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Sacramento’s Stunning New Airport Art

Lawrence Argent’s Red Rabbit: a virtual view of the construction site

When Sacramento’s new International Airport terminal opens in late 2011, visitors will be greeted by a new urban mascot: a 56-foot red rabbit that appears to be diving from the ceiling into a suitcase. It’s the creation of sculptor Lawrence Argent, best known most recently for a giant blue bear that, on hind legs, peers into the windows of the Denver Convention Center. Argent’s is one of 13 new pieces of public art that will soon grace an expanded Sacramento International airport and transform how many visitors see the city for the first time. 

The works are part of a $1.3 billion airport expansion, designed to accommodate the growth of a region whose air traffic is expected to reach 12 million visitors annually by 2013 and 16 million by 2023, according to the building’s architect, Dallas-based Corgan Associates. The art budget for this structure, $5 million, is the largest of any single project in Sacramento’s history, a sum that reflects a quadrupling in size of the international terminal, to 675,000 square feet.
[Watch Lawrence Campling’s video of Argent talking about the installation of red rabbit at the airport construction site.]
Sacramento International Airport Terminal B exterior view.  Architect:Corgan Assoc., Dallas
Other marquee names selected to install art in this space include 2009 McArthur Fellow Camille Utterback, Christian Moeller, Mildred Howard, Donald Lipski, Joan Moment, Suzanne Adan, Ned Kahn, Living Lenses (Po Shu Wang and Louise Bertelsen) and Lynn Criswell. 
Utterbach will build 15 LCD screens into a multi-story elevator shaft that displays seasonal images derived from the artist’s hand-made drawings of leaves, trees, birds and other natural elements. Moeller will pay homage to airport workers in series of wall-sized portraits that employ a "bit-map" style of graphical representation that recalls Chuck Close’s early self-portraits and the trigrams of the I-Ching. Mildred Howard will install one of her signature glass houses to induce travelers to think about what “home” means. Lipski will install a “grand chandelier” (Acorn Steam) built from what looks to be four tree trunks fused at the center. Kahn, who creates eco-themed public artworks, will place onto the side of an overpass-shaped conveyance known as the Automated People Mover, a series of colored “vanes” that flip from one color to another in response to wind currents.  Adan and Moment will install large floor mosaics based on paintings. Adan’s Flying Colors mixes letters of the alphabet with images of birds and tulles; Moment’s A Fragment of the Universe juxtaposes cosmic and terrestrial forms on a cobalt-blue ground to suggest stars and crop circles. Criswell’s terrazzo floor mosaic, As the Crow Flies, consists of silhouettes of northern California birds topped by hanging birdcages, a reference the region’s mix of urban and suburban environments surrounded by farmland.
Donald Lipski, virtual installation view of “Acorn Steam”
The Living Lenses team will erect a 10-foot tall horn that dispenses electronic music. Visitors type email messages into a nearby keyboard. A computer algorithm translates the ones and zeros of those messages into sounds that shift with each combination of keystrokes.
The environment shaped by these works will definitely not resemble the anonymous, fluorescent-lit universe depicted in last year’s Oscar-nominated film, Up in the Air. Here, the overarching theme was bringing the exterior world indoors, says Shelly Willis, program director for the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission’s (SMAC) Art in Public Places program.  
While these efforts probably won’t counteract the generally held view – that California’s seat of government has more in common with the tortoise than with Moeller’s sprightly hare — they will almost certainly burnish the city’s reputation as an incubator of high-profile public art.  
Sacramento already has a museum-quality collection of public art scattered within a stone’s throw of the State Capitol. It includes pieces by Alice Aycock, Stephen Kaltenbach, Jennifer Bartlett, William Wiley, Jenny Holzer, Deborah Oropallo, Deborah Butterfield, William Allan, Robert Brady, Nathan Oliveira, Lita Albuquerque and Mark di Suvero to name but a few. In all, there are more than 650 pieces of public art in its domain. Problem is, unless you work for the state or have reason to do business with the government in-person, it’s unlikely that you will ever see many of these works – although you could have seen quite a few of them had you taken one of the tours offered last year by SMAC.

Joan Moment, “A Fragment of the Universe", 2009, 24 x 36 inches, acrylic on paper; virtual view of the piece as a 12 x 18-foot glass teserae floor
The remake of Terminal B addresses the visibility issue by masterfully integrating art and architecture. It was not an easy feat. With its curved roof, floor-to-ceiling windows and sweeping, light-suffused vistas, the building doesn’t exactly offer a surfeit of hospitable places for displaying painting, sculpture, installation or video. Nevertheless, by working creatively with SMAC and with the architect, the artists, at least on paper, figured out how to install engaging works that complement the airport’s essential functions: parking, transportation, security, ticketing, baggage handling. 
A preview of what it will all look like is on view at the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento through May 16.  The show (In Public: Designing Art for the Sacramento International Airport) consists of architectural drawings, models, video presentations and original paintings. The paintings, by Suzanne Adan and Joan Moment, will be translated to glass teserae mosaics by Franz Mayer of Munich, widely regarded as the world’s leading fabricator of glass for contemporary art installations.  Overall, the exhibition achieves its goal of demonstrating the process by which works of public art come into being; that is, the revisions that an artist must make to satisfy structural, safety, security, aesthetic and budgetary requirements. 
What a show like this can’t possibly communicate is the complexity of the overall process.  To get an idea of what’s involved, I spoke to Shelly Willis, program manager of SMAC’s Art in Public Places Program. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
Sculptor Lawrence Argent and Shelly Willis, program director, Sacramento’s Art in Public Places program  Photo: Lawrence Campling
David M. Roth: Bringing the outside world into the interior of the airport seems to be the connecting thread for most of the pieces in this project. Why was that important?
Shelly Willis: "Bringing the outside in" is one of the underlying building design concepts. As the artists began developing their designs, I suggested they consider this as a foundation for their work. Thus far, all but one of the artists uses this idea in their work.  
Sacramento actually has quite a bit of great public art, a lot of it by well-known artists, both local and national. What does the art in this project bring to Sacramento that’s new and exciting?
All of the work in the project looks like art. I know this may sound strange, but sometimes when artists are required to create functional works of art (benches, tree grates, fences), it can disappear into the building. This work will not. The "outside-in" idea prevents that from happening. It serves as a theme that holds the work together as if it was curated by one person.
Most people have no idea how complicated it is to integrate art into a construction project this size.  Give us a brief idea of what it takes to bring a project like this from conception to completion. 
The process began two years ago with a plan that had three phases.  The first was a limited competition for works that are part of the building’s structure. These have to be planned early on because the art is literally part of the structure. The artist and the architect have to work cooperatively.
 Terminal B, Interior View. Architect: Corgan Assoc., Dallas
The remaining 10 artworks were selected in a second phase that began with a nationwide call for qualified artists. 503 artists responded.   I convened seven panels of community members. Depending on the project, the panels met three to six times to select the artists and to approve designs. Each panel, after reviewing the nominees, narrows its selection down to a group of finalists. From there, a winner is selected who then submits a proposal. The proposal is generally revised quite a few times before it is accepted by the panel. After that, it must be approved by the Arts Commission and by the Board of Supervisors. There’s a third phase that will involve three additional artworks, two in the international terminal and one on the South Lawn. The artists have yet to be selected.
How much of what you described is your direct responsibility?
I direct the program which means I manage the process from start to finish.
What distinct challenges did this project present for artists?
Overall, I think time is the biggest issue. Meaning, I wish we had more of it! However, each project has its own set of challenges.
Christian Moeller: long view of untitled baggage claim worker portrait, “bit-map” images in wood
Public art commissions are seen as big paydays for the artists, and because of that the competition is always intense, and the results are often hotly debated both by artists and the public. What steps did you take to ensure a fair and transparent process?
Christian Moeller: (detail) of untitled portrait of baggage claim workers using wood shelving to create wall-sized “bit-map” images
I don’t know about "big paydays". In this project artists are restricted to receiving a maximum of 15% of the budget for design and project management.   The remaining 85% of the budget is used for fabrication and installation. But, yes the competition is fierce – and that is as it should be.   There is a lot of pressure on everyone involved. The artist wants to make a great work of art without compromise. Staff wants to run a flawless process. The panel wants to jury the work at the highest level possible, and of course the Commission and Board want to provide the highest level of project oversight. Nobody wants to make a mistake and everyone wants success. From the very start, every part of the process is held in open public meetings.
Was the composition of each selection panel the same, i.e. equally divided between county officials and art professionals? 
It was about 50/50. Every panel included the architect, three County officials, a commissioner, and at least 3 arts professionals. 
How were the nominees for each of the projects selected?
The majority of these artists were selected in an open competition. Seven of the ten opportunities seen in this exhibition were restricted to artists residing in Northern California. Limited or direct selection processes are not the rule. However in addition to trying to reach as many artists as possible through an RFQ (request for
qualifications), I always do research and invite artists to apply to particular projects based on the purpose of the art at the site or what the public wants the artists to "do". This is an important distinction. My research is rarely, if ever, based on what the public wants the artwork to "be". Artists, especially those who have not made public art before, may not be plugged into the public art network; so like any contemporary art curator or historian, I am always researching, reading, looking at art and encouraging artists to apply to particular projects.
Mildred Howard, untitled glass house
How many artists were presented to panelists during the first round of the selection process?
It was different for each panel. It varied from about 30 to 250 artists.
In public art projects there is always a battle over what portion of the total project cost will be used to calculate the art budget. How did this all play out with the Terminal B project?
The Sacramento County code applies to all public projects, not just the Sacramento County Airport System. Unless a different amount is directed by the Board of Supervisors, two percent of the total construction costs of the eligible projects is allocated to art. For this project the Board of Supervisors approved an amount less than the normal 2% called for by the County’s Ordinance for the airport art budget. 
What, then, is the total budget for art in this project?
$8 million dollars was allocated to the art program. $5 million dollars for art. $1 million for administration of the program (any amount not used for administration will be used for art), and $2 million dollars to be set aside for an endowment. 
There was quite a flap last year about that, about money that was allocated to maintenance rather than to funding new works of art in the airport. What are your feelings about that?  
Establishing an endowment was a brilliant and visionary decision by the Board. The interest from the endowment will be used to maintain the artwork and to fund temporary public artworks at the airport.  
Suzanne Adan, “Flying Colors”, 2009, 16 x 22 inches, oil on paper; virtual view of the piece as a 12 x 18-foot glass teserae floor
Tell us about your background in public art.
My love of public art began in 1986 when I read a description of the public art program at the California Arts Council. It was fate, I guess. Although I’ve curated a number of exhibitions in traditional exhibition spaces over the past 20 plus years, my work inevitably moves out of traditional exhibition spaces and into the community.   I came to Sacramento after six years of managing the University of Minnesota public art program where I directed the development and installation of temporary and permanent public artworks on campus throughout the University of Minnesota system. I developed a public art minor program at the University, the first program of its kind in the United States, which has yet to be launched, and taught courses in public art in the Department of Urban Studies and the Department of Landscape Architecture. Among other writings, my essay on the state of public art education in the United States was published by Americans for the Arts in the book titled Public Art by the Book, edited by Barbara Goldstein.  I am also co-editor of the book, Public Art Practice, published by Routledge New York in the spring of 2008. I think I am proudest though, of some of the work I did while working for the City of Fairfield and in Sonoma where I produced works of temporary public art. 
Besides the airport project, what other public art projects are you currently managing?
Lynn Criswell, model for one segment of a 18 x 30-foot terrazzo floor mosaic, “As the Crow Flies”
The Art in Public Places Program has a small staff that includes myself, a project manager, and program assistant, a part time education coordinator, and a person who works with us part time on maintenance issues. Together we maintain a collection of more than 650 works of art. We produce 12 exhibitions annually in public spaces. We’ve got seven new public art projects in the pipeline and approximately another 15 in the works — not including the airport. 
Among local art professionals, it’s a fairly well-known fact that you work a crazy-busy schedule. Give us a glimpse if you will.
My average work week is 60 hours. In any given day I can be figuring out how to deal with the tile that is falling off a major work of art, talking to an artist about how to best present their ideas in a public process, developing the budget for a new project, giving a talk about the history of public art to a panel, writing a press release, and researching the artists for a new project.   It’s impossible to be bored and not feel vital in this job. 
What other things would you like people to know about this project that I haven’t asked you?
I care deeply about this work because I’ve seen it create real and substantial change in communities across the country. 
In Public: Designing Art for the Sacramento International Airport @ Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento through May 16, 2010.  


10 Responses to “Sacramento’s Stunning New Airport Art”

  1. David Roth says:


    There are 3 local (Sacramento Valley) artists in this project: Suzanne Adan, Joan Moment and Lynn Criswell — 4 if you count Bay Area artist Mildred Howard.

  2. Jay Rudin says:

    I do love the work of the artists chosen but I would love to have the work of local artists at our airport, just as I hope local businesses are chosen to sell coffee and food there. Were there no local artists considered?

  3. Bruce says:

    Very helpful… I will come back again!

  4. Very helpful… I will come back again!

  5. David Roth says:

    Author’s response to Jennifer Payne’s comment on 3/27:

    You raise a very good point about spending on public art during times of fiscal crisis. If you put the choice to me – spend money on public art or provide critical services to aged and indigent individuals, I would choose people. And I think most artists – including those who are the beneficiaries of such spending — would probably agree. However, the choice to spend or revoke monies allocated to public art isn’t as simple as that.

    California law requires that a certain percentage of the budget for all public buildings be spent on art. That percentage varies, depending on the locale, but it’s generally about 2 percent. In the case of the new Sacramento International airport terminal, that money was committed years ago – long before the mortgage crisis sunk the American economy. So the question becomes: do we renege or postpone an infrastructure investment that has potential long-term benefits to shore up a short term crisis or do we stick to the plan? If you withhold the money, there are long-term consequences.

    1) Sacramento loses iconic landmarks that identify the city to travelers around the world, kicking sand into the face of an already down-at-the-heels city. (Witness as a case in point, the miasmatic swamp known as the K Street Mall.) 2) Because of the architectural design of the new airport terminal, the art has to be incorporated into the structure of the building at the time it’s built. It can’t be added after the fact. Meaning the decision to do it is now or never.

    $5 million (the amount allocated to art at the airport) may sound like a lot but it’s a drop in the bucket within the overall county budget. A better target would be the extraordinarily rich benefits being paid to retired county executives. You could trim $5 million there and not harm a soul. For more on that check out the editorial (“County Must Name its $100,000 Club”) in today’s Sacramento Bee.


  6. Dane Fiske says:

    Hi good post, im currently studying this at college. I like your blog there’s some real helpful stuff on here. Will check back soon to see if you have posted anymore pages, thanks

  7. Jennifer Payne says:

    The new art is wonderful but I can’t help but wonder “Where is the funding for this porject coming from?” Last thing I heard was that California was filing for bankruptcy and was among the highest umemployment rates across the country. How can California afford this when just last year they issued I.O.U’s to the tax payers because they couldn’t pay those return those funds right away like the large majority of other states! Please help me understand this.

  8. georgia says:

    Congratulations on this incredible project and thank you for making Sacramento Airport more interesting while showcasing public art and supporting artists. This is a great idea to bring more people in contact with Art that might not get to otherwise. Is there a site to see where artwork can be submitted for upcoming public art projects? thanks and keep up the great work!

  9. Great article. Thank you.

  10. Ann Weber says:

    A huge round of applause to you David for this extraordinary interview with Shelly Willis about this project. This airport will make international history. It is a tribute to her and her ability to shepherd this unbelievably complex project through the myriad doors, windows and peepholes necessary to bring it to fruition.

    It will result in a world class museum, a gift to the community and make Sacramento a destination point solely to see the talented artists included in the collection. Thank you.


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