PHILADELPHIA — Carla Messikomer had just stepped off a flight from Montreal in Terminal F at Philadelphia International Airport when she spotted a display of photographs resembling paintings of dogs regally posed in Fairmount Park.
"I was moving along, and I said, 'Oh, my goodness. Here's an art exhibit.' I like art, so I was attracted to it," said the Exton, Pa., resident, who was returning from a business trip. "It's very appealing to find art in public places."
Opera singer John Davies of DeWitt, N.Y., also paused at Andrew Pinkham's "Best in Show" dog portraits and reflected that art at the airport "takes your mind off the rigors of the day, and gives you a chance to contemplate something other than your itinerary, if only for a couple seconds."
Seventeen art exhibits — a rotating showcase of works by Philadelphia-area artists or collectors — grace a 1.25-mile stretch of terminals at Philadelphia International.
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Although many airports have permanent art collections, Philadelphia is one of the few, along with San Francisco and Phoenix, to offer changing exhibits, said Leah Douglas, exhibitions director.
"Each show stays up six months. I keep it regional," she said. "We are supporting the artists working here, and the arts institutions, and giving people traveling through an idea of what Philly has to offer."
In 1998, then-city aviation director Dennis Bouey wanted to start a rotating art exhibit patterned after the one at San Francisco International Airport.
Douglas, gallery director at the University of the Arts at the time, was hired to start the airport exhibition program.
"I was always interested in the idea of presenting exhibitions in a public way, as opposed to a gallery or museum, where you feel your audience is so small," said Douglas, a graduate of the Temple University Tyler School of Art. "Here, I say every show is a blockbuster."
Last year, 30.6 million travelers passed through Philadelphia airport, and 19,000 employees have credentials to work in the airport.
Douglas scours local galleries and the Internet, where most artists have websites. "I'm interested in all forms, everything. I try to make it very eclectic, so hopefully there's something for everyone."
Because an airport is not a museum, and people are moving through fast, "color is very important," Douglas said. "For each show, we pick a color that will enhance the artwork, but also make it stand out from the typical grays of the airport."
Currently on display are urban landscape sculptures made of cut and folded paper; vintage electric irons; black-and-white photos of the Liberty Bell through history; paintings by children with developmental disabilities; selected posters of "Movies Made in Philadelphia"; and trees and rowhouses printed on clear vinyl from Hamilton Street in West Philadelphia.
"Artists are so excited to show they often want to create something special and specific and rise to the occasion," Douglas said. "A lot of times they'll end up making new art for this airport show."
South Philadelphia commercial photographer Andrew Pinkham, who about three years ago began doing portraits of dogs, cats, horses, and, so far, one rooster, said the best part was hearing from travelers.
Since his "Best in Show" exhibit went up in May, Pinkham has received a half-dozen e-mails, including one in late June from a passenger, Peter Lawrence: "I want to drop you a quick note of appreciation of your work at the Philadelphia airport. Having a very long two-day travel itinerary with little sleep, your photos really brought joy to me as I was waiting on a long layover," he wrote.
Pinkham said another passenger who had time between flights and saw the exhibit "wants me to photograph his dog in North Carolina in September. So you never know what's going to happen."
Small signs accompany each exhibit, with explanatory text and information about how to contact the artist.
Scattered throughout the airport are comment cards to e-mail or send in, with prepaid postage. "Several of the 'wow' comments were, "If I have to make a connection, I'll try to connect through Philadelphia just to see the art,'" said Douglas, whose $400,000 budget last year covered materials and supplies for the installations and salaries of three staff members.
"My comfort zone is to have the artwork scheduled a year out."
Among the newest exhibits, between Terminals C and D, are electric clothing irons, from the 1930s to early 1950s, collected by Jay Raymond of Jenkintown.
Raymond sold his sleek and curvy irons several years ago, and the buyer hired him to write a book, Streamlined Irons, published in 2009.
Some of those 154 irons, and photographs of them, are behind glass at the airport. "I'm just pleased it's getting this kind of very public exposure," said Raymond, who still collects pre-1910 electric irons.
"I knew of his iron collection for a while," Douglas said. "I didn't comprehend how I could show it until I saw the book, and the wonderful photographs, which make a nice backdrop to the whole thing."
Although Raymond has not heard directly from passengers, he recently exchanged e-mails with a curator at the San Francisco airport museums who "became aware of the show, and ordered a copy of the book. He is considering mounting a similar show at San Francisco airport," the author said.
Tanya Byrd of Allentown stood recently with her husband, Mike, in front of the irons exhibit and exclaimed, "I love them! There are a couple irons there I'd love to have to actually use, not just to look at."
Galleries in Philadelphia are familiar with art at the airport, and Douglas is a frequent visitor to gallery shows, said Frank Hopson, director of Snyderman-Works Galleries. "We have a great working relationship. She quite often chooses artists that we work with, and the artists may do a new series for her."
Clients who fly in often mention they have seen certain work at the airport, Hopson said.
Rick DeCoyte, owner of Silicon Gallery, printed the photographs of the irons on display. More than a year ago, the printmaker had its own photographic exhibition of the irons, timed with the publication of Raymond's book.
"The arts community in Philadelphia is big, but it is also very close. We are constantly having people come in and say they saw Andy Pinkham's work, or the irons," DeCoyte said. "It's one of the nicest things in the airport, and a really great thing that Philadelphia does."
Learn more about the changing art exhibits at Philadelphia International Airport, and view an image gallery, at http://go.philly.com/airportart