Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is setting new standards for public art

Nov 1, 2021

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While cleaning and disinfecting efforts increased at airports around the country –  and the world – due to the COVID-19 crisis, most other activities ground to a halt.

Many airports canceled or put on hold facility improvement and construction projects. Others used the rare quiet times in mostly empty terminals to do touch-ups and to speed up project timetables built around the need to not interrupt the flow of passengers rushing to make their flights.

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At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA), the art collection – and local artists – got a COVID-19 boost.

Over the course of the crisis, the Port of Seattle, which operates SEA airport, invested $76,000 in 17 artworks by 15 different Pacific Northwest Artists. Ten of the 15 artists are women, and seven of the 15 artists are people of color. Better yet, the airport purchased existing, recent work, which meant those artists were able to make sales during a period when new commissions, art gallery shows, and many other opportunities had all but dried up.

Like most airports, SEA and the Port of Seattle had to do significant belt-tightening during the pandemic but recognized – and acted on the fact – that supporting artists was good for the local economy.

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Airports usually use capital improvement project (CIP) funds for public art acquisitions and commissions, says Tommy Gregory, the airport’s Senior Art Program Manager, but “in hopes of creating a ‘stimulus’ like opportunity” he got support from various airport and Port Commissioners to approve the use of expense funds for the purchases.

The new artwork now graces the walls of the airport’s Interfaith Prayer & Meditation Center, the Sensory Room, the North Satellite Nursing Suite, and several other spots in the airport.

“As Above, So Below” Photo Courtesy Port of Seattle

SEA was also able to continue with renovation of SEA’s North Satellite during the pandemic. John Grade’s 40-foot high and 85-foot wide “Boundary” sculpture, made from Alaskan yellow cedar, was installed as part of this project, as was Krista Birnbaum’s “Canopy.” Birnbaum’s piece uses preserved mosses and stylized branch forms to create a piece that evokes the topographic maps found in National Park Visitor Centers.

“Boundary” Photo Courtesy Port of Seattle


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“Canopy” Photo by Krista Birnbaum. Credit: Rafael Soldi,

Elsewhere in the airport, some older pieces were cleaned and moved to keep them safer and easier to see and enjoy. Most notable is Michael Fajans’ “High Wire” (1993), a one-hundred-eighty-foot-long photo-realistic airbrush painting that depicts a vaudeville magic act in eleven steps.

High Wire art on Concourse A Photo Courtesy of Port of Seattle

Originally installed at eye level, “this piece was in a very precarious location within Concourse D,” says Gregory. “We felt it was necessary to do a full cleaning because it did take on a lot of unfortunate coffee stains, dust and the like.” The work was restored and moved to Concourse B, where it now stretches out along a high wall, allowing travelers walking along the concourse to see how the magic trick unfolds.

“Night Flight” by Lousie Nevelson in the mezzanine of the Airport Office Building at Sea-Tac. Photographed 18 October 2013.

While many airports now have great art programs (Looking at you, SFO, PHX, MIA and many others), Seattle-Tacoma International Airport set the standard for airport art programs long ago. In 1968 it was the first public airport to start an art collection. Now, in addition to work by many well-known and emerging local and regional artists, the SEA art collection includes some very valuable pieces by internationally known artists such as Frank Stella, Louise Nevelson, and Robert Rauschenberg that you might otherwise have to go to a major art museum to see.



Featured image Courtesy Port of Seattle.

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