The Houston Airport System offers many experience-enhancing amenities and features to passengers, including a large public art collection, cultural collaborations, fine arts, and the country’s only active airport Artist in Residence program. We recently sat down with Alton DuLaney, the Curator of Public Art and director of Cultural Arts for Houston Airports, to discuss new updates coming to an installation inspired by the Houston Botanic Garden.
The Houston Airport System consists of George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Ellington Airport & Houston Spaceport, and William P. Hobby Airport. Combined, the three airports will serve an anticipated 60 million passengers this year. For Alton DuLaney, Curator of Public Art and director of Cultural Arts for Houston Airports, this means 60 million opportunities to facilitate exposure to art in new and unexpected ways.
As part of the Houston Airport System’s cultural collaboration efforts, which draw on local artistic talent and promote the city’s cultural institutions to establish a sense of place, an installation inspired by the Houston Botanic Garden was unveiled in a lounge area at Hobby Airport in the fall of 2022. The installation is getting an upgrade this year, along with a relocation within Hobby Airport.
“Our cultural collaborations focus on the local flavor of Houston, promoting local attractions and reinforcing the full range of what Houston has to offer,” DuLaney says. “We want people to understand they’re not at JFK or LAX — they’re in Houston!” Other cultural collaborations include NASA, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and the 1940 Air Terminal Museum.
Representing the Bayou City
The installation inspired by the Garden includes three commissioned works and five photographs of various sizes and mediums by eight different local artists. The exhibit will soon welcome a new painting by David Cobb, the muralist working on an installation adjacent to the Garden along Sims Bayou, along with a monarch butterfly sculpture by Alex Heveri, creator of the Glass in Flight exhibition currently on display in the Susan Garver Family Discovery Garden, and sketches and a photo of Gerardo Rosales’ Tree of Life sculpture, which stands in the Garden’s Tropical Heart.
For the past year, the exhibit has been located at Hobby Airport in the ticketing level in the East Ticketing lounge, across from the domestic carriers. However, it will soon be relocated just to the left of the main Security Checkpoint area to create an artistic hub near the drop-off point and pick-up area, where there is a lot of foot traffic and congregating to wait on transportation.
“Houston is well-known for oil and gas, space travel, and world-class medical care, but we’re also a very green city with rich natural habitats,” DuLaney says. “Nothing about Houston is one dimensional.”
Art Abounds at Houston Airports
Many may be surprised to learn that the Houston Airport System operates a robust public art program — in fact, it was recently named World’s Best Airport Art Program, besting other finalist contenders Doha, Qatar, and Mumbai, India.
Its public art collection boasts nearly 350 works of art, ranging from textiles, videos, framed installations, miniature sculptures, and 80-foot-high illuminated towers. The collection was recently appraised at $28 million, and DuLaney aims to have 400 pieces by next year for the collection’s 25th anniversary.
In addition to an impressive public art collection and ongoing cultural collaborations, the Houston Airport System has the only active Artist in Residence program in the country, as well as an Art Ambassador who supports passengers during the busiest days of travel by offering relaxation and release through art activities. Then there is the popular Harmony in the Air, a fine arts program that offers live music five days per week.
Enhancing the Passenger Experience
The overarching goal of the Houston Airport System’s variety of art programs is to enhance the passenger’s experience, which is often hectic, goal-oriented, and stressful, punctuated by periods of waiting and boredom.
“When you have time to spare during a layover, we offer things to look at that are more interesting than just sitting and staring at your phone. We hope to elevate the overall traveling experience at our airports,” DuLaney says.
The feedback from travelers has been great so far. DuLaney says his team frequently receives positive comments, such as, “I had no idea this was available at the airport!” and “I will arrive early next time just to enjoy the art!” He says these responses indicate that the programs are well-liked and have a beneficial impact on passengers who visit Houston airports.
Showcasing Local Artists
The sheer volume of passengers and exposure that the Houston Airport System provides to exhibiting artists is career-making. For context, the biggest museum in Houston sees around 1 million visitors per year. The Houston Airport System gets as many eyeballs on art in a week as a museum does in a year.
Exhibiting at the airport provides exposure for artists, as well as institutions represented in its cultural collaborations, like the Houston Botanic Garden. One of the new artists featured in the Garden-inspired installation — Gerardo Rosales — was also recently chosen to do a commission in the new IAH international terminal. “One of the first and last things that passengers will see in that terminal is art created by six local artists,” says DuLaney.
Be sure to look for the Garden-inspired exhibit the next time you catch a flight at Hobby Airport! It will be in its new home near the main Security Checkpoint area soon.