Leah Douglas

Leah Douglas

Director of Exhibitions
Philadelphia International Airport

I first started working at Philadelphia International Airport ten years ago, when I was hired to start the Exhibitions Program. Prior to that, I worked for about ten years as the director of exhibitions at Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at The University of the Arts. With 20 years experience, you’d think I’d be more comfortable in my curatorial role.

The term curator actually makes me cringe. It’s probably because I don’t have an art history degree and I’m not interested in curatorial studies. I’ve always felt more at ease thinking of myself as an arts facilitator—a kind of liaison between the artist and the public. I have always preferred presenting solo exhibitions as opposed to group shows. It reinforces my belief that exhibits are meant to be less about me, and more about the artist’s work. Although I know my presence is felt as you look at the overall program at the Airport, I sometimes think it would be interesting to see someone else’s vision. How would someone else have approached this? But then, not really; I’m happy with my version–and what if they did it better?

The Airport is such a fascinating and curious place to work. It’s human nature that you just never get tired of seeing planes take off and land. Whenever I invite artists or guests to do a site visit, I am reminded of the unusual circumstances. Most are usually pretty excited to be escorted to the front of the security line ahead of waiting passengers.

But the primary reaction people have is amazement at their lack of anxiety—they don’t have to find their gate, and they don’t have to worry about missing their flight. When I first started working at the Airport I’d give myself some extra time to get to a meeting in case I got lost along the way, mentally laying out my course beforehand so I wasn’t late. Even now, the confusion still happens because there are constant changes to the facility. One day you leave work and the next morning there are walls that had literally been built overnight. Where did that door go?

The Airport is like a small city, with many different constituencies working under one roof–there is the mall with its shops and restaurants, all of the various airlines, law enforcement, electricians, engineers, planners, a sign shop, and maintenance department, just to name a few, as well as various government agencies and endless contractors. There is even a performing arts program and, of course, art galleries.

It is very gratifying to work here, to curate, to facilitate, and to be able to present art to so many people. Nearly 32 million people annually, literally tens of thousands of people each day from around the world, get to see Philadelphia’s abundant creativity.

We receive a lot of feedback from passengers who write to us via email, fill out our survey form, or contact the artists directly. They are very thankful for the thoughtful visual stimulation, and are well aware that the exhibitions exceed normal airport operations. Many exchange personal stories about how they were affected by an artist’s work. I am always inspired when I see passengers engaged with an exhibition or a particular work of art because it is something that they didn’t expect to see and in some way they have been touched by it.

One passenger wrote that she was returning home from Nantucket and in the midst of a six-hour layover in Philadelphia. She was emotional after just saying goodbye to her two grown sons. Wandering through the Airport, she came upon a group of photographs by Philadelphian photographer Judy Gelles, entitled “Family Portrait, 1977-1982.” It was a series of black-and-white photos documenting ordinary activities of family life which included raising two boys—middle of the night feedings, toilet training, messy rooms, doing dishes, and so forth—all from the mother’s perspective.  Each photo was accompanied by the artist’s handwritten journal entries that were very personal, often humorous, timeless, and universal all at the same time.

The passenger saw her own life experiences unfolding as she viewed the images and read through the text. She described her various reactions, but ultimately she had needed to run to the ladies room to compose herself. It is this type of intimate, human exchange that seems all the more remarkable given that it is within a very public and unexpected place like the Airport.

In contrast to many of my colleagues who run cultural organizations, I don’t have to worry about how to get people in the door, because they are already here. My main challenge is to identify artists whose work I think will appeal to people who don’t think they are interested in art, as well as those involved in the arts and of course everyone in between. I have become more broad-minded as I attempt to present what I think is the right mix. I describe it as partly familiar, partly tweaked. And within that mix, I hope passengers find an exhibit or two that they can identify with as they meander around the terminals waiting for their flights.

I am thankful that the Philadelphia region has such a large pool of talented artists that I can work with. After ten years and over 200 exhibitions, it still seems like there are endless possibilities.

Philadelphia International Airport Art & Exhibitions