An airport can be something of a welcome mat to a city, one that gives you a feel for what, if any, kind of distinctive cultural experience you’ve got coming on your visit there. Some airports, however, simply can’t do it. DFW, for example, has no character at all: Upon arriving there (apart from the gift shops bursting with Dallas and Texas merchandise), one doesn’t find any cultural cues to let you know you’re in Texas, let alone in a particular major city.
Smaller airports often do this much better. I was in New Orleans last week and it took only a few moments in the airport terminal before I knew I was in the birthplace of Louis Armstrong and American jazz. Coming through the sound system was not the bland pop music that one often hears at airports but Armstrong’s distinctive trumpet. I heard at least two full songs of his before I got to the baggage claim, and they were followed by more New Orleans jazz tunes.
The airport certainly wasn’t flashy or impressive compared to newer ones. Indeed, most of its facilities and architecture seemed quite dated, but the effect of the music was powerful: It rooted you instantly where you were.
Moreover, photographs and displays throughout the airport depict not only world-famous people like Armstrong, but numerous lesser-known figures in the jazz world like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, which made the first recordings ever of jazz in 1917. Here in Texas, the only airport that I know that comes close to this is the one in Austin, and it does it pretty well, to the point of having a live music stage that’s regularly occupied.
While in New Orleans, I visited a couple of art galleries and found similar examples of visual art with a distinctive flavor rooting it in a place almost as thoroughly as does the city’s music. “New Orleans is my home, from the brass bands and music that fills our streets, to the smiles of people in the street,” said artist Darrin Butler, whose work I saw in a show at the Brand Art Gallery a block or two from my hotel. (The gallery focuses specifically on artists from the region.) “There is a diversity that lives here that doesn’t live in many other places,” Butler added. “I strive for all of these things to be reflected in my work.”
Examples like these speak to the power that some art has to identify with a specific spot in a chaotic world. Places with such an art are fortunate. Cities often capitalize on these distinctive art styles for the sake of tourism, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s an acknowledgement of art’s power, in fact, whether cities really understand this or not. It could be Armstrong in New Orleans or Willie Nelson in Austin. The art of both has a special relationship with one particular place to which it gives color and depth unlike any other location.
A singular piece like Waco’s trail drive sculpture can be an effective focal point for locals and tourists alike, but is best thought of as a core around which to build more: a memorable piece, but one that is part of a larger ensemble, not just a solo act.