Airport Art

By: Shayne Benowitz

Welcome to Miami. Bienvenido a Miami.

These may be signs and slogans you expect to see upon deplaning at Miami International Airport, but what about marine life sculptures swimming up the walls and arranged in snowflake-like constellations by artist Donald Lipski? Or did you expect to take “A Walk On The Beach” so soon through North Terminal D? With “A Walk On The Beach” artist Michele Oka Doner’s epoxy terrazzo flooring spans half a mile with cast bronze sea creatures embedded into the walkway as if washed up from the sea along with a spattering of glistening mother of pearl.

Miami International Airport has been blazing the trail for art in airports since the 1970s with the Art in Public Places initiative. Today, MIA continues to have one of the most compelling art collections of any major international airport, thanks to the work of Dr. Yolanda Sanchez, Division Director for Fine Arts and Cultural Affairs of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, and her team. Charged with curating a rotating exhibition schedule in four different galleries, she also oversees sight specific installation work. With an airport that sees on average over 100,000 passengers per day and nearly 40 million every year, Sanchez is catering to quite the wide audience.

Why art in the airport? Sanchez explains that it’s there to enhance the terminal environment, to entertain and to educate. She notes that the stress of air travel brings commuters to the airport earlier these days, and they’re spending more time inside the airport than ever. The art serves as a relaxing distraction from what is sometimes a hectic experience. “Anything that brings a moment of contemplation and delight,” Sanchez says, “Is a good thing.”

Art In Public Places

Art In Public Places is a countywide capital improvement program designed to invest 1.5% of all new construction into art initiatives. At Miami International Airport, this has resulted in public art pieces spanning the North and South Terminals, the northside of the airport on NW 136th Street, the MIA Mover Station to the Rental Car Center and the MIA Central Collection Plaza.

From the moment your plane touches down and you exit your gate, you’re surrounded by art every step of the way. From the aforementioned installations by Lipski and Doner in the North Terminal, to similar architectural installations in the South Terminal illustrating the Everglades, coral formations and palm trees, these works depict natural elements that characterize Miami’s unique subtropical environs.

“Almost all of the projects on display, whether a permanent fixture or in the rotating galleries, showcase South Florida culture, lifestyle and history,” Sanchez says.

To further illustrate this point of view, “The Noise Abatement Wall” at 136th Street is a nod to the Miami Modern Architectural movement found indicative of the city and “Miami Wave,” pastel undulations paved into the concrete at the Central Collection Plaza is reminiscent of the ocean. Finally “Harmonic Convergence” at the MIA Mover Station is a play on light and color that screams Miami.


Starting in 1996, Sanchez initiated a program with four galleries inside the airport designed to host rotating exhibitions for a period of three to six months. Each gallery has a specific focus. The Fine Art Gallery, located in the Central Terminal, features contemporary fine art. Also in the Central Terminal is the Children’s Gallery featuring work by Miami-Dade Public School students in grades K-12. The Handmade Gallery in the South Terminal features handcrafts and folk art from around the world. And, finally, the Camera Works Gallery in Terminal D showcases photography.

Notable exhibitions have included “The Highwaymen” in the Fine Arts Gallery, a collection of Florida landscape paintings by a group of African American artists from the 1950s who were not allowed to sell their art in galleries. In turn, they worked from the trunks of their cars along the highway.

The exhibitions often partner with non-profits, universities, and other cultural programs around the city. In the Handmade Gallery, the “Carnival Arts” exhibition featured handcrafts common to the Caribbean islands, yet created by adolescents housed at Miami Bridge, a group home for children of domestic abuse and behavioral problems, in partnership with Barry University.

History Miami has partnered with Camera Works on a photo exhibition celebrating 100 years of Miami’s aviation history. Other community partners include the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), formerly Miami Art Museum, Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, and Art For Learning.

Installations & Performance Projects

Throughout the terminals, you’ll notice a variety of sight specific installations, such as a model plane built around a wheelchair overhead, a series of paintings composing a mural representing a flower fence, underwater photography and mixed media textiles depicting travel post cards. It’s a visual labyrinth as you make your way to baggage claim or to your connecting flight.

After the success of 2012’s Random Acts of Culture program, where musicians, dancers and performers created flash mob-style performances in the airport much to commuters’ delights, the Fine Arts and Cultural Affairs Division was recently awarded a grant by the Knight Foundation to curate more musical and performance events inside the airport.

The next time your flight lands in MIA, once you’ve grabbed your carry-on from the overhead compartment and entered the terminal, look up and around you, and get a taste for Miami’s art and culture before you even leave the airport.

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