Art at the Airport
Airports-- public spaces paid for by everyone--are commons, not shopping malls
Traveling by plane, in this era of cattle-car comfort and intensive security checks, is rarely an inspiring experience. But flying home from the “International Commons Conference in Berlin”: http://www.onthecommons.org/potato-commons-power-standing I stumbled across a small but promising example of how to reclaim the commons.
Right in the middle of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport stands a pint-sized branch of the city’s famous Rikjsmuseum. On display was a playful series of Dutch master paintings depicting cows. Caught up in the chaotic energy of jumbo jets arriving and departing every few minutes, I enjoyed the chance to lose myself for a short while in a world of villages, farmyards, and pastures (which, at that point in history, were common property).
There is something frankly endearing about cows, as Chicago proved a few years ago with a headline-grabbing public art project featuring bovine sculptures around the city. However the Amsterdam airport art exhibit cheered me for another reason: it struck a blow for the public realm.
“Airports Belong to Everyone”
Airports are public spaces, built and maintained by taxpayers, yet more and more they take on the frenetic feel of a shopping mall. Usually you can’t even find a place to sit down until you reach your departure gate, because that might deter a purchase.
Travelers are forced to log long hours in airports nowadays, making us virtual captives to non-stop commercialism in a place that rightly belongs to everyone. Why not offer us something else to do besides paying inflated prices for neckties and perfume or buying eight-buck beers?
I realize that something more than artistic altruism fueled the Rijksmuseum’s decision to open up at the airport. To view the paintings you must first pass through an outpost of the museum’s gift shop, which covers more space than the gallery itself. And the paintings certainly help advertise the museum to millions of tourists on their way to Amsterdam.
Still, it was a fun experience that ought to be widely imitated at airports, train stations and public waiting rooms everywhere. And let’s not stop there. How about adding historical displays, performances, playground equipment, reading rooms, chapels, screenings of short films, hands-on art projects for kids —anything you might find in a downtown or town square?
Indeed airports actually are town commons, and activity there shouldn’t be reduced to just coming, going, dining and shopping. A vibrant commons acknowledges us as whole human beings, not just as legs, bellies and wallets.
But, sadly, I also noticed something less inspiring in my Amsterdam layover. Even a more egalitarian nation like the Netherlands has established class-tiered system for waiting in line. First-class fliers now get preferential treatment at security checkpoints and the passport booths as well as check-in, even though we all foot the bill when it comes to paying for airport facilities.