SFO Airport Curator

Abe Garfield helps make the exhibitions at San Francisco's airport worth the trip.

Curator Abe Garfield and SFO exhibit

Curator Abe Garfield and SFO exhibit.

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On a misty morning, as travelers hurry through San Francisco International Airport, one man pauses to inspect a map. Abe Garfield isn't lost, and even if he were, this map wouldn't help him much. Drawn in 1782, it depicts North America as seen by French explorers: A stretch of southern coastline resembles the Florida peninsula; an inland sea in the northwest splits the continent.

"These give us an interesting glimpse of how the world was viewed at a different time" Garfield says. He gestures at another map, one showing California as an island, a common notion 300 years ago. "Well," he says, smiling, "I suppose there are people who still regard California as an island today."

With that, he moves on to a display of teapots. In any given week, Garfield logs more hours at SFO than the most frequent of fliers. He's not involved with the takeoffs and arrivals—but he likes to improve the way people spend their time waiting for them.

At 53, Garfield is the curator of exhibitions at the San Francisco Airport Museums. A pioneering program begun in 1980, it was the brainchild of Elsa Cameron, then curator of education at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The idea was to make the time that travelers spend at the airport entertaining and engaging while contributing to a positive impression of San Francisco.

"It's a wonderful program run by people who know how to capture the attention of those who have a lot of things on their mind other than art," says Susan Pontious, deputy program director at the San Francisco Arts Commission. "They are the kind of exhibits that merit a trip to the airport even if you don't have to catch a flight."

Although other arts programs have since emerged at airports around the country, SFO's remains among the most ambitious, and it is the only one accredited by the American Association of Museums. In a dozen spaces throughout SFO's four terminals, Garfield and his colleagues mount shows ranging form Egyptian artifacts to White House china, from Roman marbles to colonial maps.

Garfield was raised in a Massachusetts family with closer ties to politics than to museums: One great-grand-father James Garfield was the country's 20th president. Abe Garfield views his pedigree with some detachment. "He was not a major player," he says of his ancestor. "Today, most people think of Garfield the cat."

After attending Boston University, where he studied both Renaissance art and religion, Garfield migrated to San Francisco, landing a job at the airport in 1986. At that time, the program was regarded with skepticism by many curators, but it soon gained respect. "I've had collectors ask, ‘How can you do justice to my collection in an airport?'" Garfield says. "Then they see what actually goes on here and they realize we can."

Airport museum curators face different pitfalls—and different possibilities—from those at conventional museums. Garfield does play to a built-in audience (93,000 people move through the airport on an average day), but he seldom knows how much that audience cares. "One way to tell is by talking with the custodians," he says. "They tell me how many smudges they have to clean off the glass."

Exhibits must be interesting to travelers who just breeze through the terminal, but absorbing enough to satisfy those trapped in a long delay. Subjects vary widely (Japanese folk art, the history of cuisine), but certain topics, such as war and drugs, are off-limits. Despite the precautions, boundaries are hard to gauge. An exhibition of neckties drew fire on the grounds that it was, in the opinion of some critics, too malecentric.

Travelers can see most displays before passing through security checkpoints, but the largest are in the United Airlines corridor beyond the metal detectors. One recent morning Garfield strolled through the United area, admiring an exhibit on the Hetch Hetchy Valley, now a huge and controversial reservoir. A few paces ahead, a man with a carry-on slung over his shoulder had stopped beside a picture of the reservoir's dam. Garfield looked pleased. The moment reminded him of a letter he received from a man in France, complimenting the museum on an exhibit about bookbinding. "The man wound up getting so engrossed that he missed his flight," Garfield said. "But he made a point of telling us, ‘It was worth it.' "

This article was first published in September 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

If You're Going: 

At any given time, the four terminals at SFO house some 20 temporary exhibits; most are accessible without a ticket. In addition to the changing exhibits, many works of art are on permanent display throughout the airport. For information, call (650) 821-6700 or visit www.sfoarts.org.

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