The Airport Foundation MSP’s art program invites travelers to pause.
An average person traveling through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) may not notice the extensive collection of art scattered throughout the two terminals. But slow down, and you may begin to notice something beyond the bustling travelers or rolling suitcases.
When you arrive at the airport, you’re greeted by murals and installations in the parking ramps, like Interrupted Landscapes of the Incomer by photographer Steve Ozone, which features immigrant portraits displayed through punched metal panels. Walk into Terminal 1 and you’ll discover The Aurora by sculptor Jen Lewin, a 29-foot-high glass and metal sculpture that soars from baggage claim to ticketing, changing colors with the seasons and local weather conditions. Throughout the airport, some bathrooms are enhanced with colorful mosaics, and hallways are dotted with exhibits by local artists. Pass through at the right time, and you may also witness live performances from local musicians. And at any time, you can enjoy what’s showing at the See18 film screening room.
All of these experiences are available thanks to Arts@MSP, a partnership between the Airport Foundation MSP (AFMSP) and the Metropolitan Airport Commission (MAC). Program director Ben Owen says he seeks to “create place out of space,” using art installations, music and film to create memorable and meaningful moments throughout the airport for travelers to enjoy. Some of the art is commissioned and part of the airport’s permanent collection, while others are submitted into rotating exhibitions. It rotates 15 to 20 exhibits annually, which translates into approximately 4,600 pieces of fine art, and it works with local and regional artists.
This program supports the mission of AFMSP, a nonprofit which seeks to serve the MSP community, to enhance the travel experience, exceed traveler expectations and support the aviation community.
AFMSP, which is the only foundation of its kind globally, was started in 1982 by leaders of the corporate hospitality and aviation industries, who wanted MSP to be a leading hub for major airlines—and one way to do that was to enhance the customer experience.
Stillwater resident and president and CEO of AFMSP Jana Webster says, in the beginning, the foundation simply paid for landscaping, signage and art in the airport and funded scholarships for aviation schools. “The foundation evolved as the airport grew—and the airport [has] grown a lot in 40 years,” she says. “Right now, we are the 17th largest airport in the U.S. Pre-COVID-19, we were at close to 40 million passengers a year … The foundation grew right along with the airport, and so we expanded the types of programs and services.”
Vice president Laura Sartain of south Maplewood has worked to grow the volunteer program—one that initially saw more than 600 volunteers pre-COVID. Today, the foundation utilizes a relatively small staff and over 400 volunteers to run its operations—which include the Travellers Assistance program, tourism support, gambling operations, the MSP Animal Ambassadors program, grantmaking, community engagement events and an arts and culture department.
“We have our customer service volunteers, who work at information booths throughout both terminals. We have roving volunteers called Go Guides, and they walk throughout the airport looking for folks who need extra assistance,” Sartain says, noting that volunteers are around MSP seven days a week from 7 a.m.–
7 p.m. “The other big part of our program is the therapy animal program, one of the big obedience schools—All Breed Obedience—that trains new therapy dogs is in Woodbury.”
Featuring all types of breeds—ranging from Shih Tzus to great Danes—Sartain says the MSP Animal Ambassadors program is one of the largest therapy animal programs in the country. “We have almost 100 [therapy animal] teams … and they are in the terminals seven days a week,” she says, noting that the Los Angeles and Denver international airports are two other programs of its caliber.
“Having the ability to create programs and services that impact millions of people every year and that are so beneficial, not only on a global level, but also on a local level is so great,” Webster says. “And to create and help, especially Minnesotans, have a sense of pride about this airport … It’s amazing.”
Sartain shares a similar sentiment. “It’s such an incredibly dynamic environment. Every day feels like a different place,” she says. Speaking to its volunteerism, she says, “Minnesota is such a strong volunteer state. Nearly 50 percent of residents volunteer in someway … If people are looking for a new, exciting opportunity, we are always welcoming people at the airport.”