Image courtesy of Salt Lake City International Airport


The global airline industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. What is the state of airport art programs during our global pandemic?

Are airport art programs staying on course? Are they grounded? Or, are they heading on new trajectories?

We got some insight from the Director of Arts@MSP at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Ben Owen: “A lot has changed and has either caused us to ramp up in some places and ramp down in others. But, a lot has stayed the same.” 

So things are changing, while also staying the same? 

We’ll expand.  


COVID has been a jarring experience.

The aviation industry is experiencing a huge recession during COVID due to banned and restricted travel. Even the busiest airports have reduced operations, closed runways and consolidated terminals to cut costs. 

Traffic is significantly down. TSA screened more than 2 million people per day in April of last year. In April of 2020 it screened less than 100,000 daily. (source)

Nancy Volmer, Director of Communication and Marketing at Salt Lake City International Airport, shared: “It’s a little bit quieter out here. We used to have 25,000 passengers in the front door every day. Now it’s about 10,000.”


Despite the challenges faced, airport art programs are finding ways to stay true to their missions.

The mission of many airport art programs is to provide a positive airport experience to travelers and to share and promote the local arts community. The airport is like a gateway—it welcomes visitors to the local region and offers a glimpse of the local culture to those stopping through on layovers. 

In these stressful traveling times, it is even more important to offer art experiences. Art can comfort and distract those anxious about traveling. It also creates a welcoming environment to the essential workers on the floor. 

Arts@MSP's Mosaics collection showcased on their website via Artwork Archive's embed.


Exhibitions are being shared outside of the airport.

For many airport art programs, it is important to support and provide visibility to their local arts ecosystems. Typically, this is done through exhibitions and programming within the airport. Since foot traffic within airports is down, art programs are making an effort to share their art virtually.

The airport website is the new terminal when it comes to access. 

MSP is sharing the art of the upper Midwest by bringing their exhibitions online. “Since people are not traveling, and thus, not able to experience our art, we’re maintaining relevancy and sharing our collection by bringing it into the homes of art enthusiasts,” mentions Ben. 

How are they doing it? Ben explains:

“We're using Artwork Archive to share current exhibits and archived exhibits. Artwork Archive has been a godsend. I’m able to publish our exhibits online while people are not able to see them in person. With the embed, I can get them on our existing website, and they show beautifully. If I had to upload everything to our site, I’d waste a lot of time. Artwork Archive has been a huge boon to our operations, and I am 1000% happy.” 

You can see MSP's impressive rotating exhibits here.


Challenges bring innovative solutions.

We’ve seen airports around the country change tack and provide new types of safe art experiences for their audiences. 

Pivot is the word of the year. 

“We've had to pivot. We've done a good job translating to a virtual environment,” shares Lauren Lockhart, San Diego International Airport’s Arts Program Manager (SAN)

SAN was a month into a new Performing Arts Residency collaboration when the pandemic swept. Instead of cancelling their residency, the group Beck + Col augmented their online content so their residency could continue on. They decided to teach singing lessons, and superimposed the residents into the airport environment. The current resident artist Margaret Noble has also met the challenge of creating engaging content that can be experienced remotely. With a playful attitude, they made the best of their situation.

Image courtesy of San Diego International Airport's Arts Program (SAN).


MSP creatively shifted the focus around their new exhibit, Dana Sikkila’s Project Bike Retrospective. They had to scale back on budget and cancel the opening, but still gave the artist an opportunity to share her narrative. They commissioned her to make a short documentary about her retrospective, which you can find on their website

And, earlier this spring MSP and SAN participated in the Jet Stream Music Festival. It was an online streaming music festival organized by Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Artists from airport rosters played virtually via Facebook LIVE, and listeners could “tip” electronically. It was so successful that the Jet Stream Music Festival was scheduled again in the summer. 


Shifting focus during the pandemic.

With arts programming scaled back, some airport art programs like MSP are shifting their focus to marketing.

MSP focused a lot on social media during the pandemic. Inspired by the models of other airports like LAX, they started a campaign called “Stay Creative with Arts at MSP.” They conducted artists interviews and published them online, created a series of coloring pages from the mosaics in the collection, and made a storybook series in which local artists and authors read their books online.

MSP plans to continue to promote their program online and do more social media, even after the pandemic. Ben remarks that there is a silver lining to the restrictions of COVID: “We are learning some of the skills and tools we need to use to make our programming more visible to our community.”

And part of that is using Artwork Archive to share their artworks, artists and exhibits online. 



Keeping safety in mind, always. 

For nealy a year, COVID has cancelled fun.

Many art programs, not just airport programs, have had to cancel their programming. SAN prioritized the health and safety of passengers, staff and partners in the arts earlier this year. "Right before we went into quarantine, we launched an art tour program that is free to the public. It is an opportunity to get a glimpse of our performing arts, arts collection and installations. We had just kicked it off. But, we had to put it on hold for safety of all involved,” shares Lauren.

And thus, SAN pivoted. They developed a self-guided driving tour of works in the public art collection (complete with a soundtrack featuring local musicians!), and created video interviews with artists. 

During the pandemic SAN also had to delay the turnover of their annual exhibition. “That was definitely hard,” shares Lauren. “The annual exhibit is very important to our mission. It's a great way to highlight local artists. We have an incredible roster lined up.” 


The F word: Furlough

Unfortunately, the pandemic has greatly impacted individual artists that are contracted by entities like airports and hospitals for their arts programming. Many airports have had to furlough artists on their roster. 

The loss of gigs has led to massive income cuts for artists. If you want to help artists land on their feet, here are some ways to support artists during the pandemic. 


Arts programming budgets are getting cut.

The massive hit in air travel has affected airport art programs. For instance, the majority of MSP’s programming is funded through capital improvement project dollars, but the funds for their operations (equipment, supplies for rotating exhibits, curatorial fees, performing arts) comes from other revenue sources.

“A significant cut had to be made to our programming because of lost revenue,” asserts Ben. “Between mid-March and mid-April, we had to cut our arts budget by more than 50%. Projects that were already funded and contracted are still moving forward, but we’ve paused plans for some future projects until air travel returns to normal levels.”

Image courtesy of Salt Lake City International Airport.


But, capital projects continue.

The good news about large, slow capital projects is that they are still functioning on their earlier fiscal budgets. For Salt Lake City, they are able to continue the work on their new airport despite COVID. They launched (no pun intended) two new concourses, a parking garage and terminal in the fall of 2020. 

“The art program at this airport is going to be unique and memorable. It’s exciting to see it from concept to reality,” exclaims Nancy.

Throughout the global pandemic art continued to be installed.

Before COVID hit, SLC posted a RFQ for a mural and they kept the project on track despite the limitations of the pandemic. Site visits continued for the local artists (who had to wear masks), and a video of the site was sent to the national artist who could not travel. 

The selected two muralists and their assistants were able to access the construction site and paint. They had their temperatures taken before going on site, wore masks and practiced social distancing.


How airport art managers are adjusting to their "new normal" of remote working. 

“It’s not the hustle and bustle I’m used to,” shares Ben.

Since art programmers are not essential personnel, many art in airport managers have had to manage colossal spaces from the intimacy of their own homes.

Luckily with the increased adoption of cloud-based communication and collaboration tools like Zoom and Slack, companies and teams are able to stay on task and move projects along. For us in the arts specifically, we’re lucky to have online platforms like Artwork Archive that enable teammates to access, edit and share information about artworks, exhibits, vendors and artists. 

Ben remarks, “Now I am able to share our collection and exhibits through the Artwork Archive platform and it has been incredibly beneficial."

"Migration" by Danny Saathoff installed in MSP's Terminal 2. Image courtesy of Arts@MSP. 


The arts are here for us in challenging times. 

Through the muck and mire of the global pandemic, Lauren shares a positive attitude about the power of the arts.

“It's incredibly inspiring to see ways that artists and creatives continue to produce their work and help all of us survive and thrive during this time. In San Diego every museum and arts organization in town is doing its best to serve their audiences. That's amazing. That's what keeps me going. I think about independent artists and small organizations that are struggling, and it inspired me to think of the ways we can resume programming once its safe to do so.”

What’s ahead for SAN? Well for years the airport has been ramping up to replace one of its terminals that was built in the 1960’s. According to Lauren, the airport is continuing to advance on that project—“We're very excited to have just released an RFQ for six new public art opportunities so that the arts can be integrated throughout our Airport Development Program. 

When MSP was able to bring back performing arts for short periods each day during the pandemic, the response was enthusiastic. One observer said that “the performance was a sign of hope.” 

“It’s wonderful that art making is a normalcy and not something to be taken for granted now. There is a healing aspect to having live music and plein air painters in the space,” expands Ben.


Here’s how other arts organizations are sharing their art during COVID.