Multimillion-dollar Hartsfield-Jackson art project gets pricier

The most expensive art project in the history of the Atlanta airport is about to get even pricier.

A long-delayed, nearly $4 million art installation is aimed at transforming a 450-foot-long underground tunnel between Concourses A and B at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport into a virtual forest that will surround travelers.

The “Flight Paths” art project will feature a simulated tree canopy and bird sounds, plus lighting to give the impression of a rain shower, pond and sunbeams.

“It is intended to be a very soothing experience,” said David Vogt, art program manager at Hartsfield-Jackson. “It’s going to be phenomenal.”

But the envisioned work of art will now require an additional $432,000 to redesign the project’s materials in compliance with current safety codes. Airport officials discovered the problem earlier this year during a safety code analysis of plans for the piece. The Atlanta City Council this month approved the additional funding, bringing the total budget for the project to $4.1 million.

Conceived well over a decade ago by Chicago-area artist Steven Waldeck, Flight Paths was originally expected to be complete by the end of 2004. But it was delayed multiple times amid the ups and downs of the economy.

Meanwhile, the budget for the project ballooned from $1.3 million in 2003 to nearly three times that amount, including an additional $2 million for electrical work.

Eleven years of delays

During the 11 years of delays, some of the key players in the project have retired — including Waldeck, who held a teaching position at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Betsey Sanpere, an airport art expert based in Annapolis, Md., and principal at Creative Airport Solutions, said it is not unusual for a major public art project to take years to complete. She believes art plays an important role at an airport such as Hartsfield-Jackson.

“You’re the gateway to not only Atlanta, but also the Southeast. The last thing people see and the first thing people see is the airport,” Sanpere said. “I don’t think $4 million or $5 million is too much for a major installation that’s going to say, ‘Welcome to Atlanta.’”

She added that for connecting passengers, “maybe this is the only thing they see in Atlanta — is the art (in the airport). I think it tells them Atlanta is thinking about the future and Atlanta is thinking about the comfort of the passenger.”

Concern about completion

Atlanta City Council member Yolanda Adrean said she had been concerned about whether the artist would be able to complete such an ambitious, large-scale installation but was reassured by the completion of a 60-foot prototype of the piece.

“This art project was designed a long time ago,” said Adrean, who was among the council’s finance committee members who voted unanimously in favor of the additional expenditure for Flight Paths. “It’ll be the most expensive art project the airport has endeavored to put in.”

The additional money devoted to the project will be spent on replacing pieces of the sculpture with completely non-combustible materials, moving electrical transformers and relocating flight information displays.

The project is now expected to take until late July 2016 to construct, install and finish.

$371k on design and prototype

Hartsfield-Jackson officials have traveled to Chicago twice to view the prototype of the piece and have already spent $371,000 on the design and prototype.

Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Miguel Southwell said the budget for the project comes from airport bonds, which are repaid through revenue from airline fees and rent payments. It also goes to fulfill Atlanta’s public art master plan that calls for setting aside 1 percent of certain spending for art.

Southwell believes Flight Paths will create a memorable experience that travelers will associate with the Atlanta airport.

“This is an amazing project,” Southwell said. “We don’t believe any airport project creates the sense of destination like this project.”

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