Philadelphia’s unique Art at the Airport mirrors city’s vibrant art scene

Philadelphia International Airport is not the first place you think of when you think of Philadelphia art. The airport does not have a dedicated gallery space. The airport walkways, where the art is placed, are noisy thoroughfares, with advertising, shops and pop up kiosks, and people, pets and children scurrying to their gates. Where should art be in such a bright, chaotic environment? Roberta talks with Leah Douglas, Chief Curator of Philadelphia Art at the Airport, about how she selects and places art at the airport.

Philadelphia’s Art at the Airport program is unique in delivering Philadelphia art to a public that does not know it wants art. If you’re an artist or art lover you will be amazed and pleased by what you see in the glass cases and on the walls of the airport. For everyone else, art at the airport is a sprinkling of treasures to be discovered if you take the time to do so.

Art at the Airport, Angela McQuillan's embellished rocking chair, featured in "20 x 20"
Art at the Airport, Angela McQuillan’s embellished rocking chair, featured in “20 x 20”

Inaugurated 20 years ago, Art at the Airport is not art by committee, it’s art selected — curated — by artist and curator Leah Douglas, whose non-judgmental approach weaves together craft art, “high” art and street art. In fact, Douglas’s curating mirrors the burbling energetic Philadelphia art scene from which it pulls.

Leah’s curatorial approach is hyper-local. She wants to work with Philadelphia artists. From her knowledge of the art scene (she went to Tyler School of Art in metals and was a curator at University of the Arts before taking over at the airport) and from her knowledge of the city, with its 5 major art schools and artist collectives and galleries, she knows it’s a vibrant scene.

Leah finds the artists to work with via Instagram, Artblog and through word of mouth. Lately she’s been working with street art and street artists, Marbufs, Ishknits, Joe Boruchow and others — and with Conrad Benner, whose blog “Streets Department” celebrates street art. Marbufs came to her through word of mouth. “Chellie Cameron our CEO passed by and Marbuffs was crocheting while waiting for a plane. Chellie liked it. Marbuffs gave Chellie her card. Chellie passed the card on to me.”

All the Art at the Airport installations are temporary, 6 months long. At the end of that time the work is returned to the artists. The artists receive no payment for the art, but Leah provides them with the biggest audience ever, and showcases the works with great respect. The airport is not a congenial site for art, it’s hardly contemplative, and, with advertising, audio intrusions, and people with luggage (and nowadays, pets and emotional support animals), it’s downright distracting.

Did I mention the Youth Art in Baggage claim area? And the live demos she has started, with artists providing hands on art-making experiences for travelers.

I’ve been to the airport four times in the last twelve months, to take the tour of the art with Leah and to help gather video and audio footage for a video Artblog’s Ron Kanter made recently. Douglas is a voluble speaker. Words pour out of her about what she’s doing, and her enthusiasm for and confidence in Philadelphia’s art scene is palpable — and contagious. 84,000 people a day go through the airport, and Leah’s always thinking when she’s walking the halls. What goes where? What’s next? She’s got a small museum’s worth of glass cases to fill and in 20 years she hasn’t yet maxed out the available art in Philadelphia. She probably never will.

The airport is a tough environment to show art in — noisy, bright, the opposite of contemplative. Do the artists like seeing their works there?

…”Every week I get an email from somebody new! They’re “window shopping.” …Some people actually came to the studio. The Airport is really cool…(They showed) a whole body of work…I ride my bike there (to the airport).


Her piece at the Airport was very big and vinyl and not under glass (people can come up and touch and it won’t hurt piece. The original painting was an18x60 inch work. At the airport, it was blown up to 6×20 ft.) When the artist was asked to show her work at PHL, she said,

“I felt honored and respected. Someone out there is looking.” After the work was at the airport, dozens of folks wrote her about having seen her work at there. “I got several commissions. It was very positive. It was a wonderful experience.” What did she think of the scale shift, to see her work so big? “It lets the artist experience the work in a new scale, which can inspire them to work big, something they might not otherwise do.”

Below are some of the questions I asked Leah Douglas during my several trips to the airport.  Along with the recent video by Ron Kanter and Michael Lieberman’s earlier post, we’ve sought to present a snapshot of this unusual art program that goes on beyond the security checkpoint. Links at bottom of the post to the airport website, Art at the Airport’s Instagram feed and Artblog posts about the program.

Q. Do you ever get lost (walking through the airport)?
A. Not any more (smiles broadly).

Many airports do permanent commissions and get international artists to make work for their airports. PHL has some permanent art by internationally-known artists, like Vito Acconci. But your focus is hyperlocal. You focus on Philadelphia art.
“Philly has non-stop talent.”

Q. How does the art come in, like does it go through the security checkpoints passengers go through?
It comes in through the Air Field, and a guard checks it.

One of the commissioned ceiling tile paintings commisioned for "20x20" by Henry Bermudez
One of the commissioned ceiling tile paintings commissioned for “20×20,” by Henry Bermudez

Your 20 year celebration show, “it’s a Wrap: 20 x 20.” How did you choose where to put it, given there’s no “gallery” at the airport.

It’s 20 artists for 20 years. We installed gradually over the summer. We install during the day so people can see it. (I put it in Terminal A-East because) there are no concessions here; there’s limited signage, and windows on both sides, so there’s good natural light. I’m proud of the ceiling tiles (she commissioned artists to make paintings on acoustical tiles and installed them in the ceiling above a moving walkway.) Everybody really stepped up.

You said the custodial staff who work here were very excited about the ceiling tiles installed.
They said “you’ve got to keep them.”

You don’t have a dedicated gallery. Albany’s airport has a little gallery…
I don’t want a dedicated gallery.

Is anything “forbidden” in public art out here?
Nudity, no, guns, no. I can’t show political art, swear words, violence, death.

Ever have to “censor” any art because it violated the restrictions?
(No, but she sometimes works with an artist if the work has something problematic for the airport.) “Henry Burmudez – I love his work but (he had some nudes.) I asked Henry to cover the breasts and add design to cover and connect….Now, he uses that technique.”

Most of what you do is Temporary. What happens to the art when the 6-month run is over?
(Artists own it so they get it back. When she translates painting to vinyl to make it bigger and to be more suitable for public space…”It’s mounted on Cintra, so I can give it back to the artist and not trash it.”

2013 was your first foray into vinyl. You wanted to show paintings but not in glass cases, out in walkways where people could get up close but not damage the art. Why blow up the paintings and not just have them installed behind glass?
“More is more, in this space, to compete…Christine Larsen, illustrator, has a 40 ft. long piece! Larsen invented the story. Deirdre Murphy’s painting was 11 inches long. It’s now 20 feet long. She said “OMG I need to work bigger.” So, using a digital image of a painting and blowing it up (sometimes to monumental scale) and printing it on vinyl allows the work to be in public but not under glass. ”I’ve been crazy for vinyl ever since.”

Talk about the installations in the glass cases–You make decisions about the background colors that objects sit on. Has anyone given you push back about your installations?

Lizbeth Stewart said (about a background color I selected for her sculptures), “If I saw this color I would not have approved it…But I love it!”

How much of total art at airport is in secure area (past Homeland Security)?
Most of the art is in the secure part.

How many exhibits do you have out here?
At least one exhibit in each terminal. (A-F, 6 terminals)

Who photographs your installations for the website?
John Carlano

You have a great Instagram feed. Who manages that?
I do.

Talk about the members of your team.
Some have been with her from almost the beginning. Ahmed Salvador, Ursula Stuby, Clint Takeda. There are three roles, fabricating, framing and logistics.

You inaugurated the job of Director of Art at the Airport.
When I first got the job, it was not well defined. I was excited about presenting art in a non-gallery setting.

Tell about how you got this job.
Twenty years ago, I was at University of the Arts (Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, as Director) and the city’s Chief Cultural Officer called me for ideas for the Airport Art Director.

 So YOU applied.
I had no idea what to expect. Everything (at the Airport) was very open at that time. (pre 9/11)

You get support for what you do from your boss?
It has to start from the top down. (When I started) the PHL Director at the time came from San Francisco. (SFO has a big art program, and he was a booster of art at the airport. He sent Leah to San Francisco’s airport to find out how they run the art program). “It’s amazing the airport let me do this,” (talking about the paintings on ceiling tiles she commissioned from several artists).

In addition to having the vinyl blow-ups of paintings that run for as many as 40 ft or more along the airport’s many walkways, you have some beautiful glass cases to show the art. How did those come about?
I worked with cabinet makers. This cabinet (where Woodmere Art Museum and The Magic Gardens had displays) is 18 years old. (Leah and the Airport Art Program provide exhibition space for local institutions, as part of their service to the community).

Michael Lieberman’s post on PHL Airport Art
Ron Kanter’s video interview with Leah Douglas

About Art at the Airport

Current exhibitions at the airport

PHLAirportArt Instagram feed


PHL International, Terminal A-East, before the 20x20 show was installed
PHL International, Terminal A-East, before the 20×20 show was installed
PHL International, Terminal A-East, with "20x20" installed, including Andrew Jeffrey Wright's painted pillars (left)
PHL International, Terminal A-East, with “20×20” installed, including Andrew Jeffrey Wright’s painted pillars (left)
PHL Art at the Airport, Sarah McEneaney paintings
PHL Art at the Airport, Sarah McEneaney paintings
Claes Gabriel installation at PHL Airport Art
Claes Gabriel installation at PHL Airport Art
Deirdre Murphy at PHL Airport Art
Deirdre Murphy at PHL Airport Art
Trudy Kraft's Art at the Airport installation, detail
Trudy Kraft’s Art at the Airport installation, detail