Art at the Airport


of an Exhibition

by Emily Addis

Published on June 01, 2019

  • Description:

    Since 1998, the Exhibitions Program at the Philadelphia International Airport has provided millions of visitors with “access to a wide variety of art forms by artists and art institutions from the Greater Philadelphia area” in an effort to “humanize the Airport environment, provide visibility for Philadelphia’s unique cultural life, and to enrich the experience of the traveling public.” While visiting the Airport this past Memorial Day weekend, I found their current exhibitions delightful, interesting, and full of possibilities. With over 40 places to view permanent and temporary displays, the Exhibition Program has a strong presence throughout the airport. Like many travelers operating on a tight schedule, I was delighted to run into several by happy coincidence:

    IT’S A WRAP: 20 for 20;
    Charity Jackson’s FOODJAWN

    MOVIES MADE IN PHILADELPHIA: SELECTED POSTERS FROM THE GREATER PHILADELPHIA FILM OFFICE spans the length of a moving walkway. An introduction sign (in English) lets the traveler know that the posters lining the corridor represent some of the most successful and well-known movies filmed in Philadelphia. Films are a form of cultural expression that is extremely accessible and international. No doubt many of films featured in these posters are known around the world, from the Rocky Movies (1975, 1978, 1981) to The Sixth Sense (1998). While I liked the pleasant reminder of films I enjoy, along with the fun conversation that the posters spurred between me and my travel partner, I felt limited in my viewing time and ability to engage because of the moving walkway. A curious visitor may want to visit the posters longer, take photos with them, or even watch clips from the films while waiting for a delayed flight.

    MOVIES MADE IN PHILADELPHIA is not the only art exhibition found installed along a moving walkway. Terminal A-East is home to IT’S A WRAP: 20 for 20, a series of “architectural interventions” by 20 local artists. Installed in celebration of the Exhibition Program’s 20th anniversary, 20 Philadelphia area artists used yarn, fabric, felt, found objects, tape, paint, and vinyl to decorate the ceiling tiles, columns, rockers, walls, walkway, and windows of Terminal A. The bright, colorful hallway adds a sense of excitement and curiosity to an otherwise ordinary space. As a viewer, I could not help in delight in what I was seeing while resisting the urge to run my hands across some of the curiously textured art.

    FOODJAWN was by far my favorite exhibition and one that filled me with a sense of Philadelphia pride. To make FOODJAWN, artist Charity Thackson recreated some of Philadelphia’s most celebrated snack foods (soft pretzels, Italian “wooder” ice, Herr’s potato chips, Arctic Splash iced tea…) in clay. The artist arranged her ceramic foods in three brightly-lit glass display more reminiscent of a “traditional” art exhibition. A brief introduction to the exhibition (in English) stands off to one side that succinctly describes the artist’s work and snack foods. For a traveler visiting from far away, stopping to look at FOODJAWN is a great way to get the insider’s scoop on the “real” Philadelphia. Unlike the other two exhibitions, FOODJAWN sits off in a corner, allowing visits to spend more time with the food/art and perhaps be inspired to seek them out while visiting Philly.

    Curating an airport-wide art exhibition must present a unique set of challenges. One of my biggest takeaways is the simplicity and brevity of each experience. Every encounter felt like a light touch where it might have gone deeper. I can understand why, given the nature of airport travel. I wonder what happens, though, to the visitor with the long layover or whose flight gets delayed several hours. How might this exhibition program extend itself further and provide deeper educational and cultural experiences? I wonder what a children’s program might look like in this space; a more multisensory, interactive exhibit, or a free tasting of some of Philly’s finest snack foods? In addition, I was surprised to see the exhibition labels in English only. I would think that an international airport might offer several translations; although perhaps it was made as a strategic decision to keep text brief.

    Visiting the Philadelphia International Airport’s Exhibitions Program made me rethink what an airport experience could, and might, be. As a place where cultures and world collide, it seems like a unique opportunity to share, learn about, and celebrate diversity in our city and world through the arts. I felt that themes presented (for example, movies, and food) were smart and accessible choices that appeal to a wide range of audiences, not just those interested in art. It made the airport experience not only unique but uniquely Philadelphia – an experience I’d love to have in airports and cities across America and the world.

Latest Comments (1)

interesting take on an exhibition review

by Kathleen Mclean - June 04, 2019

Thank you Emily for this unusual take on an exhibition review. As you considered the similarities and differences between these “short hit” exhibitions and the ones at museums, it forced the question of “target audience” and context. You thoughtfully ask why these exhibitions shouldn’t have a bit more substance for people who have time to kill. They are, in a sense, captive audiences. Interestingly, this is a recurring question even in museums. Have museum professionals been so inculcated in the “keep it simple” notion that we’ve lost the understanding of learning experiences. On the other hand, it sounds like these small exhibitions held some delight and were successful in capturing people’s attentions in an otherwise frenzied environment.

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