Creating Place Out of Space with Public Art

'The Aurora' by Jen Lewin
The Airport Foundation MSP’s art program invites travelers to pause.

When you arrive at the Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) International Airport, you’re greeted by murals and installations in the parking ramps, like Interrupted Landscapes of the Incomer by photographer Steve Ozone in the Silver Ramp, which features immigrant portraits displayed through punched metal panels.

Walk into Terminal 1 and you’ll discover The Aurora by sculptor Jen Lewin, a 29-foot-high glass and metal sculpture with nearly 3,000 light bulbs that soars from baggage claim to ticketing, changing colors with the seasons and local weather conditions.

Throughout the airport, many bathrooms are enhanced with colorful mosaics, and hallways are dotted with exhibits by local artists. Pass through at the right time, and you may also witness live performances from local musicians. And at any time, you can enjoy what’s showing at the See18 film screening room.

All of these experiences are available thanks to Arts@MSP, a partnership between the Airport Foundation MSP (AFMSP) and the Metropolitan Airport Commission (MAC). Program director Ben Owen seeks to “create place out of space,” using art installations, music and film to create memorable and meaningful moments throughout the airport for travelers to enjoy.

This program supports the mission of AFMSP, a nonprofit which seeks to serve the MSP International Airport community, enhancing the experience, exceeding traveler expectations and supporting the aviation community.

AFMSP, the only foundation of its kind globally, was started in 1982 by a group of business leaders who wanted MSP to be a leading hub for airlines—and one way to do that was to enhance the customer experience.

“Customer experience is a big part of what makes an airport successful,” says Edina resident Tom Anderson, AFMSP board member and chair of the Arts and Culture Steering Committee. “The airport is your first impression coming into the state. It’s your last impression when you leave. If you’re connecting through … it’s maybe your only impression in the state.” Anderson, who has been involved with AFMSP since its inception, says, “This is an important thing, to make the airport an exciting, beautiful, fun place.”

Jana Webster, the president and CEO of AFMSP, says in the beginning, the foundation simply paid for landscaping, signage and art in the airport and funded scholarships for aviation schools. “The foundation grew right along with the airport and so we expanded the … programs and services,” she says.

Today, the foundation utilizes a 25-person staff and over 450 volunteers to run it's operations—which include the Travellers Assistance program, an animal ambassador program, an arts and culture department and so much more.

Through the Arts@MSP program, Owen says,“We commission site-specific works of public art ... we’ll work on two to five of those per year.” Arts@MSP also rotates 15 to 20 exhibits annually, which translates into 400–600 pieces of fine art. Owen’s team coordinates approximately 1,000 live performances each year and plans programming for the film screening room, where “we show short films [and] documentaries, generally made by filmmakers from Minnesota or from the upper Midwest region,” he says.

“I think it’s one of the most comprehensive, robust arts programs of any airport in the world,” Webster says.

Working with local and regional artists is a big focus for the Arts@MSP team. With it's commissions, the team seeks to develop the careers of regional artists who are newer to the public art scene, giving them an audience of millions of people each year.

Edina resident Scott Brener, president of the AFMSP board of directors, says he believes art is part of the fabric of the Twin Cities community. And by showcasing the work of local and regional artists throughout the airport, he says it not only reflects the interests of the community, but it also brings cultural heritage into the airport. “It’s an opportunity for foreigners and [other] Americans to gain, in a relatively short period of time, a better understanding of what Minnesota, its people and its communities really are all about … and the airport is an opportunity to reflect upon that.”

Want to explore some of this art the next time you head to the airport? Owen says, “All of our assets are on the digital directories throughout the terminals, so you can program yourself a walking tour of our collection.”

The Airport Foundation MSP
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