Passport, belt, and your first-born, please.
By Matthew Herzog
It’s not everyday a gallery entrance is stanchioned, guarded, and you’re asked to take off your shoes. In a scene not unlike Up in the Air, Ex-Rosenwald-Wolf Director turned Airport Arts Facilitator Leah Douglas has converted our humble airport into an exhibition space.
Now, nearby nervous Dads, that one trapped starling, travel bans, prepaid cell phones rolled in yesterday’s newspaper, and Toblerone, we have artwork by Arden Bendler Browning, Marguerita Hagan, and 2017 Wind Challenge exhibitor, Emily White.
The Philadelphia Airport’s Art Exhibition Program is an uncommon method of introducing Philadelphia Art to a diverse and international audience. Maybe it’s our version of New York’s Armory with less urgency and more pretzel stands.
It has 24 hour exposure to those with nothing but naps and blank stares in their future and needs little to budget for a marketing campaign as its guests have chosen to temporarily trap themselves inside their walls.
For Gallery owners, it’s kinda perfect if you’ve been mad at your attendance lately. Just build a billion dollar complex with mandates, laws, and an audience with hundreds of dollars in their fanny packs.
Leah Douglas, Director of Image and Chief Curator of the Exhibition Program, met with me at the Airport and offered her insight. Since 1998, she’s curated over 300 exhibitions, which awarded the Program a spot on the Top 3 Best Airport Art Programs in the US by USA Today in 2013, and the Arts & Business Partnership Award in 2014.
Shortly after witnessing TSA comfort a traveler breaking down in a security line saying, ‘I’ve been here three days’, I asked Leah what brought her to the Airport.
MH: Why did you choose to work here?
Douglas: When I was working in the galleries… you do feel like you’re preaching to the converted. I was always interested in doing pieces off-site, non-gallery location. I want to get people that think they’re not interested in art.
I view this as a community service. We have nearly 30 Million passengers a year. 86,000 people a day come through the airport.
In a high traffic area where travelers have to prove who they are yet could shamelessly convince a fellow traveler they’re someone completely different, (I’ll tell you my story if you ask) it’s curious to see an airport aim to portray its city’s equally fluid/factual identity. At the same time a passenger is being scanned, x-rayed, groped and questioned, Philadelphia Art experiences a metaphorical equivalent. In a kinder interpretation, passengers provide documents of their identity and witness how diverse/engaging/relatable an answer can be when a city is asked to do the same.
More so, the Art becomes a mediator between strict travel stipulations and the world by which those statutes attempt to protect. They’re visual representations of the freedoms we’re safeguarding. Possibly standing as moral checkpoints, reminding us that reducing freedoms doesn’t always lead to their protection.
*Cough* Muslim Bans are White Washed bulwarks. *Cough*
MH: What function does the Art provide?
Douglas: It’s not an ad. It’s not another thing we’re trying to sell to them. It’s just something to experience... It gives a face to the city and the culture.
With no bag checks or anthrax tests fit to prove how a city decides it’s defined, Leah Douglas can, well, define it however she feels. Not to throw too much anxiety to the wind, the Exhibition Program’s audience may not even see the city by which the Art represents. Leah could say we’re all installation artists with odd attractions to birds and pipe dreams. Who knows?
In previous articles, I wondered about the responsibility a gallery has to a city when showing the work of those that reside inside it. (Even commercial galleries are held to that scrutiny. In case they thought they were safe.) In Douglas’ case, there is no questioning her job is to represent Philly through its art, thereby acquiring the responsibility to reflect its social, political, racial, thematic, religious and a realm of its ‘other’ characteristics.
In Douglas’ case, however, there are restrictions. Her audience isn’t one that chose to see the artwork. It’s an international environment with international approaches, histories, and cultures.
MH: When the travel ban brought protesters to the airport, were you able to comment through the art?
Douglas: No, I can’t. No. Anything religiously related, politically related… The closest I can get is Presidential Events and that’s like, fact… Even as far as nudity, if you think about the amount of people I could offend. They’re all here. It’s interesting, I’ll see an ad… and I’ll say, ‘I couldn’t do that.’ We had a store, right, and they had these manikins suspended from the top. They had a shirt on but their underwear was around their ankles. I was like, ‘...as soon as I put that in an exhibition case, you know?’ And I think that’s really interesting.
This made me curious about Douglas’ perception of her role. Touching the question before I could ask, in an Artjaw.com article, Douglas explains her understanding of the role of Chief Curator.
She wrote, The term curator actually makes me cringe. It’s probably because I don’t have an art history degree and I’m not interested in curatorial studies. I’ve always felt more at ease thinking of myself as an arts facilitator—a kind of liaison between the artist and the public… It reinforces my belief that exhibits are meant to be less about me, and more about the artist’s work. Although I know my presence is felt as you look at the overall program at the Airport, I sometimes think it would be interesting to see someone else’s vision.’
Douglas further provides evidence of this stand-back approach to highlighting artists and their vision. In a feat near to my Anthropological heart, her online Exhibition Archive is anything but salient and should be considered an Encyclopedia of Philadelphia Artists. Copy and Paste it into the new Philly Stewards Website and you’ll have a Digital Bizarre fit for any Collector.
MH: What made you want to archive the exhibits?
Douglas: I was adamant that everything remains, so it’s surgical… It’s a service to the artist… The artwork is existing within real life. It’s exploring a lot of things that are uncommon.
As Douglas and I walked from Terminal A to E, her artist-first curatorial method was seen around the airport. Heidi Bleacher’s child-size felt mushrooms, placed aptly in the center of a waiting area, created fantasy. It turned a space of dark grey rows and wholesale carpet into a scene from The NeverEnding Story.
Among voices from the intercom calling for Kim Kartowski to meet her party, we stepped before a fifteen foot wall dedicated solely to Sarah McEneaney. Using blown up vinyl reproductions of McEneaney’s work, Douglas exposed the daily 86,000 to the artist’s Trestletown series about improving our Reading Rail Line. Douglas called the exhibit, Her Philadelphia.
PS: If you are curious about other Airports in the United States participating in similar Art Exhibition programs, it’s worth noting San Francisco Airport has Museum accreditation. They have those light levels and humidity levels to worry about now.
If you decide the Philadelphia Airport is prized for your next fix on Art, you should prepare to have just returned or will soon be leaving Philadelphia. Though the airport has 18 galleries dedicated to their permanent collection and 23 locations dedicated to rotating exhibits, you wouldn’t know that unless you read it just now or reaped the benefits of flying to or from Philadelphia. (To be clear, you need a boarding pass if you want to see any Art. Probably the highest pre-purchase admission ticket around.)
Prior to my walk/moving walkway/shuttle trip with Douglas, I decided to use my Septa Key Card (so happy they exist now @setpaphilly) to get a free subway ride to the airport. Upon arrival, a desk attendant, 15 year employment vet, had a few things to say. (bless her for not arresting me on the spot when I told her, ‘I’m not flying and I’m not here to pick anyone up.’)
The Attendant knew where each piece was located, who created it, and was more than willing to explain her approach on them. In a phrase that brought me pause and a smile, the attendant finished saying, ‘I feel like an expert on Philadelphia Culture yet I work in one of the furthest places from it.’
Alongside the Attendant are a few other stories from travelers. I’ve heard comments on soothing effects, keeping passions relative, and even being reminded of what returning or leaving home can mean. Art, in all its vulnerable beauty, interpretation and significance, seems purposeful in environments that most clearly need it.
I’m taking this as a good inkling Douglas is doing us right.
If you’re planning on flying out of this joint, it might behoove of you to leave a little early. Check yourself in, plop on the ground, toss that Neil Gaiman novel into the trash and relax. (Or toss the novel into one of the airport’s mini Book Exchange barns. If you were ever curious where that book went after you left it on your seat, well, that’s where.)
What the Exhibitions Program has done is alter a utilitarian corporate landscape into a dynamic and colorful experience. There is humor, moments to pause, a glimpse into worlds to which you wish you could travel. The transient airport city now mirrors the real city it sits beside.
Douglas: It was [a] real opportunity to demonstrate what I thought was important to do. It doesn’t get tiring to see people take photos. I feel like it’s a special thing...