UrbanArt Commission issues call for artists for Memphis Intl. Airport redesign opening in 2021

For many visitors, the first thing they see upon arriving in Memphis is the Memphis International Airport. With renovations to Concourse B well underway, the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority has teamed with UrbanArt Commission to add eye-catching works of art that will making a lasting first impressions. The concourse scheduled to reopen in April 2021.

UAC recently issued a call to artists for the $1.5 million project. Five site-specific artist commissions will feature different mediums and forms including a large suspended sculpture, a wall-bound sculpture and mural, a permanent exhibition of 2D work, and designs for three art glass installations.

All projects will be open to local artists, and four of the five commissions are reserved for artists living in Memphis and Shelby County. The suspended sculpture is the only one open to national artists, however, they’re reserving one spot among the finalists for a local artist.

“We’re especially interested in applications from artists who have not previously received public art commissions. [In addition,] people of color, differently-abled persons, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ people, seniors, and women are strongly encouraged to apply,” said Brett Hanover, project manager for the UrbanArt Commision.

The selection committee wants the new B Concourse to represent a broad range of voices within the local art scene, with the five commissions reflecting an openness to new ideas.

“Although one of our goals is to show off the city, we’re doing this by highlighting the personal visions of Memphis’ diverse, evolving and outspoken visual arts community. Instead of commissioning artists to promote Memphis, we’re promoting Memphis by showcasing its artists,” said Hanover.

The art installations are part of the finishing touches on a $245-million multi-phase, multi-year modernization effort. Started in 2019, the plan consolidates airport operations to the B concourse. It will include moving walkways, spacious corridors and boarding areas, higher ceilings, and natural light.

Scott Brockman, president and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, said the suspended sculpture will be on the east leg of the terminal beyond the rotunda, which will be the central hub of the new design. It will include restaurants, gift shops, and a sound stage for live performances. 

UAC has received about 15 applications for the various projects but expect the number to increase significantly. 

Three finalists for each project will be chosen by a selection committee. Artists will submit site-specific proposals from which one individual or team will be chosen per installation.

The selection committee consists of representatives from UAC, the airport authority, University of Memphis, National Civil Rights Museum, and other artists and community leaders.

“ ... while the committee is absolutely open to murals and wall-bound sculptures, they’ve also expressed interest in new media--something kinetic or interactive, perhaps incorporating video or lighting elements," said Hanover. "The glass installations are an accessible opportunity for artists in many mediums, because we’ll be handling the fabrication."

Other spaces throughout the concourse have also been earmarked for a visual upgrade, including a comfort area near the restrooms featuring a translucent art installation. The glass walls of the moving walkway have also been pitched as a possible spot for another translucent piece and a video board to spotlight local musicians.

Some installations will be permanent, others will rotate out.

Additional phases to the art program are in the planning. UAC is planning additional installations and considering areas like the elevated atrium area of the rotunda.

“We are doing a master plan right now, so beyond the initial part of this project we will identify other projects based upon forecast growth levels that may give us opportunities to showcase local art,” said Brockman.

The partners are getting an early jump on fielding artwork proposals in part because some of the as-yet-to-be-chosen works may require installation needs that are better addressed during the building's current and near-future construction phases.

“Any structural changes that need to be made, whether it be just protrusion of some hook or some way to hold it, any power needs if it happens to be lit from within--those things can all be addressed as a part of the normal construction before they button everything up,” said Brockman.
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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.