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A look at one of the biggest airport art programs at Sky Harbor

There’s no shortage of places to see art around the Valley, from museums to galleries to outdoor murals — but, not many include a train to get from exhibit to exhibit.

In addition to being one of the busiest airports in the country, Gary Martelli says Sky Harbor International Airport also has one of the biggest airport art programs in the country.

He’s the Phoenix Airport Museum director and has been there for more than two decades.

Martelli says Sky Harbor has an art tradition dating back to the 1960s, with the mural "The Phoenix," which was commissioned when Terminal 2 opened in 1962. When Terminal 3 opened in 1979, he says it was designed with art in mind. And, starting in 1986, the program known as "percent for arts" meant any capital improvement in the city can use up to 1% of the construction money for art.

He says Sky Harbor now has a permanent collection of more than a thousand works.

Some are part of exhibits in dedicated galleries in Terminals 3 and 4, while others are sprinkled around the concourses in smaller displays.

When visitors do look around, they’ll see paintings, sculpture, fiber art and drawings. But, there are also more architectural works, like murals and terrazzo floors.

According to Martelli, promoting Arizona art and artists does not just mean southwestern imagery and sunsets. The Show met him recently in the gallery space in Terminal 4 — he says it’s the biggest, most popular exhibit space. And, he told The Show that artists’ opinions about having their work shown in the airport have changed over the years.

Martelli mentioned that most of the art at Sky Harbor is pre-security — meaning many visitors are hustling to get something to eat and get through security so they’re on-time for boarding their flights. That could also mean they don’t necessarily have time to peruse an art gallery.

Martelli says the airport doesn’t keep track of exactly how many people check out the art. But, he says there are brochures, which can serve as a way to determine how popular an exhibit is: the more brochures taken, the more people probably saw it.

There are displays throughout Terminal 4 detailing aviation history. There are some fine art prints that were donated to the collection. Some ceramics. Mosaic columns that were part of the terminal when it opened in the early '90s. And, photographs from Route 66 complete with a cutout of a Woody station wagon, which Martelli says makes for a perfect photo op.

And then, there’s the SkyTrain.

There, we see a stained glass mural stretching more than 100 feet long, and pretty close from floor to ceiling. It’s impressions of leaves from trees from around the state that’ve been enlarged.

And when we get to the SkyTrain platform itself, there’s another piece of art — if you look down.

If you’re in Terminal 3, you can see an eight-foot wooden sphere, or a sculpture garden.

And, about that original mural, The Phoenix? Martelli says it’s now at the rental car center. He says all of the displays aren’t just good for the artists, but for travelers, as well.

Martelli says nothing stays the same at an airport, and that that’s also true for the art on display. Like a traditional museum, he says, only a fraction of the overall collection is on display at any given time. The current exhibit in the main gallery space, called Diversity in the Desert, will be up through mid-August 2024.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.