Outcry over airport art project

Local artist Mary Walker is one of several artists who are unhappy with the planning for artwork in the new Charleston International Airport terminal.

The Aviation Authority budgeted $250,000 for artwork meant to decorate a newly renovated Charleston International Airport, but the money won’t be spent on art. Instead, the authority has asked local artists to donate copies of their work for free, and many in the arts community are crying foul.

The full plan for art at the airport hasn’t been announced yet, but the general idea is to use reprints of original works for wall decorations.

In April, the authority invited artists to submit formal proposals, but some said the process was too cumbersome and insulting.

“As much as anything, it is a matter of respect,” said Mark Sloan, director and chief curator of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston. “You’re not going to ask the contractor to donate some steel beams to the project. But they don’t think anything of asking artists to donate.”

The $250,000 art budget would be used to build protective cases and special lighting for a rotating exhibit of loaned sculptures, curated and managed by a third party, according to Jenny Sanford, former member of the Aviation Authority who’s now serving as the volunteer chairwoman of the art committee.

Although the details haven’t been determined yet, artists won’t be compensated or commissioned by the airport to create original works, at least not in the near future, Sanford said.

“My hope is that we could start with some temporary exhibits that will over time be replaced with real art that the airport will buy. But I was not given resources right now to accommodate purchasing art,” she said.

S.C. Sen. Paul Campbell, chairman of the authority, said artists can look at this as an opportunity to promote their work in front of a large audience of visitors.

“I would think if I were an artist and I had the opportunity to have my craft hung some place that would give me a big plus, even if it was a photograph or even if it was a print or something along that line,” he said. “It would at least get my name out into the community and hopefully generate business for me in the future.”

Local artist Mary Walker disagreed.

“I think a lot of people ask artists to be in auctions and this and that, because it’s a chance for your work to be seen, and well, believe me, most of us have had our work seen a lot,” she said. “Most jobs, you get money. You get paid for what you do. To decorate the airport for nothing doesn’t seem like a good deal to me.”

Reprints of original works are generally regarded as material for office lobbies or classrooms, not public art installations, Sloan said. “Why don’t we just hang up magazine pictures? What’s the difference?” he said.

Walker said she was excited when she initially heard that the airport had approved a budget for artwork last year.

She had just created a miniature art exhibit within a vintage suitcase, which featured small original works by 11 local artists. She said she thought the suitcase would be perfect for the airport.

“That’s not why I did it in the first place, but that seemed like an appropriate home for it eventually,” she said. “Then I heard they were going to borrow it and make (copies) of the work, which I just think is cheap, actually. So I didn’t even bother to apply.”

Airport officials say the new design of the airport doesn’t have much wall space for two-dimensional art, and that the areas that would be suitable for public displays are exposed to too much sunlight and could potentially damage original works. Reprints appear to be a logical solution to two key issues for the airport: risk of damage and a tight budget, according to Sanford.

But to many others in the community, the plan to use loaned and reprinted works instead of originals indicates that public art has fallen drastically on the Aviation Authority’s list of priorities since the last renovation of the airport in the late 1980s.

Mary Edna Fraser, who created large batik draperies that hung from the ceiling of the atrium for more than 20 years, remembers a different process back then. She and a number of other prominent artists in the community including Philip Simmons and Tom Blagden were commissioned to create original pieces for the airport, and they were each paid thousands of dollars for their work.

“It was a huge thing to be chosen because it was very well curated,” she said. “It was a nice, elegant cross section of talents.”

Some fear that the current process for soliciting artwork for the new airport will have the opposite effect.

“Most of the artists that I think of who are considered to be of high caliber were not going to find any of those terms or handlings appropriate,” said Lese Corrigan, a local contemporary artist and owner of Corrigan Gallery. “So, what we end up with in the airport may not be representative of what we have in this city.”

Campbell, of the authority, said Simmons’ iron gazebo will go back on display in the new terminal, but it’s unclear whether the other artwork the airport owns will be displayed again.

Angela Mack, executive director of the Gibbes Museum, is the only member of the four-person art committee at the airport with any professional experience in the arts. She’s serving in an advisory role, and said she supports the authority’s plan for art displays, given the circumstances.

“When the art committee was formed and I was brought on ... the airport was planned. It was done. And our attempts to rethink that were very limited, to the point where ... they had already hired a design team to do all the interior designing of the space,” she said.

Sanford added that she felt that the art program was an “afterthought” of the terminal renovation plan.

She said art displays were “not a big part of the overall plan,” so the art committee decided to hire a professional exhibit designer, Andrew Steever, to come up with a feasible plan to show art in protected cases.

“You have to create a situation where the artwork is not in danger and that it’s shown in a way that’s appropriate for artwork,” Mack said. “Just like a symphony hall has to have appropriate acoustics, artwork has to have a perfect environment for it to survive, and the airport is not a great place for that sort of thing.”

Campbell said the first priority for the authority is to complete the $190 million renovation as quickly as possible; art may become a larger priority in the future. About 20 artists submitted proposals, suggesting that “there must be a significant number of folks out there that are interested in displaying their work here,” he said, adding that they are considering another request for proposals to see more work from artists.

“I’m sure we didn’t touch everybody and I’m sure there are people out there that are disappointed that we are going to slowly get into this instead of storming into it as we did the construction. But we’re never going to give up on art,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do what we can at Charleston International to display the art and we will probably in the future look at how we can commission some pieces when the timing is appropriate.”

Some say the airport’s reasoning is flawed. Terry Fox, who serves on boards of several local arts organizations, has spent the past few months gathering opinions from roughly 50 artists and professionals in an effort to build a consensus, and perhaps persuade the Aviation Authority to reconsider its plan.

“I feel that there should have been a collaborative committee of arts administrators who know art. And before all that, there should have been money devoted to it. To come to the end of the process and say, ‘Oh, there’s no more money available,’ is ludicrous,” he said. “To say they need to include copies of work in the airport because of the amount of light that will be in the airport is also ludicrous. There are ways of protecting artwork from ultraviolet rays and from potential damage. A lot of it just seems to be a smoke screen for the ineptitude of people who have managed this process, or failed to manage it.”

The new terminal was designed by Fentress Architects, a Denver-based firm with a portfolio that includes airports in Denver, San Jose and Sacramento, all of which include large vertical windows to let in natural light. All three of those airports have been praised for their art displays, according to CNN.

Showcasing regional artwork has become a major trend, if not the norm, at many airports, especially those that have been updated in the past decade or so, according to news reports.

Some include dedicated galleries of fine art, such as Heathrow Airport in London. San Francisco International has an accredited art museum program.

In 2012, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport opened a new international terminal, which was decorated with $5 million worth of original works.

The Greenville Spartanburg International Airport currently is undergoing a $115 million expansion. The art program for that airport has been allocated $1 million, and artists selected to participate will be compensated for commissioned work.

Rosylin Weston, the vice president of communications who is on the art committee, said the Upstate airport always has showcased original artwork, and that the redevelopment plan intended to “incorporate art back in on a much larger scale.”

“In a terminal, there are always large spaces that are available that just beg for art,” she said.

The art committee of commissioners, staff, local architects and regional arts professionals has been meeting for about two years, and they just recently accepted proposals from about 300 artists to showcase work at the renovated facility when it reopens in 2016.

“We believe when you walk into our airport, it should say something about the people who live in upstate South Carolina, it should say something about our region, it should relate,” she said. “We think our airport should deliver a sense of place without speaking a word.”

Sloan, who curated the public art installations in MUSC’s Ashley River Tower, said compensating artists shows that the buyers value the work.

“It has to do with approach and the integrity of the process,” he said. “Do I think (the airport art project) could be turned around and get artists excited about this opportunity? Yes. But I think, the way it is now, it’s going to be a boondoggle.”