Alumna uses airport art to show ‘the city’s message’

For 20 years, alumna Leah Douglas has directed the Philadelphia International Airport’s exhibitions program.

Leah Douglas, a 1985 metals/jewelry/CAD-CAM alumna, sits in front of a pop-up theater exhibition in the Philadelphia International Airport on Monday. Douglas is the airport’s founding director of exhibitions and has curated more than 275 exhibits. | JAMIE COTTRELL / THE TEMPLE NEWS

The exhibits Leah Douglas curates are seen by as many as 80,000 people each day.

But she doesn’t work for a museum.

Douglas, a 1985 metals/jewelry/CAD-CAM alumna, is the founding director of exhibitions at the Philadelphia International Airport and has organized more than 275 exhibits across the airport since her start in 1998.

“It’s hard to stop passengers,” Douglas said. “But I need to be able to stop them in their tracks and make them look, whether that is done by adding more color or bold pieces.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the exhibitions program, which Douglas has directed since the program was founded.

To celebrate the anniversary, Douglas curated the collaborative exhibit “It’s a Wrap: 20 for 20,” which is currently on display and features the work of 20 artists. Each artist created work that incorporated the existing architecture in the airport’s walkways, like adding materials to walls, columns and ceiling tiles.

In all of her exhibits, Douglas said she tries to represent the history of Philadelphia and the diversity of the city’s art scene.

“It’s not about me and my likes and dislikes,” Douglas said. “It’s trying to represent the city and the region in the best way I can and asking, ‘What is the city’s message?’”

After graduating from the Tyler School of Art, Douglas worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the University of the Arts for several years. When the director of the Philadelphia International Airport announced the launch of a new exhibitions program, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I was really super excited about it because it seemed like a perfect mix of what I wanted to do, which was to showcase art to the general public in a non-gallery showcase,” Douglas said.

The airport now has more than 20 rotating galleries by Philadelphia and regional artists for ticketed passengers to view. Every six months, new artwork goes up in each gallery.

Each of the 20 artists chosen for the anniversary project were assigned pieces to create and then install individually at the airport.

A passenger at the Philadelphia International Airport looks at Conrad Benner’s exhibit, “Discovering Philly Street Art,” on March 7. | EMILY SCOTT / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Rhonda Cooper is a street artist who specializes in “yarnbombing,” which includes covering objects or structures in public spaces with crocheted material. Cooper was tasked with decorating a rocking chair and half of a cement column for the project. She plans to begin installing her pieces in July along with the other artists.

Cooper, whose artist’s name is Marbufs, also has an individual exhibit, “Marbufs Crocheted Interventions,” currently on display at the airport. It includes several objects, like a column and children’s bicycles, which were crocheted with vibrantly-colored yarn.

“It’s a Wrap” will be Cooper’s first experience in a group exhibit.

“It’s just great working with 19 other amazing artists and working with some of the greatest artists in the city,” Cooper said. “I may never get another opportunity like this in my lifetime.”

Another artist, Conrad Benner is highlighting the Philadelphia art scene through his exhibit in one of the airport’s rotating galleries. Benner is the creator of the Philadelphia art blog Streets Dept, which has gained about 139,000 followers on Instagram and been covered by outlets like The Guardian.

His work, “Discovering Philly Street Art,” features photos of Philadelphia street art, and will be displayed through October in Terminal D. The gallery is a reflection of his seven-year-old blog, which showcases public art like murals and sculptures in the city.

“[The exhibit is] really cool,” Benner said. “I feel like I have a decent Instagram following and that my audience is pretty decent, but this is a whole new world. I’m really excited to have the opportunity to show my art.”

Along with his current exhibit, Benner will also host a discussion on social media and photography during the airport’s “Arts in the Airport” workshop in October. Organized by the American Association of Airport Executives, the workshop will feature presentations on how to implement art in airports nationwide.

After spending two decades at the airport, Douglas said the project will showcase the scope of the program’s achievements.

“For me, this is a celebration of the long-lasting power that this program has infused over the airport’s culture,” Douglas said. “Philadelphia is known for its art and now it has become part of the airport’s image and what it represents.”

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