When traveling to a new city for business or for pleasure, you may not have time to take in any of the local museums, galleries, or parks dedicated to showcasing the art and culture that the city and its environs have to offer. Distinct touchpoints between visitors and local art and culture help crystalize positive memories that drive return visits and increased spending, so if visitors can’t go engage with these experiences themselves, cities have a vested interest in bringing them to the visitors. Where better to treat with travelers than at the very gateway of their travel: the airport. “Airport art is becoming more common at hubs in the United States,” wrote Josh Lew for Mother Nature Network, “The goal is to bring highlights from the city inside the airport, so visitors can get a taste of the local flavor, even if they’re only laying over.” Perhaps nowhere is this trend better illustrated than at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL), which has spent roughly $15 million on art in recent years.

Large cities like Atlanta can afford this because they frequently tag a portion of city capital projects (~0.5% or so) for public art, with a share of that dedicated to the local airport, assuming it is municipally owned. These airport art budgets are then typically supplemented by airport-associated fees like parking revenues. For mid-size airports servicing less than five million passengers per year however, they may not receive any city funding at all and lower passenger throughput means fewer airport-associated fees to allocate towards art projects. This puts airports like Spokane International Airport (GEG) in somewhat of a tricky situation. GEG receives no funding from the city or county of Spokane and ranks just 70th nationally in annual passenger throughput, meaning their art budget subsequently pales in comparison to that of ATL’s, and even to that of Washington’s larger hub, Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA), which is set to receive a huge influx of art spending thanks to the Port of Seattle’s decision to increase art spending to $20 million by 2025.

To keep pace with their goliath competitors, recruit new airlines to their terminals, and continue delivering commercial and recreational travel to their region, mid-size airports need to operate like their larger brethren while still looking and feeling distinctly their own. But with funding for art projects drawn from the same (limited) pool as funding for other capital improvement projects, airports like Spokane face a choice whether to dedicate resources to art or to infrastructure. Threading this needle is challenging but by employing functional art that can relax passengers and bind them to local culture while still facilitating efficient foot-traffic patterns, it can be done. This duality is expertly demonstrated in Spokane International, where the airport recently transformed their most visible built environment by integrating two large-format LED display features.

Form Serving Function

As the primary air travel hub of the Inland Northwest region, Spokane International services roughly 4 million passengers per year in and out of the greater Spokane area. When juxtaposed with the more than 50 million passengers sent through Seattle-Tacoma, Spokane’s passenger throughput seems paltry, but to the communities of the landlocked and otherwise difficult-to-reach region of eastern Washington and northern Idaho, GEG is a vital resource. Opened in its current concourse complex in 1965, the airport was imbued with a neo-expressionist style that the city and county, in their joint ownership of the airport, have tried to maintain through the years. This style and the continued desire to complement it rather than compromise it are best seen in the airport’s Rotunda, a 37,000 square foot atrium at the intersection of Concourses A and B. Most of the airport’s passengers per year are serviced through one of these two concourses, meaning the Rotunda is the defining space of the GEG airport experience. Given the airport brings an estimated annual economic impact of $725 million to the greater Spokane area, ensuring the Rotunda branded the Inland Northwest as an exciting and accessible destination was an economic necessity. Until recently however, the space had grown listless.

Though minor upgrades to appearances and amenities had occurred over the decades, the Rotunda was largely filled with empty space. Beyond simple static signage around the circumference of the cavernous dome, the Rotunda had little in the way of wayfinding and even less in the form of branding. The space needed a functional facelift – enhancements that improved not only the way the Rotunda looked but the way it felt. On this subject of the vital function of art in an airport, Alex Irrera from the Houston Arts Alliance wrote that, “When situated in an airport, the role of public art is given another dimension. In addition to symbolizing a place, the work now serves the traveler – welcoming, grounding, or inspiring them.” In other words, mid-size airports need to incorporate art not just for art’s sake but for the sake of elevating their passengers’ experiences, their perception of the airport and the region it serves, and lastly, the amount of money they’ll spend. GEG annually earmarks roughly $40 million for capital improvements across the airport but with several physical infrastructure projects underway, little of that was available to install art for art’s sake.

So Spokane opted instead to install features functional beyond their pure aesthetics. At the apex of the Rotunda they installed an eight-piece LED chandelier that organizes passengers’ sightlines at the center of the room, serves as a landmark around which to gather, and brands the airport -and region- as a dynamic and technologically savvy locale. They didn’t stop there, as they also installed a five-piece feature above an entry threshold to the Rotunda. This feature consists of a giant curved display framed by four rectangular columns and again serves as a powerful branding symbol for the wild physicality of the region while keeping passengers moving purposefully through the space. These features are art, but they are more than just a pretty painting. They are alive, they are exciting, and importantly, they are functional.

(Spokane Airport Rotunda - Before and After)
Spokane Airport BeforeSpokane Airport After

Digital signage is different – and that’s an advantage

As airports look to modernize their operations to engage with passengers who hold ever higher expectations for digital integration, they have found success modernizing their artwork as well. Not only do digital display features present a compelling economic case against traditional static art but their dynamic nature allows them to serve purposes beyond simple appearances, making them an easier fit within a restricted budget. The dynamism of digital art installations serves two parties: passengers who are treated to an ever-changing experience that never grows stale, and the airport itself, who is no longer is saddled with aging static art that outlives its impact while also receiving additional benefits in the form of branding and foot-traffic efficiencies. For mid-size airports like Spokane International, fusing form and function in their space and in their budget is imperative. As their recent installations confirm, digital signage finds a perfect balance between the two.