Though it often goes unnoticed, airport art enhances the travel experience. It is, at its best, yet another form of excellent customer service.
Many of the record-setting 59 million-plus passengers raced through George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) in 2019 with sole intentions of getting to their gate as quickly as possible. Often, there is short time to spare to check luggage before boarding the aircraft.
Already into 2020, Houston Airports is asking its passengers to pause – when possible – and take in cultural offerings that often salute the City of Houston through an outstanding and ever-growing art program.
Alton DuLaney, Houston Airports curator of public art, has been busily transforming the art galleries in Terminals A and D at IAH.
DuLaney joined Houston Airports in June 2019. Previously, he served as the assistant to the curator for the University of Houston’s (UH) Public Art Collection, where he worked on the university’s 50th anniversary monograph book and taught the Public Art class at UH.
DuLaney is passionate about his work and is excited about the ongoing task of making public art more accessible – and more meaningful – to the passengers and staff at Houston Airports.
DuLaney spoke very positively about his experience and interactions at Houston Airports.
“I’m a team of one, but I’m also on everyone’s team. I rely on everyone to help me. I work with customer service staff, security, operations, marketing, external affairs, terminal managers and the TSA (Transportation Security Administration), among others. We’ve been able to make great strides because of all of them,” he said.
With regard to the collection of art pieces, DuLaney said that he works under the umbrella of the City of Houston (COH) Civic Art Program.
“We work and collaborate with the Houston Arts Alliance and the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs,” he said. “Debbie McNulty oversees the entire COH civic arts program and I am one part of that.”
The Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs implements the city’s Arts and Cultural Plan, seeking to promote an environment in which art and culture flourish for the benefit of all residents and visitors.
Liliana Rambo, Houston Airports’ chief terminal and guest experience officer, detailed a multi-pronged process in which new pieces of art are commissioned or acquired. It entails an open call that gives all artists a fair opportunity to participate in the selection process, ultimately decided by a small group of experts.
DuLaney, an accomplished interdisciplinary artist himself, said that Houston Airports has “been blessed with nearly 300 pieces in our collection.” This eclectic collection includes painting, sculpture, photography, video projection, sound pieces, textile pieces, ceramics, jewelry and mixed media.
He added that Houston Airports doesn’t lean too heavily on one particular artist. “We’re into breadth instead of depth – we emphasize giving multiple artists the opportunity to participate and be represented in the collection.”
Rambo said that one of the initiatives within the past few months has been to create “contemplative areas” within the airports where passengers can really enjoy and appreciate the art. There are now two designated terminal galleries in Terminal A and Terminal D, with more to come.
DuLaney said he truly relishes the opportunity to expose local artists to such a vast audience, though most passengers are not necessarily art aficionados. “A million passengers a week come through Houston Airports,” he said. “In contrast, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, one of the biggest, if not the biggest in the city, gets a million visitors a year.”
Certainly, few travelers consider airports as “art destinations” but DuLaney feels it is important to provide a pleasant diversion for those who have time to linger. Many U.S. airports began investing more in art after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to soothe passengers as they faced longer wait times and more rigorous security screenings.
He was excited to report that Houston Airports has engaged in partnership with United Airlines in Terminal C to acquire 34 pieces of art, all by Houston-area artists.
“This includes some very important African-American artists like noted sculptor George Smith, a professor emeritus at Rice University,” DuLaney said. “George Smith is a true icon in the art world and we are so pleased to finally have one of his works.”
The Terminal C collection represents a $1 million investment by United, he said. “All the pieces are by Houston-based artists,” he said, “and they’re all spectacular. We recognize and appreciate United for their very worthwhile investment.”
Rambo applauded the superlative efforts of DuLaney and the many team members who are working with him.
“There is great power in art,” she said, “power to inspire, to transform, to challenge and to calm frayed nerves. That power is being harnessed at Houston Airports to provide yet another facet of excellent customer service.”