Art in Flight: Soaring to Cultural Heights at Southwest Florida International Airport
Roy Rodriguez, Marco Beach at Sunset.
For the nearly 9 million passengers who fly in and out of Southwest Florida International Airport, or RSW, in Fort Myers each year, the inside of the terminal becomes the first and last impression of the region. Thus, airport officials for more than a decade have worked with Lee County arts leaders to make sure that cultural treasures from the area adorn the walls and open spaces of RSW.
“We represent the community in a very big way. That’s why it’s important to take responsibility for the entire travel experience as much as we can,” explains Victoria Moreland, director of communications and marketing for the Lee County Port Authority.
For most of the past two years, photography showcasing the region’s ecosystem turned the airport walls into a rich exhibit space. A jury selected the images, including black-and-white photos of driftwood on local beaches taken by Buck White, or jellyfish swimming below the surface of the water in color shots by Katy Danca Galli.
In the past, the airport has featured the Hanson Family Archives collection of images dubbed “Children of the Everglades.” Recently exhibited is “Dúo Sinfónico,” a companion piece to Edgardo Carmona’s “Allure Your Senses” collection of recognizable metal sculptures in downtown Fort Myers. The facilities also hosted the contemporary sculpture “Dawn’s Forest,” a Louise Nevelson work originally commissioned by Georgia Pacific.
On three occasions to date, the airport had exhibits comprised entirely of artwork by students in the Lee County schools. Most recently, the airport called on students to paint pictures of destinations they wanted to visit—for a show called “Oh, the Places We Will Go.” A past theme encouraged students to imagine fanciful and practical ways to travel from earth to the moon.
Krista Johnson, exhibitions coordinator with Lee County Alliance for the Arts, says cultural leaders meet regularly with airport officials to decide what appropriate collections of work deserve to be exhibited in the concourses and atriums. The relationship began in 2005, when the new terminal opened—with its panoramic windows and large walls capable of displaying major works. “People in the community call us with special projects and different ways to approach the space,” she says.
From matching 5-foot seahorse statues displayed in support of Golisano Children’s Hospital, to original paintings of soldiers commissioned to pay tribute to military returning from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, selections are made with community guidelines and the chance to celebrate artists in mind. “We try to have a mix of local and international work,” Johnson explains.
For the Alliance for the Arts, it’s more than just beautifying walls. Much of the art can be purchased, and the organization connects buyers from around the world looking to acquire works by local artists—that are first seen on display at RSW. “We sell and ship to folks who fly in from any and everywhere,” Johnson adds.
There’s never been any controversy around works labeled “offensive” or “obscene”—a strong partnership between RSW and the Alliance for the Arts ensures no work gets selected for exhibition that doesn’t meet standards for taste and quality. There can sometimes be physical challenges in putting together a collection of pieces that best utilizes the available space at the airport. But working out those details provides benefits both to the facilities and artistic community.
“For the artist, this is such a wonderful place to have your work seen by many people,” Johnson says. After all, few museums in the region boast so many visitors in the year as pass through the nation’s 43rd largest airport.
For the airport authority, the program first and foremost lets RSW play a larger role in enhancing travel experiences for visitors to the region. Airport management increasingly has taken on that “hospitality responsibility,” rather than relying entirely on airlines to care for guests.
In addition to improving connectivity around the airport and drawing a variety of food, beverage and retail vendors, the presentation of professional artwork turns what could be an industrial environment into an inviting one. That’s important when customers can get trapped in terminals for hours.
Moreland and Johnson reveal that RSW plans to soon put up a new exhibit that includes multimedia work. The display is something that will engage visitors in innovative and exciting ways—lifting the cultural reputation of Southwest Florida to even greater heights.
Jacob Ogles is a freelance journalist based in Cape Coral.