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RDU board approves artwork, but chairman decries it

A $300,000 sculpture called “Highwire Travelers” was approved Thursday for Terminal 1 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport – but in a split vote, after two board members complained that the art would frighten airport visitors.

“I don’t want people in the airport thinking, ‘Wow, that’s dangerous,’ ” said former Raleigh City Council member Geoff Elting, the RDU Airport Authority vice chairman.

Travelers waiting for their luggage will see seven human figures suspended overhead in the high-ceilinged baggage claim room at Terminal 1, scheduled to reopen next spring after a $68 million renovation. The work by artist Gordon Huether of Napa, Calif., depicts figures seated on window sills and a support beam, and two tightrope walkers who dangle suitcases from the ends of their balance poles.

Several board members lauded Huether’s work as engaging and lighthearted.

“I just got back from Disney World, and this art fits that model,” said board member Farad Ali of Durham. “My kids enjoyed it, and I enjoyed it. I saw Mickey flying in the air, and I didn’t think he was going to fall.”

But Tommy Hunt, a former Durham County commissioner who chairs the RDU board, was scathing in his objections.

“I do know what I like in artwork,” Hunt said. “I feel we should have artwork that means something to us as individuals and is in tune with things that take place at our airport and in our lives.”

Hunt proposed images of people sad to see loved ones departing the airport, or happy to see them return. He said he likes the bronze figures of children frolicking in fountains at the Streets at Southpoint mall in Durham.

“They’ve got umbrellas, kicking the water around and so on. It’s happy scenes. And I want artwork that I understand,” Hunt said. “I’m going to vote against this particular piece of artwork. ... I don’t really consider it artwork.”

Public art has occasionally sparked controversy around the Triangle in recent years. State government workers griped about a sound sculpture in the Revenue Building and a cacophony of written messages on the Education Building in the 1980s, and Raleigh politicians argued in the 1990s about the Light + Time Tower erected on the median of Capital Boulevard. In 2006, Raleigh city officials rejected the artist’s design for a $2.5 million light-and-water sculpture for Fayetteville Street, and broadcast executive Jim Goodmon revoked his offer to pay for it.

“I think controversy about art is actually quite good,” airport board member John Kane said Thursday.

Huether, 54, has won about 60 public art commissions at airports and other sites across the country. He had heard about objections from Hunt and Elting in recent weeks, and he was pleased to learn that the airport board finally approved his work in a 6-2 vote.

“I don’t think we really want art in public spaces that is kind of milquetoast,” Huether said by telephone. “Most air travel is not at all that enjoyable, to tell you the truth, so my goal is to make it a more interesting and positive experience. I hope the travelers are all going to love it and that it will be a cherished part of the RDU public art collection.”

“Highwire Travelers” was the last of three art works approved for Terminal 1. A screening committee began work two years ago with proposals from 135 artists.

Huether was one of three finalists challenged a year ago to create something overhead in the baggage room without attaching it to the ceiling, the floor or the walls’ wood paneling. The judges rejected two proposals described Thursday as autumn-color leaves made of aluminum, and a big green glass pickle.

They chose Huether’s travelers.

“It’s family-friendly,” said Cheryl Stewart of Greensboro, RDU’s public art consultant since 1999. “It’s kid-oriented. And it’s not duplicated in any other airport, as far as I know, in the world.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier
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