I'm Still Angry There's Not a Mural of Bacon in Space at Miami's Airport

Throughout the history of any city, plenty of people have lots of ideas about how to improve and enrich the town. Of the few ideas that are realized, we cherish the good and learn to live with the bad. Of the many that are never implemented, most are long forgotten. 

However, some linger — amazing ones that come close to becoming reality but are controversially dashed at the last minute. Those are just frustrating. Those are the ones that haunt us. 

One such hauntingly unrealized idea was a mural depicting bacon floating in space that would be placed in the permanent art collection of Miami International Airport. 

I know what you're thinking: Wait, wait, hold up a second. There was almost a mural of bacon in space at MIA? 

Yes. Yes, there was. In 1980, that was the plan. 

And you're saying it would have been a great idea? 

Yes, it probably would have been among the most important artworks displayed in any airport in the world. 

So why didn't it happen? 

Well, a former astronaut at the time didn't like it. He had gone to space. He had never seen bacon in space. He didn't like the mural. He also happened to be the president of a major airline headquartered at MIA, and he got his way. 

Of course, describing the mural as one of "bacon in space" is sort of underselling it. It's a 46-foot-wide, 17-foot-tall piece titled Star Thief, by James Rosenquist. He's one of the original pop artists and perhaps the best figurative painter among them. A former billboard painter, he's best known for his candy-colored depictions of objects arranged in surreal formation. Incidentally, he has also been a resident of Florida for the past 30 years and keeps his studios in Hernando County. 

In the late '70s and '80s, Miami-Dade's Art in Public Places program was notably aggressive in hunting down works to display at county venues. A county ordinance mandated that 1.5 percent of the budget for any public building constructed be used for the purchase of art. The board of local art experts offered to buy Star Thief for $285,000 and planned to hang it in the Eastern Airlines terminal at MIA. 

Word of the plan, however, got to Frank Borman, president of Eastern and commander of the Apollo 8 space mission. According to Rosenquist's autobiography, Borman was shown a picture of the painting, but because the photo was taken at an angle, the bacon appeared to be the dominant feature. 

The story goes that Borman blurted out, "I've been in space, and I can assure you there is no bacon in space." 

Borman didn't like — or understand — the painting and took his frustration public.

"I have had some exposure to space flight, and I can tell you without equivocation, there is not, in my mind, any correlation, spiritual or material, between the artist's depiction and the real thing," he wrote in a letter to the Miami-Dade County Commission. 

Perhaps adding to Borman's frustration was his airline's financial struggle. He would engineer the sale of Eastern a few years later, and the airline ceased to exist in 1991. 

The controversy soon grew countywide and piqued national attention. How could it not? It was a battle between lovers of modern art and a bonafide American space hero with a very Ron Swanson view of an artwork that happened to depict bacon. 

The Art in Public Places board members were miffed. 

"They're getting a masterpiece in the Rosenquist, and they ought to know it,'' Dahlia Morgan, chairman of the Art in Public Places Committee, told the New York Times

Borman, however, also thought Art in Public Places should be shut down. 

Eventually, the county decided not to purchase Rosenquist's piece and restructured the public art program. 

The painting was sold to a private dealer instead. In 1997, it sold for $2 million and now hangs in the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany. 

It can only be worth more today. Star Thief ended up signifying a midcareer shift in Rosenquist's work and is viewed as an important part of his oeuvre. It's the kind of piece included in numerous modern-art history books. The Guggenheim Foundation's website has instructions on how to teach kids about the piece. 

Certainly, it would have impressed all the art-world movers and shakers visiting Miami for Art Basel every year. 

Miami International Airport's art collection is still generally viewed favorably. Any "best art in airports" article includes MIA. However, the acquisition of the Rosenquist might have cemented it as number one.

Years later, Rosenquist wrote in his autobiography that maybe it all worked out for the best. 

"It was probably just as well that it didn't end up where they wanted to put it," he wrote in Painting in Zero Gravity. "It would have been a fleeting decoration that distracted passengers would glance at as they were passing through. I'm not sure that would have been the best place for my painting." 

That may be true, but I'm not traveling to Cologne anytime soon, and I'm still angry that Star Thief is not in our airport. 

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