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Exploring Philadelphia's public art hotspots

The popular Canadian tourist destination is a treasure trove of free art

  • May 25, 2016
  • 948 words
  • 4 minutes
Photo: M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia Expand Image

Walking west on Market Street towards Philadelphia’s City Hall, my eye is drawn to the statue of William Penn perched atop the tower, watching over the city he founded. The bronze statue by Scottish-American sculptor Alexander Milne Calder looks small compared to the soaring skyscrapers around it, but when it was installed at the tower’s apex in 1894, the 11-metre tall, 24-ton Penn made city hall the tallest building in Philadelphia. It remains one of the city’s most prominent landmarks and, along with more than 250 other statues at City Hall (most of them by Calder), one of the city’s earliest examples of public art.

Today Philadelphia has one of the largest public art collections in the United States thanks to organizations such as the Association for Public Art, which since 1872 has been dedicated to preserving, commissioning and interpreting free art in the city, and the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, America’s largest public art program that commissions 50 to 100 public art projects in the city each year. There are thousands of sculptures, gardens, installations and murals throughout the city, and what better time to explore the popular Canadian tourist destination’s so-called “museum without walls” than this summer? Here are some of the many public art spots worth exploring.

Dream Garden

Housed in the lobby of an inconspicuous office building on Walnut Street across from Washington Square is the ethereal 4.5-metre by 15-metre Tiffany glass mosaic of Dream Garden, a painting by American artist and Philadelphia native Maxfield Parrish. The gorgeous mosaic comprised of 24 panels was commissioned Cyprus Curtis, publisher of The Saturday Evening Post formerly headquartered in the building, and has been on display since 1916.

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(Photo: G. Widman for Visit Philadelphia™)

Philadelphia Chinese Lantern Festival

Until June 12, downtown Philadelphia’s Franklin Square is adorned with 28 lantern displays for the first-ever Chinese Lantern Festival held in the region. Each lantern, including a 61-metre-long dragon and a three-story pagoda, is constructed by artisans from China and are free to view before 5 p.m. However the real show happens each night from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. (tickets are $17 US for adults) when the lanterns are illuminated with more than 15,000 LED lights.

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(Photo: Jeff Fusco for Tianyu)


Across the street from City Hall is American artist Claes Oldenburg’s 1976 steel Clothespin. At 45-feet tall, the modern and whimsical statue is meant to resemble the two bodies intertwined in Constantin Brancusi’s popular sculpture, The Kiss (which can be found at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on nearby Benjamin Franklin Parkway). Check out this piece on one of the Association for Public Art’s free walking tours, including an audio tour of the 51 sculptures and 35 pieces of public art on Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Kelley Drive in the city’s downtown core.

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“Clothespin (1976) by Claes Oldenburg. (Photo: Caitlin Martin © 2013, courtesy Association for Public Art)

LOVE statue and Philadelphia Museum of Art

The subject of millions of tourist photos and instagrams, it is fitting that the City of Brotherly Love’s most popular public artwork is the LOVE statue. The pop art sculpture of Robert Indiana’s four-letter artwork was installed in 1976 and currently sits in Dilworth Park in front of City Hall, while its famous namesake park undergoes construction. Until July 31, see Indiana’s follow-up AMOR statue at the entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While you’re there, be sure to check out the bronze statue of Rocky Balboa at the bottom of the museum’s steps, then run up the famous Rocky steps themselves.

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(Photo: M. Fischetti for Visit Philadelphia™)

Magic Gardens

Visit the trendy South Street neighbourhood to see local artist Isaiah Zagar’s mosaic creations about the size of half a city block. Zagar began tiling the street in the 1960s and has since created the maze-like Magic Gardens out of cement, ceramic, glass and even bicycle spokes. While Magic Gardens charges admission (adults pay US$10), there are more than 100 of Zagar’s mosaics adorning Philadelphia that are free to view, and most of them are found in the South Street neighbourhood.

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(Photo: R. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia™)

Mural Mile Walking Tour

While not a specific piece of art, the Mural Mile Walking Tour offered by the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program allows visitors to explore “the world’s largest art gallery on foot” all within a few downtown blocks. There are two options to choose from, the Mural Mile North or south, each with 13 to 15 murals. The tour costs US$22 per person and includes information about different Philadelphia neighbourhoods, the themes of each mural and more. If you’d like to do the tour yourself, there are free numbered maps available on the program’s website.

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“Philadelphia Muses by Meg Saligman(Photo: K. Ciappa for Visit Philadelphia™)


Located in Philadelphia’s 9,200-acre Fairmont, artist Jody Pinto’s steel Fingerspan Bridge in the Wissahickon section of the park, about 20 kilometres northwest of downtown, resembles a bent finger, right down to a fingernail at one end. Pinto created the functional artwork spanning a gorge to underline the physical connection between our bodies and the natural world. The bridge is made of weathering steel, meant to rust over time, with a perforated steel covering.

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Fingerspan (1987) by Jody Pinto. (Photo: Wayne Cozzolino © 1994, courtesy Association for Public Art)

For more highlights of Philadelphia, go to


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