SFO Museum a good place to land for art on the fly
August 16, 2017
Art is where you find it, and sometimes you find it after emptying your pockets, removing your belt and taking off your sneakers.
That’s the kind of art they have at San Francisco International Airport. It’s art even though it’s located on a concourse instead of a gallery. It’s art even if it’s the last thing you see before Cleveland.
“The airport can be a stressful place,” said Tim O’Brien, the assistant director of the SFO Museum. “It’s not relaxing. We’re a respite from all that.”
Airport art isn’t like other kinds. Often, airport art is for people in a hurry not to look at it. Sometimes it’s in Terminal 2 when you’re in Terminal 1, or it’s domestic art when you’re international. Sometimes the art is looked at by people on moving sidewalks.
Figuring out art is tough enough. Figuring it out when gliding along at 3 miles an hour is tougher. A curator of airport art, seeking to draw in the busy or the weary traveler, must think outside the Plexiglas box.
“At the airport, you have to capture attention quickly,” said O’Brien. “It’s a challenge.”
This year, the airport art gang has sought to waylay the moving-sidewalk crowd with antique slot machines and antique flight attendant uniforms. In past years, there have been exhibits of Ouija boards, Art Deco knickknacks, Japanese toys, engraved doors, silver teapots and bygone advertising icons. Sure, such stuff is art, O’Brien said, being as it’s located inside the Plexiglas cases.
The greatest compliment an SFO passenger can pay an airport curator, O’Brien said, is to decide to bypass the moving sidewalk and walk down the concourse instead, looking at art while rolling a heavy suitcase.
For four decades, the curators of the SFO Museum have been putting together exhibitions of serious artworks and kitchy knickknacks to give the traveling public something to do besides see the late planes and lost luggage. SFO is the only airport to have a genuine accredited museum in it. The exhibits are spread among 25 exhibit spaces throughout the airport, like the purveyors of Golden Gate Bridge T-shirts.
Right now, there’s an exhibit of shoes from foreign lands. There’s an exhibit of manual typewriters and another exhibit of Summer of Love musician portraits. There’s a series of arty photographs taken at flea markets and a whole bunch of souvenir marble columns that had once been unloaded on 19th century tourists to Rome.
Every exhibit comes with a genuine exhibit catalog, just as in museums that aren’t in airports. The SFO takes things seriously. The catalogs all say that the job of the SFO Museum is to “humanize the airport environment and provide visibility for the unique cultural life of San Francisco.”
A popular exhibit this year consisted of 44 antique slot machines and gambling devices but, since exhibits and airplanes do eventually depart from SFO, that exhibit is gone. Not long ago it was replaced with a collection of 50-year-old airline mementos. Swizzle sticks, ceramic salt shakers, napkin rings, metal cutlery. Treasures of another age, when flights came with propellers and accurate timetables.
Fifty-five million people pass through SFO every year, almost all in a hurry. Many of them were in Terminal 2 the other morning, rushing past the collection of 44 typewriters. One of the typewriters, a sign said, belonged to Ernest Hemingway and another belonged to John Lennon. About 100 people hustled past the typewriter collection before traveler Bobby Kirkpatrick stopped to look at a typewriter. He had about 20 minutes before his flight to Dallas, he said, long enough to look at one or possibly two typewriters.
“I think my mother had one of these,” he said, looking at a 115-year-old Blickensderfer typewriter for about a minute, and then he was off to Dallas.
Curator Daniel Calderon, who had spent months of his life assembling the typewriter collection, was philosophical about his one-minute customer. Art makes one philosophize.
“You’re not going to get everyone,” he said. “It was fun for me to highlight something like typewriters. That’s a subject you don’t often think of when you think of art exhibits.”
Inside the main exhibit space, the long Terminal 3 concourse, passenger Brian Birdsell said that he was in transit from Singapore to Albuquerque, and plenty tired but that he had been revived by the sight of a ceramic salt shaker in the airline memorabilia exhibit.
“You can fly around the world, and you will never see a salt shaker like that again,” he said.
Passenger Alex Laskey of Daly City said the art makes San Francisco International special.
“There is a lot of sameness in airports,” he said. “Not here. I like to walk through this airport. There’s always something unexpected.”
O’Brien and his fellow curators work out of a large building just north of the terminals that used to be the place where in-flight meals were prepared, back in the day when airlines offered amenities like food, legroom and promptness. It took a lot of scrubbing to remove the residual grease from the premises and make it fit for restoring art. The giant warehouses and walk-in refrigerators have been transformed into work spaces and exhibit preparation rooms.
Inside one room, exhibit conservator Alisa Eagleston-Cieslewicz was laboring over a model plane that will soon be part of a big exhibit of model planes. Alas, the front wheel of the miniature DC-6 had fallen off. For an amateur model plane builder, that’s a 10-second repair with a dab of plastic cement from the tube. For a museum conservator, it’s an exacting, painstaking procedure involving magnifiers and an arc lamp, something like a root canal.
“You have to do it properly,” she said. “It has to last. We use conservation-grade adhesive.”
Every airplane-related item ever made seems to be in storage. There are no defunct airlines at the museum warehouse. Kiddie wings from PSA? Flight attendant hat from TWA? Fork from Pan Am? Open the drawer, there they are.
Sooner or later, every knickknack is destined to come out of storage and make it to the big time, inside the Plexiglas display cases down the road.
Great art makes the airport a great place to hang out. You don’t have to be a passenger to do many of the best things at San Francisco International. Much of the art is located in the pre-security areas, with no shoe removal required. In fact, some people go to the airport just to go to the airport.
There’s so much great stuff to do. You can watch travelers from around the world emerge from the customs hall with that deer-in-the-headlights look. You can pet the airport’s famed therapy dogs. You can take a shower. You can reflect in the Reflection Room. You can change dollars into foreign currency, the kind that comes in colors besides green. You can ride around the airport on the AirTrain. Unlike a San Francisco cable car, the AirTrain is free and there’s no line.
And you can look at the art. San Francisco may already be a great destination, but, said O’Brien, San Francisco International Airport is a great destination, too. All you need do it hop on BART to the end of the line, and there you are. No airplane required. The art, being free, is cheaper than the $25-a-head art at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. And when you’re done looking at it, you’re already in San Francisco, horizon fully expanded.
Steve Rubenstein is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org