From an immersive experience to monumental sculptures and artists-in-residence, Houston is proof airports are not just for planes.
When travelers walk through George Bush Intercontinental Airport or William P. Hobby Airport, the hope is they’ll see Houston. The hope is, they’ll feel Houston. Hope is where Janavi Mahimtura Folmsbee roots her passion for public art.
“I love creating these monumental moments that can transform the viewer into a time, space and energy,” said Mahimtura Folmsbee, the self-described marine conservation artist who created The Aquarius Art Tunnel. The 240-foot-long immersive experience includes floor-to-ceiling murals that stretch a connector tunnel inside Bush Airport. The Houston-based artist is inspired by a coral reef off the Texas coast the Gulf of Mexico. Custom carpet, lighting and a social media filter transport travelers underwater to the Flower Garden Banks Marine National Sanctuary.
The Aquarius Art Tunnel was voted the 2023 CODAawards People’s Choice Winner in August 2023. The internationally acclaimed CODAawards celebrate the projects that most successfully integrate commissioned art into interior, architectural, or public spaces. Commissioned Art Matters - and the CODAawards celebrate this. The CODAawards program honors the individuals and the teams whose collective imaginations create the public and private spaces that inspire us every day. "It seems that she [Mahimtura Folmsbee] is the one to have achieved a masterful sense of playing with strong, intense colors,” said CODAawards judge Thomasz Urbanowicz, an architect and artist who runs public art atelier ArchiGlass of the public art submission by Houston Airports earlier this summer.
The tunnel, which debuted near Terminal D last year, is among the reasons why Houston Airports was chosen as having the Best Art in the Airport at the 2023 Skytrax World Airport Awards in March. The win is historic. Skytrax unveiled a new award category this year. Houston Airports is the first-ever recipient. The visual and performing arts program at Houston’s airports beat out art experiences offered by some of the biggest airports around the world.
“It’s an honor to be the first female South Asian artist in the Houston Airports Public Art Collection,” said Mahimtura Folmsbee, who is originally from Mumbai, India. “I am delighted to know my work resonates with the public who may be called to share in my passion for environmental outreach and advocacy.”
The Aquarius Art Tunnel, officially endorsed by UNESCO - the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, is one of 350 permanent works included in the airport system’s art collection. Valued at $28 million, Houston Airports has one of the largest public art collections in the aviation industry. The collection, which is featured across three airports, is set to increase to $34 million by late 2024 with the addition of 12 works of art commissioned for a new international terminal currently under construction at Bush Airport.
“Not only does art help to create a sense of place in our terminals,” said Mario Diaz, Director of Aviation for Houston Airports. “Art also provides an unexpected connection that has the power to influence each passenger long after they’ve left our airports.”
About 54 million passengers visited Houston’s airports in 2022, millions more than some of the most famous museums in the world. Art is helping Houston make connections well before a passenger boards a plane. Art is redefining the fourth largest U.S. city as Art City.
“Art is inspiring,” said Liliana Rambo, Chief Terminal Management Officer for Houston Airports. Rambo is a driving force behind the expansion of the airport system’s arts program. “I’m proud to say that Houston Airports is inspiring, too.”
Visual and performing art provides inspiration inside airport terminals.
More than 75 of Houston’s most accomplished professional musicians serenade passengers with bossa nova, jazz or classical melodies through the Harmony in the Air Program. “Your music lifted my spirits,” wrote Janice Haddy during a layover at Hobby Airport. “For me, it was pure exhilaration. Your music was a special gift to me.”
Passengers like Haddy unexpectedly find themselves engaging with artists throughout Houston’s airports. The airport system has tapped local artists to serve as ‘Art Ambassadors’ during peak travel periods, like Spring Break or the Labor Day holiday. The ambassador invites passengers to create their own art using simple techniques. Children have created last-minute Mother’s Day cards ahead of a flight home; nervous travelers are distracted by vibrant colors and finger paint.
Local visual artists are invited to work inside Bush and Hobby airports for three months at a time as part of the Houston Airports Artist in Residence Program. It’s the only program of its kind active in a U.S. airport today.
“We truly provide a great variety of art through a meaningful and memorable experience,” said DuLaney. As Curator of Public Art, DuLaney, an artist himself, has cultivated partnerships with local museums, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and NASA. In fact, NASA spacesuits are now on display at Hobby Airport, which is less than 10 miles from Johnson Space Center.
“Not only do the arts create a sense of place in our terminals,” said Alton DuLaney, Curator of Public Art for Houston Airports, “our award-winning art collection creates a colorful mosaic that is pure magic and representative of Houston and Texas.”
The Houston Airports Art Collection is representative by design.
In January 2023, one of the busiest airport systems in the country debuted 10 unique artworks commissioned during the first months of the pandemic. The call for art provided hope to the regional creative community at a time when the world needed it. Xavier Schipani, an Austin-based artist who uses his voice and talent for trans-activism created a mural composed of diverse figures designed in cool hues of blue. Lubbock-based sculptor William Canning suspended nearly three dozen inflated steel cloud forms above the gates at Hobby Airport. Thousands of reflective crystal spheres embedded in a towering sculpture by the artist collective Animalis Works catch the light and the attention of travelers as they enter a TSA security screening area. Also dazzling airport guests, the purchase of 74 permanent pieces of art, representing the single-largest acquisition of art in the history of Houston Airports.
DuLaney believes art will always be an important part of our society because the medium can mend gaps and spark conversation between groups of people, especially in a microcosm like an airport. “Many passengers never leave our airports, instead transferring to another flight and departing for their final destination”, said DuLaney, “making this exposure to our award-winning Public Art Program the only view of the rich culture and dynamic talent that defines Houston.”