Liliana Rambo said six months ago she predicted the Houston Airport System would win the first-ever World Airport Awards "2023 Best Art" in the Airport category. Who knew the chief terminal management officer would be so prescient?
“It came true. I should probably say I’m going to be a millionaire by next year next,” she joked.
The win was historic for HAS and the global commercial aviation industry in two ways: Skytrax created a new awards category this year, and Houston Airports (which includes William P. Hobby Airport and George Bush Intercontinental Airport) were its first-ever recipients.
Houston Airports also maintained its five-star rating at Hobby Airport and its four-star rating for Bush Airport. Quite the accomplishment, huh?
HAS Communications Director Augusto Bernal said the World Airport Awards is an annual award presented by Skytrax, a premier international air transport rating organization. Skytrax visits all the airports around the world to learn what the trends are around the airports.
“Seeing art as a high profile in airports around the world, Skytrax came up with this new category this year. They view art as a fundamental piece of the airport system,” he said.
Let’s face it: the airport travel experience is too much to handle for some people. Luggage issues, multiple security checks, sharing a seat on a long flight with “that passenger,” and potential delays and layovers at airports can make a person want to scream in frustration.
Houston Airports recognized the problem and came up with their solution to ease travelers’ blues by creating an airport performing and visual arts program for both Hobby and Bush airports.
The program is comprised of more than 350 pieces of art valued at $28 million (one of the largest public art collections in the aviation industry), and “Harmony in the Air,” its music arts program that employs 75 local musicians to perform for passengers at Bush and Hobby airports on custom built stages.
Airports basically are the new museums, according to Alton DuLaney, curator and director of Houston Airports Cultural Arts Program. Thanks to a very robust budget - the Civic Arts Program established by a 1999 city ordinance designated 1.75 % of eligible construction projects be dedicated to buy art for the facilities - artists chosen to be part of the collection have greater public exposure than at a regular museum.
“In 2019, we had I think 54 million passengers, which basically means we’re serving a million passengers a week. In comparison, the top museums in Houston get one million guests in a whole year,” DuLaney said.
“So, an artist to be in this collection has unparallel exposure from people all over the world. It’s really a great opportunity for those artists to be in it.”
Air travel has become a part of our global infrastructure, according to Maricela Kruseman, founder and director Harmony in the Air, and providing high quality amenities for passengers to optimize and enhance their travel experience is important.
This is where the Houston Airports arts programs comes in. “The sensory experience of visual and performing arts provide the passengers with a truly memorable, uplifting and positive travel experience and showcases the rich cultural, musical and artistic scene of Houston as a very cosmopolitan and vibrant city,” Kruseman said.
“Some passengers are maybe just passing through, but after experiencing the arts and music they see at our airports, they can understand how Houston is not only the capital energy of the world, but many other things, including a fantastic city that has extraordinary musical and art talent.”
Rambo said part of Houston Airport’s vision was for the system to earn a five-star rating. “This started six years ago, we also saw the other categories that we could submit for and be awarded “the best of … for example, Hobby Airport has been awarded Best Regional Airport for the last five years,” Rambo said.
The Performing and Visual Arts Program came under terminal management two years ago, Houston Airport amended what they were doing with the programs at both airports to ensure they provide that five-star passenger experience to our passengers.
“We made sure our performing arts program had an adequate stage, as well as providing more works in the visual arts. As this went along, I felt that Skytrax should have a “Best of Art” program award, so I started talking with the association about it and they thought it was a great idea to have this category,” Rambo added.
Assistant Director of Guest Experiences Melanie Brown said accessibility and how art relates to travel really is integral to what Houston Airports are doing. “We want to make sure our customers are calm and feel safe and are happy. We know that travel in and of itself can be very stressful for most travelers, and many different layers of that passenger journey even before they arrive at the airport,” she said.
“Through this program, we try to tap into something that is beautiful and special, and each individual guest has a unique feeling that when they leave here, they want to return.”
Speaking of unique, both Hobby and Bush offer must-see works at their airports. If you’re traveling through Terminal D at Bush and you have some time, make sure you check out “The Aquarius Art Tunnel,” an 80-foot-long mural consisting of custom carpeting, a lighting element, a soundtrack, and an “augmented reality filter” which makes passengers feel like they’re really in an aquarium.
This work was created by Janavi Mahimtura Folmsbee, a marine conservation artist and the first East Indian woman to be included in the collection. “This was inspired by the coral banks located off the coast of Galveston Bay. So, we get this sense of place that is Texas” DuLaney said.
In Terminal B, there is an art piece called, “Data Stream”, which takes available data and transforms it into abstract light. And if you’re at Hobby, make sure to check out San Antonio artist Cruz Ortiz, who created “Karankawa Sun Dream” which includes the first representation of Indigenous culture in our collection. He worked with the Karankawa people who are of this region and did a portrait of them and the landscape.
DuLaney said more than 50% of the portable art shown at Houston Airports are original works from local and regional artists. They also do cultural collaborations with NASA, The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
“Our neighbors at Hobby Airport with the Air Terminal Museum and the Houston Botanical Garden are all things that identify Houston for what it is… Space City,” he said. “Once they land here, they’ll say, ‘I’m in Texas.’”