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These 7 airports have such stunning artwork, they're like museums

Feb. 05, 2020
9 min read
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An airport that doubles as a showcase for fine art may strike you as unlikely but then you might say a place defined by clocks and schedules -- but that also embodies taking off and freedom -- is equal parts transport node and work of art itself. As if to underscore that, there's a growing number of airports where actual artworks are very much on display, and that's by design.

There are many instances where airports install items that are somehow representative of the destinations they actually serve: sections of ancient mosaics at Rome's Fiumicino International Airport and a sampling of Dutch Masters' paintings at Amsterdam's Schiphol come to mind. Then there are times when airports go into full-on art gallery/modern art museum mode. Qatar's Hamad International Airport in Doha, with monumental-sized works by the likes of Urs Fischer and Tom Otterness alongside works by more local artists, is a prominent example.

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But is it art? At SFO, that's an emphatic yes. (Photo courtesy of San Francisco International Airport)

Simply put, airport art is pretty cool. Here are some airports around the world where you'll find inspiring art on display.

1. Hamad International Airport, Doha, Qatar (DOH)

If there's one thing Qatar's Hamad International Airport in Doha isn't about when it comes to art, it's minimalism. The airport's artworks, curated by Qatar Museums, lean to the cutting edge and often to the very large as well. Consider the jumbo-sized and very yellow Lamp Bear by Urs Fischer (after departures, security and passport control at the South Node) or the cheekily named Small Lie by artist Kaws, a wooden "toy" which looms 32 feet over busy passersby in the North Node.

A signature contemporary work of art at Doha is Urs Fischer's Lamp Bear. (Photo courtesy of Hamad International Airport)

The variety of Hamad's art is truly impressive. The larger-than-life sculptural Playground by Tom Otterness is another example, as are Tom Classen's "herd" of metal oryxes, a nice treat for when you do get off the plane, in arrivals. The airport is also the place to see inspiring works by more regionally-based artists, such as Iraqi artist Ahmed Al Bahrani's Message of Peace to the World, a cube-shaped sculpture that's been installed at the South Node's passenger train station.

Too big for the lounge: Tom Otterness' The Playground at Doha's art-filled international airport. (Photo courtesy of Hamad International Airport)

2. Rome-Fiumicino International Airport, Italy (FCO)

The Eternal City is a treasure trove of ancient art, so it's no surprise that at least some part of Rome's main international airport should serve as an ambassador of sorts of its artistic heritage. And that place is in the newish Terminal 3, on the upper level of shops and restaurants after passport control. You'll find a small but well-curated selection of Roman statues, as well as a beautiful array of mosaics like this one, part of a mythological depiction of signs of the Zodiac and the four time zones, or the four seasons.

Not Cupid, but still a cutie -- an ancient Roman statue in Rome-Fiumicino Airport T3. (Photo by Anthony Grant/The Points Guy)
Ancient mosaic on display inside Rome-Fiumicino Airport's T3. (Photo by Anthony Grant/The Points Guy)

Of course, when you're stuck in an airport for any length of time it's easy to forget what time or even season it is, and in fact, a recent installation here juxtaposed philosophical considerations like that with an audiovisual show of the ancient Roman sites located between the city centre and the sea.

3. Larnaca International Airport, Cyprus (LCA)

Cyprus' largest international airport showcases modern installations of artworks like this one after customs and immigration.

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(Photo courtesy of Hermes Airport)

But what's really cool is this chunk of an artsy wall decoration that was somehow salvaged and relocated from the now-defunct zombie airport near Nicosia, the capital. Nicosia International was the island's main international airport before Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, and now that disused airport sits in the middle of a UN-monitored buffer zone.

(Photo courtesy Hermes Airports)

As for this well-preserved relic, it was specially commissioned back in the early 1970s. New information panels explain the meaning behind the different mosaics that make up the wall segment, which is prominently located in the departures hall before security.

Read more: 10 things no one tells you about Cyprus

4. Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel (TLV)

According to its website, the Israel Airports Authority "views art as an indispensable part of the history and culture of the Jewish people", and at Tel Aviv's busy Ben Gurion International Airport, that commitment manifests itself in various ways. Perhaps most iconically there's the beautiful and large ancient "bird mosaic" from the historic Israeli city of Beit She'an. It's set in a cement mould that is itself affixed high atop a portion of the wall under which every arriving passenger at Terminal 3 (the airport's main terminal) must pass before passport control.

The Beit She'an bird mosaic dates from the 5th to 6th centuries AD. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

But that's not all. Since 2008, the elongated left wall of the sloping corridor in Terminal 3 that leads to the main departures hall has been home to temporary photo exhibitions that focus on different aspects of Israel. It's not uncommon for passengers to stop in their hurried tracks to check out the oversized and often quite gorgeous photos before heading to their gate.

5. San Francisco International Airport, U.S.A. (SFO)

Even more so than famously unloved LAX, San Francisco International Airport steps right up to the plate on the creative front. There are contemporary works of art sprinkled throughout the main terminals, such as recent head-turning show on "The Modern Consumer -- 1950s Products and Style" in Terminal 3.

Hello there Mr Roboto: 1950s Americana fun at SFO's T3. (Photo by the Anthony Grant/The Points Guy)

At SFO as one might expect, art is never an afterthought but rather, is compellingly curated. In fact, the airport's public art is selected by the prestigious San Francisco Arts Commission. And to appeal to the AvGeeks out there, as well as California travel history buffs, there's the Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum, which has on display everything from vintage flight attendant uniforms to floral-print aeroplane seats from the 1970s. Admission is free to the museum, which is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and is located before security on the departures level of the International Terminal Main Hall.

Boston Harbour as depicted in a portion of French wallpaper on temporary display at SFO's international terminal. (Image courtesy of San Francisco Art Commission)

6. Athens International Airport, Greece (ATH)

Like many spots in and around the Greek capital, the area around Athens International Airport (called Mesogaia) is rich with antiquities, and many discoveries actually came to light during the process of building the airport. Happily some of these have found a home in a small museum located inside the airport. While many people who find themselves on the upper level of the main departures hall (before security) are making a beeline to Burger King, some pause to inspect upwards of 172 authentic artefacts dating from the Neolithic and Early Hellenic eras to the post-Byzantine period.

The museum is open daily, for free, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. A smaller dedicated space reserved for interesting rotating exhibits of Greek contemporary art is located adjacent to it.

7. Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, the Netherlands (AMS)

Didn't have time to gawk at the art at the Rijksmuseum during your visit to Amsterdam? No worries, because thanks to some artsy interventions at Schiphol you can pretend that you did and maybe even fool your Instagram followers. We're talking about the busy airport's pared-down but very lovely nonetheless version of the famous museum, and it's tucked into a glass pavilion after security. The curated selection of 17th-century Dutch paintings rotates with the Rijkmuseum's main collection on a regular basis.

Art on the go at the mini Rijkmuseum. (Photo courtesy of Schiphol Airport)

Bottom line

Airports are functional places to be but they are also places where the relevant authorities increasingly look to optimise the totality of the airport experience. Big-name artists not only lend to cachet to some major international airports, but they also make passengers' time in the terminal -- whether rushing through or lingering longer because of a missed connection -- more enjoyable. Some airports are following the lead of artsy trailblazers like Qatar -- for example, busy Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX is now home to numerous changing site-specific installations and Miami International Airport has a strong art programme, too. More than ever and around the globe, when it comes to ground-level art experiences at many airports, the sky truly is the limit.