Flying Through San Francisco? Stop To Enjoy The Art The museum at San Francisco International (SFO) makes the airport a destination of its own. Travelers biding time before their flights can see everything from antique gambling machines to precious jades to 18th-century porcelain. With 38 million people coming through the airport each year, the SFO museum sees plenty of traffic.
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Flying Through San Francisco? Stop To Enjoy The Art

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Flying Through San Francisco? Stop To Enjoy The Art

Flying Through San Francisco? Stop To Enjoy The Art

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Getting stuck in an airport need not always lead to hours of misery - at least not if that airport is in San Francisco. NPR's Susan Stamberg art hopped at the nation's only airport accredited by the American Association of Museums.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Museums are usually places for quiet contemplation.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking over PA system) (Unintelligible)

STAMBERG: Not this one. The San Francisco Airport Museum galleries stand in a place that serves 38 million passengers a year. There's hubbub plus the usual airport hurry-up-and-wait. But there's also, in one terminal, precious jade; 20 cases full of carvings; jewel-inlayed boxes from India; a Faberge punchbowl from Russia; and examples galore from China.

Mr. WEI CHUNG(ph): We are Chinese, so we are very interested in Chinese jade.

STAMBERG: They're very high quality, huh?

Mr. CHUNG: Yes, yes, definitely.

STAMBERG: Wei Chung is flying home to Beijing. En route, he makes time to see this airport museum exhibit, The Resplendent Stone.

Mr. CHUNG: It's my fifth or sixth time to the San Francisco airport, and each time I see different exhibitions, like cigarette cases.

STAMBERG: Cigarette cases?

Mr. CHUNG: Yeah, yeah.

STAMBERG: From China?

Mr. CHUNG: Yeah, yeah. From maybe about one century ago. There is Asian museum in San Francisco, but I've never been there.

STAMBERG: In a way, the Asian Art Museum has come to him. They've loaned the jades to the airport museum. So, they catch the eye of lots of people who might not visit traditional museums. Captive audiences, you might say, although here in the international terminal, the jade cases are just outside security. You don't need to check-in for a flight to see this art.

Mr. ABE GARFIELD (Assistant Director, San Francisco Airport Museum): This is a public space, open to the public 24 hours a day.

STAMBERG: Abe Garfield is assistant director for the San Francisco Airport Museum. SFO gets loans from collectors and nearby museums - the de Young, the California Academy of Sciences - also from France, Sweden, Spain, Japan.

The displays of borrowed art are created at the airport. Over near the car rental facility, museum workers prepare and build elements for upcoming shows.

These busy technicians put up some 40 large and small exhibits a year, way more than the average museum, says Abe Garfield.

Mr. GARFIELD: We have such an enormous audience. You want to keep it fresh. I mean, if we left one subject for a whole year, how boring - especially if you're a frequent flier.

STAMBERG: Several workers are getting a future exhibit ready. A San Francisco collector loaned some 18th century porcelain from Meissen, Germany. Delicate, hand-painted - in holding cases when we visited.

Each one, you ring with some sort of protective snake. It looks like one of your sandbags.

Mr. GARFIELD: Yeah, everything gets sandbagged.

STAMBERG: And you're in earthquake country so, my goodness, that must be...

Mr. GARFIELD: Well, that's why...

STAMBERG: ...a whole 'nother thing.

Mr. GARFIELD: Exactly.

Unidentified Woman #2: Please stand clear of the doors. Doors closing.

STAMBERG: Another part of the airport museum is in Terminal 3. We'll go inspect the exhibit there.

In this terminal, you do need to go through security to see the show.

(Soundbite of beeping)

STAMBERG: Clearing security, six friends have a two-hour layover before they fly home to Pittsburgh. Heading for their gate, Sue Francis walks through a long corridor flanked on each side with rows of standing cases. Bingo - another SFO Museum display.

Ms. SUE FRANCIS: These are old slot machines? Are they old slot machines? Aren't they neat.

STAMBERG: From the late 1800s - carved oak, silver trim; handsome. Sue wants her pals to look. too.

Ms. FRANCIS: This is all antique gambling displays. Kind of, you know - all right, I'll meet you up there. OK. They're just a bunch of pansies.

STAMBERG: Not Sue Francis. She strolls along the cases, looking, reading. The other Pittsburghers step onto the moving walkway without a peek. Sue turns to assistant museum director Abe Garfield.

Ms. FRANCIS: Why don't you advertise this?

Mr. GARFIELD: We figure we have a built-in audience.

Ms. FRANCIS: But you know what? Your built-in audience is getting on that thing.

STAMBERG: Getting on a people mover.

Mr. GARFIELD: We fight with people mover.

STAMBERG: And 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. Abe Garfield says if even 10 percent of the passengers stop and look, that's more visitors than most museums will ever have.

Mr. GARFIELD: This is the busiest terminal we have in the airport. And you might see 100,000 people a day passing through here.

STAMBERG: But it's so superficial in a way, isn't it? They'll catch a glimpse, corner of the eye. It's not a contemplative experience.

Mr. GARFIELD: We got a letter from a passenger, a Frenchman. We had an exhibition up about bookbinding. We got this nice letter from him saying how he loved the exhibition and he missed his flight, but it was well worth it.

STAMBERG: And he didn't even ask for a refund.

Margot Grant Walsh is a retired interior architect and a collector. She's had two shows at the SFO Airport Museum, and she's here today from New York to discuss a third exhibit of her 20th century silver collection. She loves the airport as a museum space.

Ms. MARGOT GRANT WALSH (Retired Interior Architect, Collector): It appealed to me as a venue that had no borders. And great design has no borders.

STAMBERG: Travel is endless, she says; so is good design. And, Walsh says, an airport show lets the passionate collector capture an untapped audience.

Ms. WALSH: I calculated that with the number of flights in and out each day, the number of passengers and crew, you're bound to be exposed to people who'd never go to a silver show.

STAMBERG: The SFO's clout as the only accredited airport museum in the country also appeals to collector Walsh. It means they have met professional criteria established by the American Association of Museums.

Accreditation has certainly helped SFO. In the early days, local institutions would just lend the airport a few things.

Mr. GARFIELD: You know, isn't it cute? The kids are doing a show. But now I think, you know, we hold our heads up with the rest of them. It's almost like getting the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.

STAMBERG: And with that seal of approval, the San Francisco Airport Museum is bringing art to where the people are - those frazzled, stressed, skittish travelers for whom a dose of beauty may be just the right ticket.

Unidentified man: Which way to Jet Blue?

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


Now, for those stranded in other cities, we have some other museum attractions. In New York City, raise a glass at the Queens County Farm Museum. The 47-acre farm has been raising grapes and next month will uncork the first bottles of its own wine. Remember, this is Queens, home of LaGuardia Airport and JFK, the mythical home of Archie Bunker and the giant ash heaps described by F. Scott Fitzgerald; home of the Mets and the L train; home of landmarks with names like Flushing Meadow and Hellgate Bridge and Steinway Street, Greek restaurants and film studios and cemeteries that stretch to the horizon, and now also home of a winery - my former home.

Passengers trapped in London this week might consider another attraction: the Science Museum displays what is believed to be the world's first push-up bra -from 1880. And in Las Vegas, dueling mob museums are gearing up for a showdown when they open in the coming year: the Museum of Organized Crime in Law Enforcement faces the Mob Experience.

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