See more of the story

A little-known Minnesota nonprofit works behind the scenes to ensure that the Twin Cities’ front door — Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport — looks and feels inviting to the millions that pass through it every year.

The Airport Foundation partners closely with MSP’s operator, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), to deploy hundreds of trained volunteers, display local art and showcase musicians at both its terminals.

Its mission: Sell Minnesota as a welcoming, innovative and quality place to visit and maybe even live.

“Forty percent of passengers who come to the airport never leave the airport. They are connecting,” said Jana Webster, the foundation’s executive director. “It’s an opportunity you have with a captive audience. You have a chance to give them a taste of the region. We want people to come to the airport and know they are in Minnesota.”

Webster said the foundation and MAC anticipate spending as much as $7 million on art and cultural events in the next five years, including the installation of larger-than-life mosaics by local artists at each of the airport’s 140 paired bathrooms. About a dozen mosaics already are installed and on display.

And the Airport Foundation is planning special offerings for Super Bowl visitors, highlighted by a 10-day “Performing Arts Spectacular” that includes Irish dancers, American Indian drummers and Bollywood-style performers.

A full cadre of so-called “animal ambassadors” and their handlers will be at MSP to provide some comfort to traveling fans. And the foundation’s pool of 500 volunteers will be at full strength to offer directions and lend a hand, along with several hundred Super Bowl Host Committee volunteers.

About 40 million travelers annually pass through MSP, eight times the number of people who live in Minnesota.

“Airports are the economic engine of their regions. They are the gateway to the world,” Webster said.

The personal touch

The Airport Foundation was started in 1982 by state and business leaders, including then-Gov. Rudy Perpich, media mogul Stan Hubbard and banker and future Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad. Today it has an annual operating budget of about $2 million.

While the Federal Aviation Administration places some restrictions on what the MAC can do, the foundation created a way for businesses and other stakeholders to promote the airport, Webster said.

The MAC contracts with the foundation to provide programming, including travelers’ assistance and its arts and culture program. The foundation runs charitable gaming and sells lottery tickets at the airport, another source of funding; businesses also contribute.

Brian Ryks, the MAC’s executive director and CEO, praised the foundation’s work with travelers’ assistance.

“It’s a valuable program. For the airport, it’s really about the personal touch,” he said.

The foundation oversees an arts and culture program started in 2006 called Arts@MSP, which includes commissioned art, rotating exhibits and performing art. The MAC provides space for the art and funds much of it through Minnesota’s 1984 “Percent for Art” legislation, which allows state building projects with construction or renovation budgets of more than $500,000 to use up to 1 percent of the total construction budget to buy or commission original art.

Webster said the foundation provides work and international exposure for Minnesota artists, arts groups and musicians. Professional pianists, guitarists and harpists perform at MSP year-round.

Pat Carlson retired as a flight attendant after 42 years but then decided to return to the airport as a harpist. She’s played for the Airport Foundation for the past 12 years.

“When I play the harp, I have 10 to 12 people each day come up and say, ‘Thank you. I needed that.’ They say the harp music mellows them out and settles them down,” Carlson said. “It’s like a ministry being here. It’s great.”

Last week, the foundation and the MAC joined with the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas to open a Holocaust survivor photo exhibition titled “Transfer of Memory.”

Tessa Wegenki, the foundation’s arts and culture coordinator, recently showed off new mosaics created by Minnesota artists. They feature a variety of landscapes and cultures, not just typical images associated with the state.

“We are not just loons and lakes in Minnesota,” said Wegenki, who is also an opera singer. “But they all come back to Minnesota in some way, shape or form.”

Webster said the foundation has started planning for the installation of a large three-dimensional work of art that could be viewed on multiple levels of the main terminal in hopes that it will become an MSP icon.

Inspiration, she said, came from the Jade Canoe sculpture at Vancouver International Airport in British Columbia — so renowned that it appeared on the Canadian $20 bill from 2004 until 2012.

More than window dressing

Volunteers for the Airport Foundation find it to be a demanding gig, yet Webster said they have an annual 96 percent retention rate.

Judy Johnson, a retired school registrar from Bloomington, has volunteered at MSP for nine years. On a recent afternoon, she helped a family with small children find their way to the right gate and directed them to a few sit-down restaurants.

“I enjoy helping people,” she said.

Phil Burke, director of MSP operations, said the caliber of volunteers the foundation recruits is impressive.

“They are retired CEOs or they are business professionals,” Burke said. “It’s people that want to stay engaged and be busy.”

Carlson said the foundation has her booked during Super Bowl weekend in early February. “It will be a music and dance holiday here throughout the Super Bowl, ”she said.

To some, what the Airport Foundation does might seem like window dressing. But that first impression made on people when they walk off the jetway matters, Webster said.

“Regions live and die by airports,” she said. “If we didn’t have this airport, we wouldn’t be hosting the Super Bowl. If we didn’t have this airport, we would not have 20 Fortune 500 companies.”

shannon.prather@startribune.com 612-673-4804