Murals, mosaics, sculptures – public art is everywhere in Philadelphia.
All around Philly, but especially around the South Street area, you encounter the mirrored mosaics of Philly artist Isaiah Zager. Beginning in the late 1960’s, Zager and his wife embarked on a mission to beautify South Street by covering buildings with mosaics made from custom tiles and found objects. Starting with their own folk art gallery (the Eyes Gallery at 402 South Street), today there are over 200 murals. You can put together your own walking tour using this map (https://www.phillymagicgardens.org/about-us/mosaic-mural-map/).
Ground zero for Zagar’s mosaics is Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens (these photos do not do the space justice). Originally a vacant lot next to his studio, Zager covered the space with his murals – adding walls, and eventually excavating to create a multi-level space.
When the owners of the lot threatened demolition, the community rallied, purchasing the land and founding a non-profit to protect the site. The Magic Gardens opened to the public in 2008. In addition to being a great spot to simply spend time wandering, they have an indoor gallery and offer special programs, including walking tours, art making, and music evenings. It can get very busy, so try to time your visit off peak. It’s not as much fun when stuffed with people. A few blocks away is locally owned Function Coffee Labs, where you can enjoy your latte next to a Zager mural (1001 S. 10th Street):
One of Philly’s nicknames is the “Mural Capital of the World,” thanks to Philadelphia’s Mural Arts program, the largest public art program in the country. A non-profit, whose mission is to bring communities together – they sponsor 60-100 art projects each year, linking artists with community groups, students, parolees & inmates in the criminal justice system, as well as those dealing with mental health issues. Since they have created over 3,600 murals throughout the city, any visitor to Philadelphia will come across their works, but if you’d like more, you can join one of their guided programs or do a self guided tour: https://map.muralarts.org/tours. One of their most popular is the “Love Letter” series of murals: “Love Letters” – An Artist’s Gift to Philadelphia
As for all the sculpture you see while wandering the city? Philadelphia is home to The Association for Public Art. Established in 1872 as the nation’s first nonprofit dedicated integrating public art and urban design, today they commission, preserve and interpret a “museum without walls” of more than 200 artworks. Pieces range from traditional
to modern and contemporary works:
Philadelphia is home to the largest collection of Claes Oldenbury’s works. Plug, Paintbrush and Clothespin are in Center City. Button is on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania:
You can access a list of works on their website, and download several walking/biking tours: https://www.associationforpublicart.org/tours/. For more information about each artwork, dial 215-339-9000 and enter the piece# from the sign for the Museum Without Walls audio guide.
There are many reasons why Philadelphia is such a great town for public art – the diverse art community and the non-profits that support their work, the world class art museums and art schools, the galleries… and the city itself. In 1959, Philadelphia became the first city in the U.S. to require developers to allocate a percentage of construction cost to public art. Today, developers must spend 1% of their construction budget on art. So, in addition to purchasing work, companies will often commission custom pieces. These can be viewed in courtyards and atriums throughout the city, such as these pieces from Comcast 1 and 2: