Student art competition sets the scene for airport modernization

For many visitors to Memphis, the first thing they see is the Memphis International Airport. Those catching flights into town this May will be greeted by photography from area high school students as they head toward baggage claim.

“This is the 11th year we’ve done our annual art competition. It’s open to students throughout Shelby County,” said Glen Thomas, director of strategic marketing and communications at theMemphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.

The theme of this year’s high school visual arts competition is Memphis: Its Music, Sights and Sounds, which focuses in on the city’s reputation as an entertainment hub. The exhibition is a part of the Arts in the Airport program.

“Especially now being an ‘Origin and Destination’ airport and wanting to be part of the Memphis community, where we are often the first impression that people have of Memphis when they first arrive, how better to reflect our culture and the community than having these pieces of artwork that represent the great things in Memphis and done by Memphis artists,” said Thomas.

“It’s also at the same time a way for these young artists to have their work exposed to millions of people every year.”

The winners of the art and photography contest will be announced May 3. Participating students, their families and the public are invited. Forty-four paintings and 38 photo entries were chosen as finalists. Over 300 works were submitted for the contest. Their works will be featured for a year in the airport. 

“We take pride in this event, and in being able to support and encourage young local artists. Arts in the Airport not only highlights the creativity and imagination of our local high school students, it brings a look and feel to our airport that is uniquely ‘Memphis,’” said Scott Brockman, president and CEO at Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.

The photos can be found in the two connectors past security checkpoint B, along the pathway. Along with the announcement of the top six winners, will be a scholarship announcement, courtesy of HMS Host. The company operates several of the airport’s restaurants.

“The artwork always blows me away. These students are extremely talented so if we can play a small part in furthering their ambition as an artist and get them exposure, we are happy to do so. And at the same time, they are helping us to sell Memphis to everyone who comes to this airport,” said Thomas.

The panel of judges included representatives from Memphis College of Art, Shelby County Schools, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, University of Memphis, and the Withers Collection Museum and Gallery. 

Rosalind Withers will select the Choice Award winner in photography. The work will be displayed at Withers Collection Museum and Gallery for a year.

An updated aesthetic isn’t the only change going on at the airport. With the upcoming modernization of B concourse, airlines, restaurants and retail are relocating to A and C concourses. 

The airport was built decades ago and seismic standards and mitigation were not in play, so that is one thing the airport needed to address. 

With the loss of the Delta hub, the airport has changed as far as the way they operate day-to-day. Previously, the focus was placed mostly on transfer passengers. The vast majority, about 75 to 80 percent, of all passengers were connecting through to other destinations. 

“They were not coming and going to and from Memphis. Now, we are more than 99 percent of what’s called ‘Origin and Destination,’ that’s people leaving Memphis to go somewhere else or people coming to Memphis for business or on the tourism and leisure side,” said Thomas. 

The airport had been set up to be conducive to hub operations. When Delta removed so many of its flights and vacated its, the airport's businesses and airlines were spread out with a lot of unused space. 

“Consolidating all the vendors and airlines into one area is something that benefits not only the airlines but the vendors. They will get the benefit of full flow of passengers. It benefits the passengers because it’s going to be easier to find everything and they are going to have more room to move,” said Thomas.

The upgrade will total $214 million and include wider corridors, moving walkways, larger boarding areas, higher ceilings, natural lighting, amenities and concessions. It’s scheduled to be completed in 2021.

“Modernization of the B Concourse represents our most significant step in the reinvention of MEM from a hub to an origin and destination airport. The end result will be a modern, convenient, state-of-the-art airport for our passengers, airlines, concessionaires and other partners," said Brockman.

They are adding a lot more outlets and charging stations for all manner of mobile devices. 

“They’re all the rage now. When the airport was built in the '50s, everyone wasn’t walking around with a smartphone. Times have changed, and this new airport will reflect the current technological needs of our passengers,” said Thomas.

Signs throughout the concourse will also be upgraded to digital.

“You will see us increase our use of digital technology in terms of signage. Static signage is going away and digital signage brings so many more advantages.”

There will also be a children’s play area as well as a music stage for live entertainment. 

“It comes down to making the experience positive, pleasant and convenient for the passengers. It will be a completely different travel experience when we reopen the B concourse in 2021,” said Thomas.
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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.