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A destination for art at San Francisco International Airport

Under CC license from Flickr user Thom Watson

Terminal 2 at the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) has been praised for its modern architectural design, which takes into account the needs of post 9/11 travelers. For instance, T2 has comfortable Recompose Area where passengers can put back their shoes and belts after passing through security check. Most of the shops and restaurants are also located within the reach from the gates, so that passengers can easily see their flight status. But there is something else that makes Terminal 2 special: its art collection.

Above either side entrance to SFO’s Terminal 2 stretch huge artworks of hand-painted glass: bird wings to the left and airplane wings on the right. They are large, impressive, and, if you call a number posted next to the front door, they are explained.

“This artwork ‘Air Over Under’ plays with our experience of flight. Seattle-based artist Nori Sato said that once we leave our standard point of reference – the ground, it can be hard to figure out where we are,” says a recorded voice on the phone.

Then, the artist picks up where that narrator left off. “Depending on where we are in the air,” says Sato on the recording, “we can be above the clouds, below the clouds, in no clouds, in the middle of clouds, and the image was constructed with that in mind.”

Susan Pontious, director of the Civic Art Collection and Public Art Program for the city Arts Commission, runs the art program at the SFO in terms of the permanent acquisitions.

Inside the terminal, two objects hang from the ceiling on either side of the terminal entrance, right in the middle of the check-in area. Both look like they are made from different sized pieces of plastic.

“These two pieces are called “Topograph” and are inspired by topography of the Bay Area – and they also kind of remind me of clouds,” says Pontious.

The artist very carefully considered suspension mechanism as part of her aesthetic.

“They always remind me of these upside down rain clouds which is very appropriate on a day like today,” says Pontious.

Before the security gates is a small lounge where people can wait for arriving passengers. Most of the walls are covered by artwork from Marc Adams: big red tapestries with bright flowers that were inspired by the Bay Area gardens. It creates a cozy living room-like atmosphere.

“It is a technique and craft that you don't see that much anymore. I think this is one of the reasons they are valuable to us. And they are just flat out beautiful,” adds Pontious.

Near the lounge are a series of doors used by airport personnel to access the gates. We pass through into the Recompose Area, where people put their shoes and belts back on after the security check. The area is bright and airy, and home to an installation called “Every Beating Second”.

“The inspiration for the artist was that this is a place where you maybe took a little bit of a time to look around you and maybe notice some things.”

“Every Beating Second” consists of three nets hanging down from the ceiling. Each is a mixture of pink, purple and blue. Looking closer, I can see they're moving a little bit, as if they’re hovering in a breeze.

You may not think of an airport as a place to see art or take an audio tour to learn more about its paintings and sculptures. People mostly come here for one reason: to travel. But the City of San Francisco spent nearly two-and-a-half million dollars on artwork in Terminal 2. It's part of a city ordinance passed in 1969, which mandated that 2 percent of any construction costs be allocated to art enrichment or public art. As a result, SFO now has the most valuable public artwork collection in the city outside its fine art museums.

So next time, if you have some time to spend waiting for your flight, take a moment and look around. You can enjoy one of San Francisco's newest, most sophisticated, and expensive art galleries. It's arrived at Terminal 2.

Audio tour recording courtesy of Ear Print Productions.