At LaGuardia Airport, art isn’t an afterthought.
“I started out as an engineer, so I really wasn’t always thinking about art this much,” says Stewart Steeves, CEO of LaGuardia Gateway Partners, the consortium selected by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to rebuild and operate LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal B. Art edged into Steeves’ professional purview in 1999, when he began working for the Vancouver Airport Authority, which manages Vancouver International Airport (YVR), home to a sizeable collection of over 200 pieces of Indigenous art. At the time, YVR was parent company to Vantage Airport Group, which it had created five years prior. Vantage and YVR would go on to become strategic partners, with the former leading the group tasked with overhauling the New York City airport and, in keeping with tradition, showcasing original works of art as a priority.
Early architecture plans for Terminal B show that site-specific art was an organizing principle of the space. This is especially true for Sarah Sze’s sculpture Shorter Than the Day, which cascades through a central cutaway, becoming visible to those lingering in baggage claim on the lower level, as well as to travelers awaiting departure on the upper floor. The piece is composed of slim metal rods and 1,200 photographs of the New York City sky taken over the course of a single day. In a glance, it neatly encapsulates the passage of time; with a closer look, viewers will perceive the burning red of midday and the eerie blackness of midnight.
On the airport’s most expansive wall is Laura Owens’ I 🍕 NY, a nearly 25,000-square-foot tiled mosaic depicting dozens of iconic New York City emblems, referencing everything from MetroCards and the Apollo Theater to a classic street-corner hot dog and a cheesy NY slice, hence the pizza emoji. For her part, Berlin-based artist Sabine Hornig overlaid quotes from and about the airport’s founder and former New York City mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, onto a kaleidoscopic glass facade portraying Manhattan’s legendary skyline.
“The balloons show a bit more of a whimsical approach,” Steeves says of the fourth and final piece in the collection, commissioned in partnership with the Public Art Fund. Jeppe Hein’s All Your Wishes features 70 glossy, steel balloons with affixed ribbons mounted as though they had floated to the ceiling. They shadow travelers as they snake through the maze of airport shops and restaurants, like chalk marks on a hiking trail.
“Given the scale of these pieces, it was a construction project as much as anything else,” Steeves says, describing a situation where virtual techniques were used to limit site visits, worker safety was prioritized when installers and artists did need to be present, and intense coordination with fabrication shops was required to ensure materials weren’t delayed. “It was very challenging, in many respects, to complete during the peak of the pandemic in New York City, but it also showed the ingenuity and get-it-done spirit of New Yorkers to make things happen no matter the context.”
The terminal’s grand reveal was held on Saturday, June 13, a day when Governor Cuomo’s daily briefing carried a sheen of optimism thanks to a plateau in COVID-19 cases, a feeling that was ultimately outlived by the implacability of the virus. Despite the ongoing downturn in air travel, Terminal B, with all its artistic touches, generated some genuine buzz – not the usual jeers at the presumed vapidness of airport art. “I mean, it was put on the front page of the New York Times’ Arts section,” Steeves says. “That is probably the first time in history for an airport.”
“Only in New York” was originally published in the 10.4 November/December issue of APEX Experience magazine.
Jeppe Hein, All Your Wishes, 2020 [balloons]
Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy of the artist; LaGuardia Gateway Partners; Public Art Fund, NY; 303 GALLERY, NY; KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin; Galleri Nicolai Wallner, Copenhagen.
Sabine Hornig, La Guardia Vistas, 2020
Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy of the artist; LaGuardia Gateway Partners; Public Art Fund, NY; Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York / Los Angeles.
©Sabine Hornig and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn Germany
Laura Owens, I 🍕 NY, 2020
Courtesy of the artist; Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, Rome; Sadie Coles HQ, London; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne
Photo: Tom Powel Imaging
Sarah Sze, Shorter than the Day, 2020
Photo: Nicholas Knight, Courtesy of the artist; LaGuardia Gateway Partners; Public Art Fund, NY; © Sarah Sze