MSP
The Aurora (2021), a permanent installation by Jen Lewin located at Terminal 1 Departures at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Photo courtesy of Arts@MSP, a program of the Airport Foundation MSP.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is home to plenty of art—from pieces embedded into the flooring to murals and installations including Manifest’o, vignettes of the Ojibwe people’s narratives about the region’s land by artist Jonathan Thunder—but also something unique. “The Airport Foundation MSP,” which houses the Arts@MSP program, “is the only airport foundation in the world that we’re aware of,” Ben Owen, the program’s director, tells Arts Midwest.

The foundation is also responsible for the airport’s traveler assistance and volunteer programming, including the animal ambassador program that places registered therapy dogs at petting stations around the terminals. It’s the foundation’s unique purview that’s led to a new initiative called Pet Duets that blends the stress relief of therapy dogs with music therapy.

After a successful pilot this spring, from June 13 to August 22 travelers will enjoy the co-location of an animal ambassador team with a performing artist on every second Thursday of the month in Terminal 1 and every fourth Thursday of the month in Terminal 2.

“We’re very much tied into customer experience,” Owen says of the drive behind MSP’s arts programming. “MSP wins awards for being the best airport in North America and many of those awards are given because of the experience people have while they’re traveling through.”