Constance White loves to see people touching the art.
  • Constance White loves to see people touching the art.
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I’m standing in Terminal 2 at the San Diego International Airport on a Monday morning in early July. My escort, Constance White, the airport art program manager, leads me through the new food-court atrium, past the clusters of tables and a snazzy bar named Bubbles.

“Okay, go stand there,” she says, pointing to a round mosaic of green recycled glass set into the floor.

Then she tells me to look up.

When I do, I gasp.

Stuart Keeler’s Taxonomy of a Cloud includes 365 strands of Swarovski crystals meant to resemble falling rain.

I’m looking straight up into 365 strands of Swarovski crystals in various blues that cascade from the ceiling as part of a sculpture by Stuart Keeler called Taxonomy of a Cloud. The cloud itself is made of aluminum tubing and spans 64 feet by 45 feet. The crystals are meant to resemble falling rain. And they do.

I close my eyes, expecting raindrops to land on my face. The moment is magical for me. Possibly the most delight I’ve ever experienced through a piece of art.

It is a $326,000 moment.

Is it worth it if you have to look up?

I hardly ever look up. In fact, I look up so rarely that every time someone tells me to look up so they can point out something they’ve noticed, I think, Man, I never look up.

I thought I was alone in this until I stood outside Peet’s Coffee in Terminal 2, watching ticketed travelers and blue-shirted security workers walk back and forth beneath a $2.18 million piece of art. In five minutes, I did not see one person look up.

A traveler views The Journey.

The art piece is fun to look at. It’s called The Journey, and it’s composed of 38,000 suspended LED pendants. It spans 6 feet and is over 700 feet long. The airport art program publications call it a “light ribbon” or a “canopy of light.” The fun part is the low-resolution images of shadowy people swimming across the bulbs, which create the disorienting illusion of watching someone swim far overhead. Other images the artist Jim Campbell alternates through the piece include dancers and birds in flight. But you have to look up to see them.

After five minutes of watching people not look up, I approach Chuck Fitch and Marci Hodges, a couple on their way back to Georgia, and ask if they noticed the overhead art. Neither of them had. But once I’d pointed it out, Fitch ventured a guess at how much the piece cost.

“I’d guess a hundred thousand bucks,” he says.

And when I tell him that it was actually $2.18 million, he wants to know who paid for it. Good question.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is an independent agency governed by a nine-member board of officials appointed mostly by area mayors. The agency acts as a landlord, leasing space from tenants and airlines, earning parking revenue, and collecting user fees from passengers and cab drivers. It has a $236.4 million operating budget and a $1.7 billion five-year capital budget, and it allocates 2 percent of its construction budget to public art expenditures.

In other words, when you purchase an airline ticket for a flight into or out of Lindbergh Field or rent a car from the airport, the “user fee” portion of your expense helps to fund the public art. When you purchase an overpriced bottle of water from concessions at the airport, you help offset the fees charged to concession owners, and a portion of that also goes toward the public art.

“I find [The Journey] fairly interesting,” Fitch says, “but what’s odd is that there we were walking through and we never even looked up. I don’t know...maybe because we were zeroed in on a place to shop, so we weren’t looking up.”

He takes a moment to watch the shadowy swimmer pass overhead.

“If my city had a million dollars, I might want to spend it some different way,” he says.

I stop another couple, Michelle Hostrup and Andrew Fong, from Menlo Park. They’ve been on vacation in San Diego, celebrating Fong’s newly acquired MBA from Berkeley. Neither had noticed the 38,000 lights.

“They’re beautiful,” Hostrup says.

When I ask them to guess the cost, Fong says, “A lot. I’d say eighty thousand dollars.”

“Eighty?” Hostrup says. “I was thinking more than that. Maybe, like, $300,000?”

When I give them the real number, Hostrup says, “Oh, my god,” and he leans in closer and says, “How much?”

“The lights on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco only cost three or four million dollars, and I just think that’s a lot,” Fong says.

“It’s too bad it’s not underneath you. Because you would see it, you know?” Hostrup says. Fong laughs.

“But it’s beautiful,” she continues, “and I think it’s very unique.”

My guess is that Fitch is right. Maybe, when we walk through the airport, we’re most often focused on where we’re going: to the gate, to get coffee, to a duty-free shop. And once I’m seated at the gate, I’m usually trying to scarf down a bagel or sneak a peek at a junk magazine, so I’m not likely to look up then either.

It occurs to me that the only time I’m likely to relax, look around, and put my feet up at the airport is when I have a delay or a layover. And in that case, I can be found at the food court.

So that’s where I head.

There, too, I observe the loitering passengers for a few minutes. They sit at the tables in singles and pairs and cluster in misshapen lines outside the Stack Shack Burgers and Sliders, Qdoba Mexican Grill, and Red Mango Yogurt and Smoothies. Everyone looks at the menus, their food, or their phones. No one looks up.

I approach a couple sitting under Taxonomy of a Cloud. He looks like Colonel Sanders. She has a long graying blond braid hanging halfway down her back. Their names are Linda and Ron Hearst, and they’re heading back to Anoka, Minnesota after a San Diego vacation. At the moment, they’re eating burgers and fries out of boxes. Both confess that they had not noticed the art over their heads.

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