Definition of Public Art

The Pollinators mural, Lawrenceville, Kansas. Robert Hickerson/

Public art includes any work displayed within public spaces, with the goal of being accessible to everyone. It could be a major exhibit featuring numerous pieces or a smaller one. Many types of art can be considered public, ranging from buildings to graffiti.

Why Make Art Public?

The idea of creating or displaying public art often stems from the philosophy that all people should have access to art. If art enriches life and helps people to think critically about social issues, it follows that art should be made public. Many other reasons prompt people to make art public, such as involving the audience in the artwork, for instance. Rather than viewing it in an austere museum setting, it becomes part of the community, and the community could become part of the art, interacting with it instead of just looking.

Sculpture as Public Art

Sculpture has been a prominent form of public art for thousands of years. From ancient times to today, people have carved statues and placed them around their cities and palaces. (The Great Sphinx is a piece of public art that remains popular today.)

Many cities have sculpture gardens featuring work by numerous artists, and they sometimes display sculpture within city parks. Sometimes public sculpture is sold as a fundraiser. In Norfolk, Virginia, mermaid sculptures have been displayed (and sold) around the city in its Mermaids on Parade campaign, which benefits arts programs in the area. Duncan, British Columbia, and many other cities in the area display totem poles carved by First Nations artists, raising awareness of and appreciation for their cultures.


Murals have become one of the most popular forms of public art. Many community arts projects have allowed people to express their feelings and ideas through collaborative murals that also beautify the community.

Through murals, artists can also reach people who might not ordinarily step into an art museum. Their sheer size and vivid colors often cause people to stop and look at them. They might tell a story about a neighborhood or a city, helping people to connect with the past and take pride in where they live.

Whatever the artist's intent, murals can improve the aesthetics of an urban environment. The community of Edgewater in Chicago boasts a beautiful bricolage (mosaic mural) of outdoor scenes, created by a lead artist in conjunction with a team of apprentices and other community members, including children.

Support for Public Art

Many cities allot funding to public art. In fact, some specify that a percentage of the city's total building costs (often 1 percent) will be used to create public art. Artists can also apply for grants to support their projects. These might be grants specifically for public art or grants to support a wide range of art projects.

In New York City, for instance, the Public Art Fund commissions projects by established artists as well as public displays of previously created exhibits. Many other cities, such as Cleveland, Indianapolis, St. Paul and Philadelphia have public arts programs as well.

Study Programs

Some universities offer programs in public art. Although an artist can be successful without completing such a program, it provides valuable experience and insight to an aspiring public artist. You'll find links to such programs, such as those run by Arizona State University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, at the Public Art Network website (under References).