Terminal A in New York City’s La Guardia Airport can be a disorienting place. It isn’t connected to the rest of the airport. And upon entering, you find few of the amenities familiar in America’s busiest airports today.
The terminal, which opened in 1939 to launch seaplanes, has an Art Deco feel. A 235-foot James Brooks mural, “Flight,” adorns one wall. It was done as part of the Works Progress Administration program under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal; during the Cold War it was painted over because critics suspected it carried a hidden Communist message.
The terminal has its share of surprises. And now, passengers arriving or departing there are greeted with one more: a piece of live performance art.
In a space outside security that used to be a Hudson News kiosk, the writers and close friends Gideon Jacobs and Lexie Smith, who both live in Queens, have set up a writing nook with stacks of books, wooden furniture, rugs and a vintage typewriter. There they are, writing unique, fictional stories for travelers.
This specific initiative, named Landing Pages, is part of a residency program established by the Queens Council on the Arts and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs La Guardia. Over the next 12 months, artists based in Queens are taking over the airport space for three months at a time to experiment with their mediums. Jacobs and Smith are the first (their project began May 2).
There are a few rules. One, customers must approach them. Some visitors see a sign written in chalk on a blackboard that says, “We will write you a story. Ask Us!” More often, people come up looking for the bathroom or rental car facilities. “Some days I feel like I work here,” Jacobs said. “I even have a parking spot.”
Those who choose to participate provide their flight number and contact details. The writers then draft a story for them while their flights are in the air, and text it to them before they land.
“The time constraint is a fun challenge,” Smith said. “We definitely follow flights to see if they are delayed. There was one that was by two hours. We were happy for the extra time.”
They write an average of six stories a day. They hope to finish 50 by June 30, when their project ends, and compile them in a book. “We’re probably going to self-publish and give it to whoever will take it,” she said.
After Jacobs and Smith finish, Sandra Lopez-Monsalve, a multimedia producer, will be up. She will record ambient noises around the airport and make an electronic map with them. Anyone will be able to go online, click on a spot on the map, and play the sounds heard every day in that exact location.
“A lot of airports have art,” said Lysa Scully, general manager of La Guardia Airport. “But having active and involved art that customers engage with, that is the unique model. I haven’t seen that anywhere.”
The idea to have interactive artwork in the airport was first proposed at a Queens Community Board 1 meeting by a resident who lives close to the airport. Frustrated that so many tourists land in Queens but head straight to Manhattan, he stood up and asked if there was a way to showcase the borough’s vibrant art scene at the airport. Scully, who was leading the meeting, was immediately hooked.
She reached out to the Queens Council on the Arts, a nonprofit organization that had experience planting quirky artists in the path of visitors. For the past two years, the council has set up artists of all kinds in hotels around Queens — the program is called the QCA ArtHotel Residency — including those adjacent to the airports. An artist currently hangs out in the lobby of SpringHill Suites, a Marriott property at La Guardia, drafting sketches of the borough’s many locations and events. The idea is to showcase Queens artists to travelers staying at the property.
Daniel Bamba, the organization’s grants and residencies manager, said he knew immediately that he could do the same type of project for the airport.
Terminal A was chosen as the home of the ArtPort Residency, as it is officially named, “because it was a space we completely controlled,” Scully said. But all parties involved agree the space is far from ideal.
First, because it’s located before security, passengers are stressed and don’t have the time or mental bandwidth to focus on art.
“There are people who are rushing because they don’t have anything else to interact with them,” Scully said. “So this is for people to be able to stop a moment.”