Some of America’s most compelling art can’t be found inside museums.
From displaying bright, colorful murals to massive three-dimensional sculptures, communities throughout the United States are home to must-see public art collections. Here are five cities with flourishing public art scenes that are bound to leave your group in awe.
Norfolk, Virginia’s NEON District is home to numerous beautiful murals and a mix of modern and traditional sculptures, with many having an overarching theme. But it also boasts a rather unique artistic attraction: glass blowing at the Chrysler Museum of Art.
“It’s an amazing institution, and they have on their campus a glass-blowing studio that has sparked this interesting art scene based around glass,” said Rachel McCall, director of strategic initiatives for the Downtown Norfolk Council.
Chrysler’s glass collection contains over 10,000 pieces, and its Perry Glass Studio gives guests the chance to see how these beauties are created. Free demonstrations are held at noon Tuesday through Sunday, and visitors can sign up to take part in different hands-on classes.
Guests can gaze upon and learn more about multiple murals and sculptures in the NEON District through the Norfolk Tour Company’s guided walking tours. An example of a stop on the tour is “Bella Bones,” a colorful T. rex mural by Aimee Bruce.
“It’s a really great way to dive in and learn the backstories behind the murals or the artwork,” McCall said.
Plus, a trip to Norfolk would not be complete without a self-guided tour of some of the city’s most iconic sculptures. More than 20 years ago, a local bronze sculptor produced 130 mermaids, which area artists decorated. Today, the community has double that number.
“[We are] known for our mermaid sculptures, and there are dozens and dozens of them all over the city,” said McCall, who added that visitors love to hunt around for them, take photos and choose their favorites.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
It’s hard to turn a corner in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and not catch a glimpse of an artistic creation.
“For many, many decades, Grand Rapids has been in love with artistic things and art in all forms: performing arts, visual arts, sculptures and even architecture,” said Janet Korn, senior vice president of Experience Grand Rapids.
While Grand Rapids isn’t a stranger to the arts, Korn said one piece is known for launching the city’s public art scene: a sculpture by Alexander Calder named “La Grande Vitesse,” meaning “the grand rapids” in French. The city hired Calder to create this 42-ton red masterpiece in 1967 as part of its urban renewal project, and the well-visited artwork remains woven into the city’s fabric.
“It’s really become our iconic piece of sculpture,” Korn said. “It’s part of the city’s logo. It’s on our street signs. It’s on the garbage trucks, but that was really the first piece.”
Walking, running and step-on bus tours of the city’s public art, including “La Grande Vitesse,” can be scheduled through Grand Rapids Running Tours.
The Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, which opened its doors in 1995, also warrants a visit. Guests can take self-guided or docent-led tours through this indoor/outdoor 158-acre campus, where they can feast their eyes on beautiful foliage as well as over 200 pieces of art.
“Because it’s a horticultural place, they do an amazing job of changing the seasonal plants there, and so there’s equal care for the art and horticulture … and how they blend together,” Korn said.
Additionally, in late summer/early fall, Grand Rapids holds ArtPrize, an 18-day international art competition started in 2009, where art is displayed throughout the city — in parks, museums, businesses, galleries and more — for the public to view and cast votes for their favorites.
“It’s the most amazing multigenerational experience I’ve ever seen because it’s so consumable for everyone, from a child in a stroller to a senior citizen in a wheelchair and everything in between,” Korn said.
Monroe-West Monroe, Louisiana
Home to a burgeoning public art scene, Monroe-West Monroe, Louisiana’s various murals and sculptures largely tell the story of its community.
For example, to honor a former area resident, the region boasts a collection of vintage Coca-Cola murals, which were revitalized in 2016.
“Monroe is home to the first bottler of Coca-Cola,” said Sheila Snow, vice president of communications for Discover Monroe-West Monroe. “Joseph Biedenharn lived in Monroe, so we have several Coke murals around town.”
Brightly colored postcard murals that say “Welcome to Monroe” and “Welcome to West Monroe” are also must-see works of art in the region.
“Every letter has a little bit of a representation of something in the area,” said Snow.
Visitors can also learn more about the region by participating in a self-guided “Heron Hunt.” Over 85 heron sculptures, many of which are decorated to represent an aspect of the community, can be found throughout the area. These were created as part of Herons on the Bayou, a public art initiative launched in 2018 to bring artists and the community together. For example, a local pizza joint called Johnny’s Pizza House has a pizza-themed heron.
“I think they do a great job of telling our story and showing people all the different facets of our community,” Snow said.
While Mesa, Arizona’s vibrant public art scene is full of beautiful murals and thought-provoking sculptures, it also offers a number of interactive and immersive pieces.
“I think we have a very robust public art scene,” said Cindy Ornstein, executive director of Mesa Arts Center. “We have a fair amount of art out in the public spaces. But we also have a lot of temporary or event experiences available to the public.”
Mesa Arts Center, which comprises a number of art galleries and a must-see mural by El Mac called “Nuevas Generaciones,” offers Mobile Art-Based Engagement Lab (MABEL), a mobile art studio that allows people to create their own artistic masterpieces.
MABEL is about making the arts accessible, “which at heart is really what public art is all about,” Ornstein said.
While visitors can also sign-up to take a variety of classes such as metal sculpture and drawing/painting at the center, they can find several interactive works of art across the community. These include “The Big Pink Chair” created by Mary Consie and housed outside the i.d.e.a. Museum, which guests can sit on for a photo opportunity; a butterfly mural on Main Street by Kelsey Montague that invites guests to stand between the wings; and “Musical Shadows” at Mesa Arts Center, where tiles in the sidewalk react to people’s shadows by playing different singing tones.
Philadelphia boasts an eclectic public art collection made up of thousands of murals and sculptures dispersed throughout the area. While many are downtown and easy to spot, others are tucked away like hidden gems in neighborhoods.
“In my opinion, Philadelphia is the United States’ public art capital,” said Conrad Benner, founder and editor of Streets Dept, a photo blog that discovers art on the streets of Philadelphia. “It’s not just one organization leading it. It’s many, many, many big and small organizations and businesses.”
One large, well-known sculpture that deserves a visit is the “Clothespin” by Claes Oldenburg, which was installed in 1976. This was commissioned as part of the city’s Percent for Art program, which requires 1% of any construction project that includes city funds to be put toward public art.
The “Clothespin” is part of a self-guided walking tour called Around City Hall where visitors can learn about and view 14 pieces of art. The Association for Public Art offers an online map for this jaunt as well as many other public art routes.
A must-see mural in the area is “Common Threads,” which was created in 1997 by Meg Saligman and recently repainted due to fading. The piece portrays young individuals emulating postures of historical figurines.
“That is really one of the first murals to step away from this sort of ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ kind of mural making,” Benner said, noting the artist created the piece independently of any organization.
A newer piece that’s not out in the open is Miguel Antonio Horn’s “ContraFuerte,” featuring figures holding up a bridge on Cuthbert Street.
“It’s not a place you would expect to find public art,” said Benner. “A lot of the most beloved pieces now are tucked away and [when] found bring surprise and delight.”