Atlanta artist Joe Peragine was dismayed when a friend called him recently to tell him she saw his artwork being removed from the baggage claim area at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where it has hung since 2001. Peragine’s popular sculpture installation Brute Neighbors features approximately 200 ants crawling up the wall along the ceiling. According to Peragine, his friend asked one of the workers removing the ants what was going on. The purported response was that the art had scared a child and had to be removed.
This event is another example of airport officials from outside the Art at the Airport program mishandling commissioned artwork at the expense of its own integrity. Last year, Deborah Whitehouse’s iconic Spirit of Atlanta mural, installed at the top of the escalator as you leave the secured area and enter baggage claim, was covered by an advertisement. Whitehouse’s work used to welcome 30 million people a year, until an ad for Porsche took over the space. Does Peragine’s experience represent a trend in putting business before art at the Atlanta airport, or is this all a big misunderstanding?
Peragine’s ants are each approximately 8 inches high and 12 inches long, coated in automotive paint. They crawled along the walls and ceiling and into a hole. They were installed in the Atlanta Airport just a few months before 9/11. Peragine says at the time of the work’s installation, there was concern from businesses that this was too scary a piece for an airport. Peragine says that in the 15 years since, business interests have been very vocal in criticizing the placement of this work and, he says, polls have been done to determine if the ants are too scary. Despite this, Peragine says the Airport Art Program has been tremendously supportive of the work—always notifying him whenever the ants needed to be removed so the area could be painted or repaired. But that’s not how things played out this time.
“It seems the Airport Art Program was sidestepped by someone else,” says Peragine. “I know very little about the internal mechanisms behind the removal. There was no communication with me about it this time.”
Reese McCranie, a spokesperson for Hartsfield-Jackson, denies any intention to permanently remove the artwork. McCranie also says that there was no “scared child” causing the ants removal, either.
“We have a $6-billion capital improvement plan, which includes completely renovating the terminal building,” said McCranie via an official statement. “In anticipation of that, engineers needed to get access to the space where the ants were located. They have been taken to a temperature-controlled space while the engineers work.”
McCranie says that other artwork will likely be moved temporarily as part of the renovation of the terminal — a decades-long project — but as of now there’s no word on which specific artworks will be affected. McCranie says the airport will work directly with artists to ensure all artwork is properly handled. The intention, he says, is to find a permanent home for the ants once the engineers are done. They will not be returning to baggage claim. Peragine says he is working with officials to find a new location, but he has some trepidation about where they might end up. Peragine pointed out that the ants are not meant for outdoor installation, which was floated as a more suitable new location for the artwork. According to McCranie, there are no official plans at this time for art or advertising in the space previously occupied by the ants.
“I would like them back where they were originally meant to be. They are not made to be displayed outside,” says Peragine.
McCranie claims that airport officials are not favoring advertising revenue over art: “Our commitment to the arts community has never been stronger and we want to continue our partnership with artists around the world. Having a robust arts program benefits everyone and improves the overall guest experience at Hartsfield-Jackson. In fact, as part of our new $6-billion capital plan, ATL Next, we have budgeted approximately $3 million for art.”
That funding will become active in the next 3-8 years of this project.
“What the airport art program is doing is world class. I would like to see more support of this from the business community in the future,” says Peragine.