Cleared for landing: $20M in new art installations at Sea-Tac

Amid the hectic holiday travel season, the airport's art collection offers a visual breather.

On a recent afternoon in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, two pilots in uniform and hat sat down on a bench, backs impeccably straight, casually chatting while travelers zoomed by. From that perch, they could see Gate A6 at left and, on the right, an $8 million painting.

“York Factory A,” a 27-foot-wide seminal work by acclaimed abstract-minimalist painter Frank Stella, features interlocking curves of hot and pastel pink, yellow, brown and green that trip over each other until they bounce off the frame. Like rainbows, the colorful arches never really find a definitive endpoint.

Asked what they thought about the painting, the pilots said they hadn’t noticed it.

It’s hard to make time to look at art when you are rushing to make a flight or dragging shrieking children or deciding on whether to get another pack of gum. Travelers might be too busy craning their necks to see if the security line is actually moving to realize that a shimmering, golden and yellow mosaic column by the celebrated color-field painter Sam Gilliam is standing right in front of them.

The mosaic artwork, titled “Yellow Fog,” is just one of many dozens of installations, sculptures and paintings by local and national artists dispersed across seemingly all corners of Sea-Tac Airport, totaling an estimated value of roughly $35 million.

Frank Stella's "York Factory A"
Frank Stella's "York Factory A" hangs in Concourse A at Sea-Tac Airport. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Despite that impressive visual arts cred, the airport is probably better known for its music program, which features Seattle-based buskers and locally sourced overhead music.

Sea-Tac is counting on people slowing down to look, however, with a new plan to spend $20 million on public art by 2025, doubling its current spending. The Port of Seattle, which operates the airport, voted in November to reinstate an earlier policy mandating that 1% of capital projects costs go toward purchasing and commissioning artwork. Initially established in 2000, the Port's “one percent for art” program had been whittled down to 0.5% during the 2008 recession.

The newly expanded budget will also help to increase the airport’s public art programming. The Port also plans to expand art commissions to its new cruise terminal near Terminal 46.

In charge of much of the plan is Tommy Gregory, the Port’s senior art manager and curator. Gregory is as passionate as one gets about airport art. He truly believes that it “reminds us that we’re human beings … not just a number on a ticket.”

Visitors this holiday season can already see Sea-Tac’s renewed art strategy in progress. In the North Satellite, which is currently undergoing a facelift and expansion, the yellow branches of “Cathedral” tangle up in a Rorschach-like pattern on the glass panels of an elevator shaft. The installation, by British Columbia-based artist duo Jacqueline Metz and Nancy Chew, debuted this spring.

“Cascadia,” Sea-Tac’s most recent artistic addition, honors the ecology of the Pacific Northwest with magnificent painted glass panels wrapping around visitors going up and down — this time on escalators. Though already visible in all its glory, the installation, by Seattle artist Cable Griffith, should officially open for the holidays. By then, the bodies of people on the escalators will refract the light in constantly changing patterns through Griffith’s pixelated patchwork of shimmering greens and blues.

Not everything is as shiny and brand new. Sea-Tac was somewhat of a trendsetter when it became the nation’s first public airport to start an art collection in the late 1960s. Some artworks have been around since the ’70s and require cleaning or conservation and restoration, says Gregory. The airport has allotted a $300,000 budget for the conservation and maintenance of artworks next year.

But Gregory, who came on board a year ago, has already been working to dust off the collection. Literally.

Airports, Gregory says, are incredibly dusty places. Just imagine the enormous flow of people, all taking off and putting on their coats and shoes, opening their bags, rushing through, spilling drinks, leaving crumbs and dead skin flakes everywhere. For comparison: the Louvre, the most visited museum in the world, welcomed 10.2 million people in 2018, Sea-Tac saw 49.8 million. “The dust that generates from such a massive traffic flow through here, it gets caught in things like art,” Gregory says.

When Gregory noticed that Larry Kirkland’s 1992 hanging wooden and glass canoe “hadn’t been dusted for years,” he got certified to use the scissor lift and, along with an art handler, cleaned the piece himself.

“Those [glass] elements that were once kind of foggy are [now] clean,” Gregory says of the canoe’s glass cutouts of plants and animals. “When the light hits it right, you see the sun reflect those elements on the ground — which is what the artist intended.”

Gregory hopes to dust off the collection in the figurative sense, too. Like most other art institutions, the airport’s collection skews toward white and male artists. “Red Sand Project: Border US-MX,” the airport’s first-ever temporary exterior installation, was a step in that direction, he says. The installation, conceived by New York-based artist Molly Gochman, can be seen by plane passengers and light rail commuters until early February 2020.

Mostly, Gregory wants to convince more people that the airport is a space to experience art. He might be facing an uphill battle. In the roughly five minutes we’ve been standing in front of “York Factory A,” part of Stella’s seminal Protractor series and one of the crown jewels of the airport’s art collection, at least two dozen travelers, in varying states of rush, have walked by without even a glance toward it.

Across the airport, in Concourse C, “Star Quarters I-IV,” by midcentury pre-pop-art mastermind Robert Rauschenberg, features four mirrored panels adorned with a wide-winged hawk soaring, a fish diving, a gymnast flying, and a giant snail gliding by. Though the bright colors and reflective surface encourage people to take a look, no one pays attention to this piece either.

Nearby, a man dressed in all black gets his shoes shined at Lucky Shiners ($10 for boots, $5 for sneakers). If this Rauschenberg hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York (like some of his other works), people would likely stare at it in deferential amazement. The man with the freshened up shoes doesn’t look up.

At least one artwork has caught people’s attention. “High Wire,” by Michael Fajans, might be one of Sea-Tac’s most polarizing works. Consensus among online naysayers seems to be that the 1993 nine-panel painting, featuring a hyperrealistically painted magician and assistant performing a magic trick, is “creepy." A Reddit thread dedicated to the painting renamed it “The creepy guys at D Gate."

The artwork has further gained somewhat of a cult status, thanks to a 1999 stand-up comedy show by David Cross (taped live at the Showbox in Seattle) wherein the comedian pokes fun at airports as maybe the worst place of all for art, specifically calling out Fajans' painting: “Magic is already boring when it’s right in front of you.”

By relocating this artwork higher up on the wall in another location next year, plus lighting it better, Gregory hopes to bring skeptics around. For one, people will finally get to see all the panels at once. “You’ll really get to see what the magic trick is,” Gregory says. “Maybe David Cross will do another skit.”

Chalchiutlicue by artist Marela Zacarías
One of five sculptures in progress by Marela Zacarías, who is working with a team of local artists in a studio in Georgetown. The completed works will grace Sea-Tac's new international arrivals hall. (Port of Seattle)

While he admits airports are “not an easy place to put art,” Gregory remains optimistic. Sure, maybe not everyone notices the art. Perhaps they feel it: some unexpected movement, a dash of color here, a streak of light there. Gregory hopes to increase the chances of this by placing and “re-siting” works strategically, in “natural sightlines."

After all, “We do have a captive audience,” Gregory says.

That audience is likely to grow in the coming years, thanks to the opening of a new 450,000-square-foot international arrivals facility, which will boost the number of international flights the airport can handle.

As of now, workers still buzz around the construction site of the new facility, particleboard still covers the floors and the teeth of unfinished luggage carousels punctuate the air like dinosaur skeletons.

In mid-2020, when the facility should open, massive undulating sculptures suspended on posts will appear in the heart of the carousels. It’ll look like a heavenly creature has dropped five giant ruffled and geometrically painted handkerchiefs from above — except that they are actually sculptures, built on a skeleton of window screens and joint compound by artist Marela Zacarías and a team of 15 to 20 local artists working in a studio in Georgetown. In addition, hanging from the ceiling, Ned Kahn’s lily-white twisted fishbone-shaped mobiles will spin on their axes.

Boundary by John Grade
John Grade's massive "Boundary" sculpture will be a striking showpiece in the North Satellite when it opens in 2021. (Rendering courtesy Port of Seattle)

It’s not just the visual arts experience getting an upgrade: Starting next year, the airport will be putting musicians even more center stage with two new permanent performance stages in the Central Terminal and Concourse A. A third stage for live performances will debut in the North Satellite when it opens in 2021.

But the facility’s showpiece will undoubtedly be John Grade’s massive, suspended wooden sculpture of a tree trunk and root structure. Like Grade’s monumental “Middlefork” sculpture hanging in the lobby of the Seattle Art Museum, the new sculpture’s shape follows the outlines of a plaster-cast old-growth tree, this time an Alaskan Yellow Cedar, which Grade and his team carefully rebuilt with small pieces of reclaimed wood.

Unlike “Middlefork,” “Boundary” will not be returned to the woods to disintegrate — it’s meant to last forever. And here, the tree won’t lie on its side but reach toward the ceiling, with the radiating root structure acting as a canopy for the humans below, suddenly tiny in the face of nature’s great complexity. At 43 feet tall and 80 feet wide, the artwork will embody the definition of an unmissable, stop-your-roller-bag-in-its-tracks eye-catcher.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt M. McKnight

Matt M. McKnight

Matt McKnight is formerly a visual journalist at Crosscut, where he covered a variety of political, social and environmental issues around the Pacific Northwest.