Story: Public and street art

Page 1. Public art

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Public art is any form of art that is located in a public space outside galleries or museums. It is usually outdoors, but can also be in public areas within buildings and institutions like universities and hospitals. It can be part of structures such as bridges and tunnels.

The main forms of public art are sculptures and murals. Street art inspired by graffiti and popular culture is a new and distinctive form of public art. Unlike more traditional public art, street art is sometimes not sanctioned by local authorities and property owners.

Much public art, particularly sculpture, is intended for permanent display, but temporary and intentionally impermanent works have become legitimate forms of public art.

Art as rebuilding

After the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, public art formed part of the rebuilding process. The Christchurch Art Gallery closed for repairs but exhibited art in public places like windows, walls and billboards.


Public art is intended to:

  • commemorate people and events
  • improve urban environments
  • enrich the lives of citizens as they encounter works as part of their everyday life
  • demonstrate a town or city’s civic and cultural maturity.

Public art can be controversial, with the same works both liked and disliked. Because they are sometimes funded with public money, and are located in public places over which people have a sense of common ownership, the works are subjected to particular scrutiny.

Public art gets going

While art had been commissioned for public places in previous decades, public art was only put on an organised footing in the early 1980s. Under the percent for art scheme, devised in the United States in the late 1970s, a proportion of property development costs was set aside for public art. A variant called the Arts Bonus scheme was adopted in New Zealand the following decade. Developers were allowed to add extra storeys to a building if they included public art in it.

Public art received another boost in the late 1990s and early 2000s when urban designers began to realise the value of art in urban settings. American urban theorist Richard Florida, an expert on urban renewal and the economic value of creative industries, argued that public art was one way of attracting creative people to cities. He visited New Zealand in 2003, and his theories were influential.


In 2011 Seung Yul Oh’s ‘Globgob’, a series of egg-shaped sculptures in Auckland’s Teed and Osborne streets, was unintentionally vandalised by the Newmarket Business Association. Large screw tops were fixed to the sculptures to make them look like light bulbs as part of a marketing campaign for a branch of Lighting Plus, even though neither the artist nor the Newmarket Arts Trust, which commissioned the work, had given their permission. The screw tops were removed after a few days.

Trusts and local authorities

Public art is sometimes selected and managed by charitable trusts. Where trusts exist they work closely with local authorities. Some have had more success than others.

The first public art trust in New Zealand was the Wellington Sculpture Trust, founded in 1983. The trust became the most successful public art organisation in New Zealand, and provided advice and guidance to other trusts. It was able to forge a good working relationship with Wellington City Council and secure generous private donors. Both these factors assured its success.

Other public art organisations include the SCAPE Public Art Trust of Christchurch (founded in 1999), the Otago Sculpture Trust (2002) and the Art in Public Places Trust in New Plymouth (2009). SCAPE runs international public art biennials, during which one permanent work and many temporary pieces are installed throughout Christchurch.

Most local councils have public art policies which guide the process for funding and choosing art, and its placement and maintenance.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Public and street art - Public art', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 22 Oct 2014