Art at the Airport

There is art, history and design at San Francisco International Airport - and it’s both really good and really free. Go behind the scenes at SFO Museum.

Inside the The San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum at SFO.
Inside the The San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum at SFO.

Imagine disembarking from a long flight, your clothes wrinkled, your teeth unbrushed. San Francisco International Airport is crowded, packed with excited tourists and weary business travelers. You lug your carry-on suitcase onto one of SFO’s moving walkways, ready to get home, to get to the hotel, to get anywhere with a shower and cocktail bar.

But something catches your eye. Maybe it’s an exhibit on the jet-setting history of United Airlines or a detailed display of beautiful American folk art. One of the airport’s more than 20 museum galleries has captured your imagination — and suddenly, throwing elbows at the baggage claim or fighting for a cab can wait. There is art and history and design at SFO. And it’s both really good and really free.

The SFO Museum program started in 1980 in partnership with San Francisco’s de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor. The concept was the brainchild of curator Elsa Cameron, who noted stunning murals by the likes of artist Diego Rivera, among others, in Mexico City’s airport. Why, wondered Cameron, couldn’t San Francisco showcase art at SFO?

In 1981, a world-class exhibition of glass artwork was destined for the Legion of Honor — but due to budgeting constraints, the museum didn’t have enough room. That “New American Glass” exhibition of just 30 objects became SFO’s first real art installation. From there, the idea took flight.

These days, SFO Museum employs a fulltime staff of 33 people and curates more than 20 galleries spread among the airport’s terminals, each one featuring a rotating series of carefully chosen artwork. SFO’s International Terminal also houses the San Francisco Airport Commission Aviation Library and Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum, a permanent home for thousands of rare books, pieces of history, ephemera and aircraft models, which a heavy emphasis on the Pacific Coast and commercial flight. The Aviation Museum and Library take up two full stories of the terminal, designed to resemble the original (and long gone) San Francisco passenger terminal of the 1930s.

SFO Museum staff install an exhibit on the history of radio in Terminal Two.
SFO Museum staff install an exhibit on the history of radio in Terminal Two.

SFO’s main art action, with rotating exhibits and eclectic subject matter, is placed to tantalize passengers racing to and from their flights. The other day, SFO Museum staffers were hard at work installing Terminal 3’s latest exhibit: “On the Radio,” a look at the early history, design and technology of radio. Earlier in the week, the previous exhibit of hundreds of United Airlines artifacts had been removed from 26 cases that line the moving walkways that carry passengers between security and departure gates. Throughout the week, yellow “CAUTION” tape protected the installation team, allowing them to work in relative piece. All around them, hundreds of passengers, mostly staring straight ahead, were busy getting where they needed to go. But not everyone was in such a hurry.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” said SFO Museum production supervisor Jason McInnis to a curious traveler, “I’m going to need you to step back.”

A woman toting a rolling suitcase had become interested the exhibit-in-progress. She’d stopped in the middle of the airport to watch SFO museum staff carefully unwrap vintage radios and radio-related artifacts. The large glass boxes that protect the exhibits had been removed and spectators could get up close and personal with the pieces on display.

Even though SFO Museum presents 40 to 45 rotation collections a year, and completes a major rotation every four to eight weeks, the sight of gloved museum curators and installation experts in the midst of a busy airport felt like a forbidden treat. At most museums, visitors don’t get to see the art while it’s being installed.

Experiences like these are one of the many ways SFO Museum is so different from the de Young or San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. After all, San Francisco International Airport serves more than 55 million passengers a year and has about 30,000 employees, 63 restaurants, four spas and two yoga rooms. Other airports around the world have exhibits and museums, but SFO is the only airport museum to earn accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums.

The SFO Museum curators follow a few rules in designing their exhibits. They steer clear of three subjects: airplane crashes, guns and smoking. “But,” Callan noted, “we also don’t shy away from things that are within the general values of San Francisco.”

Installation staff must consult very specific layout plans designed months in advance by SFO museum curators and designers.
Installation staff must consult very specific layout plans designed months in advance by SFO museum curators and designers.

For example, the “Empowering Threads” exhibit in the International Terminal features textiles woven by Mayan women who are part of a collective that supports economic development for indigenous women. Another San Francisco touch? Some exhibits offer highly produced video and sound components that reflect the region’s high-tech environment.

As with any other museum, the process of creating each exhibit is complicated. Once staff members decide on a topic, they must track down all of the objects needed for the exhibit. Next they coordinate loan agreements, and the packaging and shipping of each item. The exhibit then is designed, case by case, and mounts are built for each artifact. While an exhibit lasts for mere months, the whole process takes about a year. Afterward, everything gets returned to its rightful owner hopefully in pristine condition.

Donors seem eager to have their prized possessions included in an SFO museum display. The well-connected museum staff members are often able to find everything they need for even the most obscure of exhibits. “They know they can entrust us with their treasures,” SFO Museum’s Assistant Director John Hill says. According to Hill, he and his team receive an almost “daily flow of offers for donations.”

SFO Museum is fully funded by the airport and as such, doesn’t fundraise, offer memberships or track visitors. According to Callan, the museum estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of those 55 million annual travelers have some sort of interaction with an exhibit. As wifi and Bluetooth technology at SFO develop, the museum hopes to better track the flow around its exhibits.

“When a person goes to visit a museum, they’re going there intentionally,” SFO Museum’s Megan Callan explains. “We just try and be mindful that people may not be expecting this experience.”

Keep reading: During WWII, a blimp and two pilots went sub-hunting off San Francisco. Only the blimp came back.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Dispatches