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May 25th
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Written by Anne Tschida - BT Arts Editor   
January 2014

MIA produces one of the most vibrant art and performance programs in the nation

AArtFeature_1t Miami International Airport’s gate D8 on this Friday in mid-December, travelers are readying to board a flight to Grand Cayman. Without warning, a group of percussionists whip out drums and maracas from their “travel” bags and begin performing in the middle of the passageway, accompanied by a female singer.

The unsuspecting audience begins to smile, then clap, and some of them dance. Most of them take out cell phones and start snapping pictures. Employees at kiosks join in, gyrating to the Caribbean beats orchestrated by local musician Willie Stewart.

After a few minutes, the impromptu concert is over, to be repeated several more times at different gates over the next couple of hours. It is the latest in a series of Musical Happenings, partially funded by a Knight Foundation grant, to take place at the airport -- one of the numerous cultural and artistic events that are now taking place at MIA, which operates one of the most vibrant airport cultural programs in the nation.

Previously, you might have encountered opera singers from the Florida Grand Opera, who literally sat next to passengers and serenaded them. Or you might have been treated to a short dance courtesy of the Cuban Classical Ballet, or a jazz set led by trombonist Chad Bernstein.


Before experiencing the surprise performances, airport visitors may have passed by any number of site-specific art pieces, or wandered through one of the exhibitions. All of the art, temporary and permanent, fall under the Fine Arts and Cultural Affairs Division of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, almost single-handedly guided by the division’s founder and director, Yolanda Sanchez, who is also an artist herself.

While trying to find a good (i.e., crowded) gate to position the drummers on this afternoon, Sanchez points to a model plane hanging from the ceiling. It is in fact a sculpture from New York artist Paul Villinski, called Airchair, which incorporates a found wheelchair set between the wings. It’s a lovely concept -- “flying” above the passengers rushing through transit could be someone usually thought of as limited in mobility and bound to a chair, cruising effortlessly above the fray.

Nearby and also in the North Terminal, just before ascending an escalator to the sky train, locally based artists Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt recently installed a huge, colorful wall sculpture made of artificial flowers, spelling out “Peace & Love.” Sanchez has a mission to make Miami’s airport experience a culturally uplifting one, exposing travelers to high-quality, curated art that reflects the city it serves. It has been a complicated process that has taken years, but which today is a very palpable reality, from the arrival to departure.

The art can be found in changing exhibits as part of the MIA Galleries program; in the Children’s Connector Gallery, which features art from local students K-12; in the site-specific program; through commissioned pieces from the county-funded Art in Public Places; and in the musical and performance happenings.

This month and through February, if you’re at MIA, you may want to check out the group exhibition “Inventory -- It’s About Time,” which was curated by Thais Fontenelle. It’s a conceptual show by a dozen artists who have an architectural and design bent to their work. There’s an eye-catching mirror-and-glass sculpture from Brookhart Jonquil, who is joined by several other Miami-based artists, including Michelle Weinberg and Emmett Moore. You can find “Inventory” in the Central Terminal Gallery near Concourse E.


Previous temporary exhibits included one featuring the unique Florida landscape paintings of the Highwaymen, mostly anonymous African-American artists who conjured up romantic Florida landscapes to sell to tourists from about 1960 to 1980. Another exhibit featured masks and other Caribbean carnival attire painstakingly crafted by Miami at-risk teens.

If, however, your journey takes you to Concourse J, you won’t have to search out the award-winning art -- it will be under your feet and embedded in the walls on two floors. This phenomenal work from local artist Barbara Neijna is called Foreverglades, and seems to move and shimmer like the Glades themselves. She created it from bas-relief stone panels and glass, weaving in images of swaying reeds and phrases from Marjory Stoneman Douglas’s celebrated The Everglades: River of Grass. It’s considered one of the largest public-art pieces in the world.

When renting a car, you’ll encounter another internationally recognized installation from the composer-artist-architect Christopher Janney, who has created sound sculptures for a number of airports. Harmonic Convergence envelopes the walkway at the MIA Mover Station that leads to the rental car center, splashing light from colored panels that make up the walls, and emanating sounds that Janney recorded on trips to South Florida, such as that of native birds and tropical thunderstorms. The spectacular piece was installed in time for 2011 Art Basel Miami Beach arrivals.

ArtFeature_4If you find yourself in Concourse F, make a beeline for the site-specific photography installation, a fun and wonderfully appropriate series called “Fake Holidays.” Austrian photographer Reiner Riedler traveled the globe shooting images of fantastical and illusory vacations, documenting the contemporary obsession of leisure holidays, no matter the culture or continent. Thanks to 21st-century high-tech capabilities, he finds, you can take a honeymoon in Paris without ever leaving Beijing; or shoot to the moon from a resort town in Turkey. But really, what place is better at creating faux exotic vacations than Florida?

Some other artworks also simply shout Florida, such as Donald Lipski’s Got Any Jacks? in the North Terminal (Concourse D). The well-known New York sculptor fashioned 100 replicas of fish and crustaceans found in local waters, from two feet to 14 feet in size. Miami-Beach native Michele Oka Doner created A Walk on the Beach, also for the North Terminal, just past security. It is an installation of floor images of shells and other marine life, made from epoxy, bronze, and mother-of-pearl.

In a more subtle form, other artworks still connect with Miami. In the South Terminal at Baggage Claim J, Nori Sato created Ghost Palms, which is made from stained glass cut in the shape of palm fronds and mounted on the wall, with patterns on the floor mimicking the fronds as though they were shadows.

There is much more art from a wide variety of artists of various ethnicities, which in itself mirrors Miami, but all of it threaded together by Sanchez so the diversity remains thematic and tied to the environment around it. Sanchez loves the result.

When the percussionists packed up their bags after yet another performance, this one in front of gate D17 (destination: New York City), some employees working at a Häagen Dazs store left their stations to thank the musicians and Sanchez, who had been dancing along with the infectious percussion. “We loved it!” shouted one, reluctantly returning to work.


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