Three local programs – the Association for Public Art, Percent for Art and Mural Arts Philadelphia – are national leaders in creating, growing, maintaining, and promoting publicly-accessible art.
Stroll through Philadelphia to see sculpture, architecture, mosaics and murals as well as unofficial street art, including elaborate yarn installations and Toynbee tiles embedded in certain stretches of sidewalk. Some of the city’s works – including the statue of fictional hometown boxer Rocky and Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture – are well known. But there are thousands more pieces to admire, thanks to an investment that Philadelphia has made in making art available for all to access.
Explore Philadelphia’s public art:
The Association for Public Art
The aPA was founded in Philadelphia in 1872, making it the country’s first private entity dedicated to public art. The association commissions original works and helps artists and community groups work together to create new pieces for individual neighborhoods. It also champions public art and provides interpretations of works.
Museum Without Walls: AUDIO is an interactive guide to sculpture in Center City and Fairmount Park. Signs in front of certain works help connect visitors via cell phone, mobile app or download to recorded interviews that provide cultural and personal connections to the art; details about the artists and their processes; history surrounding the works and what they represent; and information on why the pieces were commissioned and how they came to be installed in specific areas.
The aPA has guides that allow visitors to explore sculptures of a certain theme such as African Americans, politics, women, the animal kingdom and equestrian. Fans of individual artists can also find information on where to find their works. Those with multiple pieces of sculpture in the city include the Calder family, Claes Oldenburg and Paul Manship.
The Association for Public Art has also created six self-guided walking/biking tours – of the area around the Fairmount Park Horticultural Center; along Benjamin Franklin Parkway; around the Philadelphia Museum of Art; along Kelly Drive; and around Rittenhouse. All of the tours, available on the association’s website, are free to download or access.
Percent for Art
In 1959, Philadelphia became the first city in the nation to require most property developers to dedicate a percentage (about 1 percent) project’s construction budget to the commission a new piece of art. The policy challenges developers to help residents view familiar places in a different light. The result is more than 650 works that can be found in every corner of the city and include sculptures on public streets, installations hanging from ceilings in public and private buildings, paintings that brighten underground subway stations and unusual light displays.
The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy has published A Guide to Philadelphia’s Public Art, an abbreviated walking guide, which can be found online for free or for sale in City Hall’s Visitor’s Center (Room 101). The office also maintains exhibition spaces in City Hall that are free and open to the public.
Mural Arts Philadelphia
Mural Arts Philadelphia is the nation’s largest public art program, responsible for more than 4,000 colorful art works. The initiative began as the Anti-Graffiti Network in 1984, helmed by artist/educator Jane Golden. The plan was to partner with local graffiti artists and offer them ways to use their skills in a positive way. It was an immediate success, and Golden, who is now MAP’s executive director, realized that art could promote change.
Under Golden’s leadership, Mural Arts Philadelphia has grown from a simple beautification project to an internationally-recognized art program offering education, rehabilitation and restorative justice programs. About 100 new art works are created each year, most being collaborative with residents invited to join the artists on paint days. The program also works with incarcerated adults and juveniles.
Take a guided public tour on foot, via Segway or by trolley for a fee or take a free self-guided tour provided on Mural Arts Philadelphia’s website. Private tours can also be arranged. Among the most popular tour options is the Love Letter Train tour, centering on Steve Powers’ “A Love Letter for You” installation, which includes rooftop murals in West Philadelphia best seen via elevated subway train.
Cover photo of Swann Memorial Fountain (1924) by Alexander Stirling Calder (1870 – 1945), in Philadelphia’s Logan Square. Photo licensed via Adobe Photo Stock.