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.

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.

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.

In her answer to the “What do you think it cost?” question, Linda says, “Given California’s budget, too much.” She then ventures, “Two hundred fifty thousand.” Her husband guesses, “Twenty five thousand.”

And when I reveal the $326,00 actual cost, Linda says, “Too expensive,” and adds she would complain if it were in her airport. “If the [concession] people didn’t have to pay so much, then the travelers might get a break on a few of their costs. It would be more friendly toward travelers, rather than paying someone [so much] for that, which we don’t notice because we’re looking at the food. And the price of the food.”

Constance White sees everything.

On the first floor of Terminal 1, she stops to watch a little girl in pigtails poking the tiles of a mosaic of a man with a guitar.

“Oh, how cute. That’s so rewarding,” White says. “Working in a facility like the airport, it’s hard to assess the public impact. The kids don’t write you an email to say, ‘Hey, I saw that. That was fun.’ But just to see her interacting with it motivates me for another day.”

In Terminal 2, in front of Gate 28, she stops to move a Spirit Airlines sign that she thought was standing too close to Recycled Planet (a world map constructed with disposable water bottles, by Oscar Romo).

A few minutes later, as we pass the glass display cases containing items on loan from the Model Railroad Museum, White looks down and sees a blackened spot of gum on the ground. She stops and pokes at it gently with her shoe.

“I notice everything,” she says, groaning. “It’s a curse.”

Bring your coffee to the Reflection Room. If you spill some, it’s okay.

Bring your coffee to the Reflection Room. If you spill some, it’s okay.

And when we step into the Reflection Room, an approximately 1200-square-foot meditation space at the edge of the Terminal Two rotunda, she points out finger smudges on the stainless-steel drum-shaped altar near the back wall, and two drops of what looks like coffee on the bamboo floor. Her response to these two details, however, reveals delight rather than annoyance.

Of the coffee drops, she says, “You can tell [the room] has been used because the floor is dirty,” and of the fingerprints, she squeals, “Oh, people have been touching it! That’s so awesome.”

At the time of this writing, White is overseeing the last of her commissioned projects, packing up her office, and preparing for a move to North Carolina, where she’s just secured a job with the Arts and Science Council in Charlotte.

White came to San Diego from Dallas in July 2006. At 34, it was her second professional job. Straight out of college at 25, she began as a public-art coordinator with the City of Dallas, where she remained for nine years.

Dallas is where White’s “tribe” lives, and it’s the city she will always consider “home.” But at the time she lived and worked there, it offered no other place for her to do the work she loves to do. She wanted her own program, so she went looking elsewhere and landed in San Diego.

Three years prior to White’s move to San Diego, state legislation transferred ownership and operations of the airport from the Port District to the newly created San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, a quasi-governmental agency that would eventually need someone to run the art program. In order to determine what the art program should look like, they’d brought in a consultant, focus groups, and arts leaders in San Diego. As part of the process, they decided to hire a staff person.

As the new hire, White continued working with consultants for a time and helped finish the master plan, which created guidelines for exhibitions, performing art, and acquisition of permanent art. In the eight years she’s been here, she and her team have revised the policy, hired staff, and doubled the collection by commissioning 20 permanent projects (for between $9 million and $10 million).

One of White’s final projects is a digital environment multimedia lounge. When the airport authority began creating the art master plan they looked for opportunities for artists to create “optimal experiences” for passengers. The multimedia lounge is their attempt to engage teenagers and young adults.

“Most airports will have a tot-lot or a kids’ play area,” White says, “but to have something for young adults was something a little different.”

The room models San Diego’s coastal morphology. The sculptural wooden seating element emulates seaside cliffs and offers passengers a place to sit and charge their electronics. An overhead sculpture emulates the airstream and coastal currents, representing the intersection of animal migration and human aviation. Projections of satellite feeds on the sculpture present real-time airplane arrivals and departures as well as animal arrivals and departures. The walls show an arrival and departure screen as well as information about the migrating animals of San Diego.

“In real time,” White emphasizes.

The project took approximately 20 months from inception to White’s resignation. Although it was supposed to launch just before she left, it is not yet open to the public due to “a number of minor, finishing elements that remain to be completed within the space,” the airport’s public-relations team declared by email.

The project, like all others, began with a project description, this one asking for a multimedia lounge targeting teenagers and young adults. And because the airport authority’s regional environmental partners (the zoo, Wildcoast, and others) had made it clear that they, too, wanted their work represented in the new terminal, the project description suggested that the artwork could be (but didn’t have to be) influenced by San Diego’s natural environment.

Originally, White’s team had chosen a different artist whose idea was to create an enchanted-forest concept that had metal pylons shaped somewhat like trees that would sparkle and light up at the touch and play stories.

“Sometimes the ideas don’t develop in really tangible ways, and sometimes what seems like a really good idea isn’t such a good idea,” she says. “These are very, very, very, public projects. Almost 19 million people will be going through the airport this year, and to have that high level of traffic with a dysfunctional project doesn’t bode well for the organization or the artist.”

They dissolved the contract and went with the Jason Bruges Studio out of London.

“We don’t buy art. We commission it.”

At around 9:00 p.m. on a Thursday evening, two guys in gray work shirts drag rolling carts loaded with boxes, pads, and equipment with long orange power cords into the Terminal 1 pre-security food court. A young woman in jeans and a bright pink scarf accompanies them and helps them set up stanchions and yellow caution ribbons around a many-faced sculpture wall near the back center of the food court.

Besides a small group of female maintenance workers, all wearing lanyards around their necks, who stand chatting near the Goose Island Beer Company cart, there isn’t much more going on. A suitcase-wheeling passenger passes by or sits at one of the tables every now and again, but no one stays for long. Alicia Keys plays faintly overhead.

Miki Iwasaki began his Astralgraph when Terminal 1 was rubble.

Miki Iwasaki began his Astralgraph when Terminal 1 was rubble.

The two guys in gray work shirts, Mario Campuzano and Ryan Goodwin, are two of eight people who work for artist Miki Iwasaki, the creator of the wall sculpture otherwise known as Astralgraph (the wall, not the artist). The wall is a tactile sculpture of 700 pieces, including graphic blocks textured with powder-coated steel, wood, and ceramic. It looks…constellational. Iwasaki’s team has come to replace 12 of the blocks at the 11th hour. The replacement pieces have a purplish iridescent ceramic glaze that the team textured with a machine that took a little longer to master than expected. The official launch and public talk take place in seven days. Iwasaki should be here any minute.

The airport authority commissioned Astralgraph for $155,000. White emphasizes this does not mean she handed Iwasaki a check for that amount.

“We don’t buy art. We commission artists to respond to opportunities and they create work that’s specific to sites and spaces,” White told me. “If you buy art, you’re looking at mostly materials. You’re not looking at what goes into making that work specific to that site.”

The artist receives a fee of anywhere between 10 and 20 percent of the total project cost for their “intellectual genius.” That amount depends on the scale of the project. Then, another 40 percent goes toward schematic design and development, which includes materials, fabrication, labor, overhead, transportation, and code review and permitting processes.

“If you just say ‘design,’ most people think it’s just a drawing on a piece of paper,” White says. “They don’t understand the mechanical engineering that goes into design.” Beyond the design, there’s installation, and a construction document must be created detailing every part that fits together so someone can rebuild and reconnect the pieces without calling the artist back in. And each piece of the puzzle also requires paid time for the person or team responsible. The artist is also responsible for the first year of maintenance of the artwork.

Back in 2012, Iwasaki responded to the call for proposals when the original plan called for art on one side of a concrete column in the Terminal 1 food court. He got in on the ground floor and was able to work with other architects and the construction team before the food court was built, in order to accommodate a project that was larger in scope. This included modifying the ceiling, adding complementary lighting, and creating a multifaceted wall around which the entire sculpture could wrap.

“It was a long road. It’s always difficult to work with an airport,” Iwasaki tells me when he arrives clad in black jeans, T-shirt, and sneakers.

Astralgraph is his second piece at Lindbergh Field. In 2010, the airport authority commissioned him to create Signalscape, the light sculpture installed overhead at Terminal 1 baggage claim.

“We’re here at night,” he says of working on airport art installations. “You can only work during certain hours. There are a lot of components, a lot of people involved. The process is very rigorous. From the very beginning, it was meetings, coordination, coming to the construction site when there was literally rubble.”

For Iwasaki, the work comes in clusters. He and his team “constantly” send out proposals, which they keep track of via spreadsheets. Iwasaki estimates that they are considered for only 1 out of every 100 they send.

“It’s a lot of no’s,” he says.

The end of 2013 and early 2014, however, was such a busy time that Iwasaki took a semester off of his other job as faculty at Woodbury School of Architecture in Barrio Logan to complete Astralgraph and another installation at the Children’s Museum.

Although $155,000 sounds like it should go a long way, Iwasaki estimates that he took home $30,000 of it, for 24 months of work. Approximately $75,000 went toward the labor done by his staff and other consultants.

“I don’t envy the artists.”

White studied painting, 3D construction, ceramics, and 2D design at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. When she arrived in San Diego, she showed her work in exhibits, both group and solo. Today, she makes jewelry when she gets around to it. She has zero desire to trade places with the artists she works with.

“I have thought about being able to do my own projects and being able to solve problems in a certain way, because I know about materials and how to work with architects and engineers, but I don’t want to be managed,” she laughs.

“I don’t envy the artists. I’d much rather be on the administrative side. The artists have to manage their whole project. They have to manage their creativity and their business,” she says. “I don’t think I could do that well. I’m creative with my job, but my job is not dependent on me creating a product or a project.”

Sometimes it’s the artists she has to keep in check to make sure they’re following through on their end, keeping up with production schedules and so on. She asks a lot of questions about materials, fabrication, finishing, and maintenance, discusses problem-solving strategies, makes studio visits, and maintains an open dialogue about money.

“I ask them all the time, ‘How are you on your money? How’s it going? Have you paid your people? Do you need some help? Let me know,’” she says. “The worst thing for me is for them to have dug themselves into a hole during the design phase and they’ve not bought any materials, and they’re looking at having spent close to half of their budget.”

Other times, she has to fight the airport authority on the behalf of the artistic vision — both her own and that of the artists. One example she gives involves the art in the Terminal 2 post-security bathrooms, which, in the master plan, were designated as “restroom mosaics.” The artist chosen by the selection committee and approved by the art committee didn’t work in mosaics; he worked in digital media. So the project he proposed had virtual glass with video images for each of the eight restrooms. A project manager, whose name White does not share, shot it down because of perceived complications and issues of time and said the art team needed to choose a mosaic artist.

“I said, ‘It’s digital mosaics.’ He said, ‘No. We can’t do it,’” she says. “I said, ‘If you want a mosaic on those restrooms, then you should find an interior designer to help you pick out mosaics because I’m not going to select a mosaic artist. I’m not choosing a decorative project. I think that dumbs down our program, and I don’t want to do it.’”

The issue did not immediately resolve itself between them. Instead it went to White’s superiors, who looked at the initial work the Rhode Island–based artist, Erik Carlson, had done during the contracting phase. It included technical specifications and back-of-the-house design that showed both the simplicity and the “technically savvy” aspects of his proposed project.

“Had he been less proficient and less knowledgeable, we probably would have had some decorative mosaics,” White says.

“It makes San Diego look appealing.”

On the morning of my observations of Terminal 2 passengers and their interactions with the airport art, I stand outside the bathrooms between Gate 48 and Sunglass Hut. The entrances to both the men’s room and the women’s room have a central wall that, for the most part, directs the flow of traffic in and out. Most people go in to the right and come out to the left.

In both restrooms, the central wall contains video screens divided into squares and rectangles. In the men’s room, the screen shows a purple and orange sunset, crashing waves, seagulls, and silhouetted people. The women’s room screen alternates seaside carnival images, including a carousel and a roller coaster. Until the motion sensor below each screen is triggered by someone entering or leaving the bathroom, most of the screens, squares, and rectangles remain translucent, shrouding the video images. As people pass the sensor, the images come to full clarity.

And although this art installation is right at eye level, I see no one stop to look at it. No one even pauses.

Video:

"The Journey," an art installation in SAN's Terminal 2

A Delta pilot steps out of the men’s room, and as he walks away, he turns several times to look back at me. Eventually, his curiosity gets the best of him, and he turns around, comes back, and asks why I’m watching people come and go from the bathrooms and scratching away with a pen in my notebook. I tell him I’m watching people not respond to the art.

“Oh, huh. I didn’t even notice it, personally,” he says. “When I go to the bathroom, I don’t care what’s on the wall.”

The pilot’s name is Donald Robert Barski. He’s from Park City, Utah, and he is less interested in discussing the art than he is in whether I can help his daughter, who graduated from Point Loma Nazarene with a degree in journalism, get a job. He does, however, venture to guess the cost appropriated for the eight-bathroom project.

“Um, $3000?” he says.

“Try $220,000,” I say.

“That’s crazy. It’s too much. Put that money to use for something else,” he says, “like more seats in here. If you want to hang art, hang art on the wall.”

He points to the wide empty expanse of airport wall across from the bathrooms. “I’d be more attracted to seeing art there than when I’m going into the bathroom.”

A 22-year-old Nebraska resident named Josi Orsi is the only person all day who suggests that the cost of this art might be worth it. I find her standing outside the bathroom waiting for her travel companion to come out. No, she hadn’t noticed it, but she does think it’s cool.

“It’s interactive. It’s different than anything I’ve seen at any other airport,” she says. “It makes San Diego look appealing.”

Her guess on cost is $10,000, “a shot in the dark,” she says.

“Wow. That’s a lot,” she says of the $220,000. And when I ask if she thinks it’s worth it, she says, “Well, does it ever change pictures?”

“Yes,” I say. “And it’s different pictures at each of the bathrooms.”

She hesitates for a moment and says, “Yeah. I think it adds to it, definitely. And if it lasts and isn’t a lot of upkeep to keep it going all the time, then I would say it’s worth it.”

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