The Resplendent Stone, an exhibit of Chinese jade pieces on loan from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.
Buddha and his attendants stay zen at the bustling Virgin America ticket counter in the International Terminal at SFO. They are part of
The word "museum" may bring to mind stately buildings, galleries, walls hung with works of art and audio tours. But in San Francisco, there's a museum with none of these traditional features — it's in the airport.
The San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is the country's only airport with a museum program accredited by the American Association of Museums. Exhibits are scattered through various terminals and change several times a month.
Presently in the International Terminal, visitors can see 18th-century porcelain from Meissen, Germany, architectural models of Shanghai's skyline, and precious jades from China, India and Russia. You can stroll through these exhibits before passing through security — so you can come to the airport just to see the art, on view 24 hours a day. (That's something you won't find in travel guidebooks.)
Resplendent Stone exhibit in SFO's International Terminal.
A shell-shaped punch bowl made in Russia between 1870 and 1917 is one of the jade objects on display in the
A shell-shaped punch bowl made in Russia between 1870 and 1917 is one of the jade objects on display in the Resplendent Stone exhibit in SFO's International Terminal. Cindy Carpien/NPR
A Destination Of Its Own
Visitor Wei Cong, returning to his home in Beijing, stops at the Resplendent Stone exhibit — 20 standing cases filled with jade carvings in SFO's International Terminal. There are jewel-inlaid boxes from India, a Faberge punch bowl from Russia and examples galore from China. Cong admires the high quality of the jade.
"It's maybe my fifth or sixth time to the San Francisco airport," he says, "and each time, I see different exhibitions about Chinese culture. There is an Asian art museum in San Francisco, but I've never been there."
In a way, the Asian Art Museum has come to Cong. The museum loaned the jades to the airport through the end of May. They catch the eye of plenty of people who might not visit traditional museums.
The airport receives loans of collections from the private sector, but also from local museums, such as the de Young, the California Academy of Sciences and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum in Berkeley. It also borrows objects from museums in France, Sweden, Spain, Japan and elsewhere.
Technicians prepare pieces of 18th-century Meissen porcelain from Germany for display in SFO's International Terminal. Until the porcelain pieces are safely secured in their display cases, they are stabilized with sandbags — a good precaution in an area prone to earthquakes.
Technicians prepare pieces of 18th-century Meissen porcelain from Germany for display in SFO's International Terminal. Until the porcelain pieces are safely secured in their display cases, they are stabilized with sandbags — a good precaution in an area prone to earthquakes. Cindy Carpien/NPR
'You Want To Keep It Fresh'
When the works of art arrive at the airport, their first stop is a building near the car rental facility, where some 27 museum workers build structures in which to display upcoming shows.
Museum technicians are kept very busy in a large construction room. They prepare some 40 large and small exhibits a year. That's far more than the average museum, says Abe Garfield, assistant director for the San Francisco Airport Museum.
"We have an enormous audience. You want to keep it fresh," Garfield says. "If we left up one subject for a whole year, how boring — especially if you're a frequent flyer."
Several museum employees work in the Design Lab, carefully preparing the actual pieces of art. Before the delicate Meissen porcelain collection was safely secured in exhibit display cases, the pieces were kept in holding cases in the Design Lab — each piece ringed with a protective sandbag, a necessary precaution in an area prone to earthquakes.
It's a major undertaking to change out an exhibit at SFO. You can't shut down the space at night — like a traditional museum does — Garfield says. When the Meissen porcelain exhibit went up at the end of March, there was an extensive dress rehearsal at the museum's receiving facility.
"When we got to the airport space, it went straight into the cases," Garfield says. "We put up caution tape, and we came in knowing exactly how it's gonna look. Open the case, get it in, close the case."
For Amusement Only, a collection of antique gambling machines. Travelers who take the moving walkway (seen in the background) end up bypassing the whole exhibit.
Having passed through security in Terminal 3 on their way to their departure gate, newlyweds Lucy Verity and Luke Mirinovich of Australia pause to take a look at
Having passed through security in Terminal 3 on their way to their departure gate, newlyweds Lucy Verity and Luke Mirinovich of Australia pause to take a look at For Amusement Only, a collection of antique gambling machines. Travelers who take the moving walkway (seen in the background) end up bypassing the whole exhibit. Cindy Carpien/NPR
'We Fight With People Movers'
If you're booked on a United flight out of SFO, you'll pass through a major gallery on the way to the departure gate in Terminal 3. It's a corridor — a football field and a half in length — flanked on each side with rows of standing cases.
The For Amusement Only exhibit — featuring antique slot and gambling machines — is on display in Terminal 3 through May. One early "device" is from 1905 — made of hand-carved oak with silver trim, it weighs in at 600 pounds.
A group of travelers from Pittsburgh with a two-hour layover have cleared security on the way to their gate. Sue Francis stops to look at the gambling machines. "Aren't these neat?" she says.
Francis tries to get the rest of her group to look at the exhibit, but they've already stepped onto the moving walkway — without taking a peek. She turns to SFO museum assistant director Abe Garfield and asks, "Why don't you advertise?"
"Well, we figure we have a built-in audience," Garfield explains.
"The Caille Triplet: Centaur," built in 1905, is made of hard-carved oak with silver trim and weighs 600 pounds. It was a popular model because of its relative "lightness" — competitor devices weighed 900 pounds and were not as easy to turn toward the wall when law enforcement officials came by.
"The Caille Triplet: Centaur," built in 1905, is made of hard-carved oak with silver trim and weighs 600 pounds. It was a popular model because of its relative "lightness" — competitor devices weighed 900 pounds and were not as easy to turn toward the wall when law enforcement officials came by. Cindy Carpien/NPR
"You know what? Your built-in audience is getting on that thing," Francis says, pointing to her fellow travelers stepping onto the moving walkway.
"We fight with people movers," Garfield admits.
It can be a struggle. In airports, most folks are in a hurry — or can't be bothered — or would rather sit at the gate and twit or tweet. But Garfield says that if even 10 percent of the passengers stop and look, that's more visitors than most museums will ever have.
"This is the busiest terminal in the airport," Garfield says. "You might see 100,000 people a day passing through here." The American Association of Museums says the median attendance for U.S. art museums is about 44,000 visitors a year. SFO serves about 38 million passengers a year, which could add up to quite a large number of art appreciators.
The numbers are impressive to Margot Grant Walsh, a collector and retired interior architect from New York City. Walsh has had two of her own collections displayed at SFO — first a collection of footstools, and then a collection of 20th-century silver. She loves the airport as a museum space and is discussing a third exhibit with curators.
Margot Grant Walsh, a collector and retired interior architect, has had two shows of her collections at the airport. The first was a collection of footstools, and the second exhibit was of 20th-century silver.
Margot Grant Walsh, a collector and retired interior architect, has had two shows of her collections at the airport. The first was a collection of footstools, and the second exhibit was of 20th-century silver. Cindy Carpien/NPR
"It appealed to me as a venue that had no borders," Walsh explains. "Great design has no borders."
For Amusement Only exhibit in Terminal 3.
Abe Garfield, assistant director of the SFO Museum, visits the
Abe Garfield, assistant director of the SFO Museum, visits the For Amusement Only exhibit in Terminal 3. Cindy Carpien/NPR
Walsh says an airport show lets the passionate collector reach out to an untapped audience.
"I calculated with the number of flights in and out each day, the number of passengers and crew," she says, "there are bound to be people who would never go to a silver show."
When It Comes To Accreditation, SFO Flies Alone
The SFO's clout as an accredited museum also appeals to collector Walsh. It means the airport meets professional criteria established by the American Association of Museums.
To achieve accreditation, the SFO first had to do a thorough self-study, explains AAM spokesperson Dewey Blanton. Then, an independent peer reviewer visited the museum to repeat the study — investigating governance, financial stability, education and public programs, and stewardship of collections. An accreditation commission reviewed both studies to make the final decision.
"Accreditation," Blanton says, "means a museum accedes to the highest standards and best practices and is emblematic of being among the finest museums in the country."
Accreditation has certainly helped SFO. In the early days, local institutions would just lend the airport a few things. Garfield remembers the attitude from museums in those days:
" 'Isn't it cute? The kids are doing a show,' " he recalls. "But now I think we hold our heads up with the rest of them. It's almost like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
Garfield admits that viewing art at an airport can be limiting. You catch a glimpse, out of the corner of the eye — it's not exactly a contemplative experience.
Travelers walk through exhibits in SFO's Terminal 3. The museum is funded with $2 million from airport landing and concession fees. The museum accounts for less than half of 1 percent of SFO's operating budget.
Travelers walk through exhibits in SFO's Terminal 3. The museum is funded with $2 million from airport landing and concession fees. The museum accounts for less than half of 1 percent of SFO's operating budget. Cindy Carpien/NPR
But Garfield remembers the story of one French passenger — a man whose plane took off while he was caught up in an exhibition about bookbinding.
"We got this letter," Garfield says, "saying how he loved the exhibition, and he missed his flight, but it was well worth it."
And he didn't even ask for a refund.
Blanton says that today, the art world is expanding the definition of what a museum is and what it could be.
"The traditional view may be a collection in a stately edifice," Blanton says. But the airport is "bringing ... offerings and collections to where the people are" — those frazzled, stressed and skittish travelers for whom a dose of beauty may be just the right ticket.