kansas city public art wall mural at river market
River Market Street Mural

Although it can go unnoticed in the hustle of daily life, Kansas City has for many years supported the installation of public art. From sculptures that pay tribute to legendary jazz musicians to thought-provoking street murals, Kansas City’s public art scene is a testament to the city’s commitment to artistic expression and cultural enrichment.

As Kansas City midtown locals, we are fortunate to be able to see public art each day. In this article, we’re sharing a list of locally loved public art installations.

Brief History of Public Art in Kansas City

Kansas City has several established, nationally recognized museums, but beyond the protected artwork those buildings hold, the city has intentionally taken steps to increase the visibility of public art. To fully appreciate the depth of Kansas City’s dedication to public art, it’s essential to understand its historical context. It began with the City Charter of 1925, which established the Municipal Art Commission’s authority to approve works of art displayed on city property. 

Over the years, various resolutions proposed the creation of a public art fund in 1970 and 1992. This funding laid the groundwork for what would become the One Percent for Art Program in 1986. This program allocates one percent of the engineer’s estimated cost of improvement for the acquisition and installation of works of art and other aesthetic adornments in municipal buildings.

In 2022, Kansas City voters overwhelmingly approved $125 million dollars in general obligation (GO) bonds to make much needed maintenance and upgrades. This funding for infrastructure improvements has allowed the city to incorporate art into streets, sidewalks, and bridges, further enriching our urban landscape.

The Municipal Art Commission

The Municipal Art Commission plays a pivotal role in shaping Kansas City’s artistic landscape. Its responsibilities extend to approving works of art on city property, designing city buildings and structures, and overseeing privately owned signs and structures extending over public property. 

The Commission’s mission is to act as a catalyst for artistic growth and aesthetic excellence, enhancing the vitality of Kansas City and enriching the lives of its residents. This organization has played an important role in promoting the inclusion of public art installations across the city. 

Kansas City’s Notable Public Art Installations

There are numerous public art installations around Kansas City. In this list, we’ve included some of the more visited pieces of artwork. 

Kansas City International Airport: A Welcome To KC’s Art Scene

Visitors to Kansas City will experience the local art culture before they leave the airport! The new terminal features an incredible public art exhibit – the largest art project in Kansas City’s history. 

It features works from 28 incredibly talented – mostly local – artists, offering a variety of stories and expressions. The artists were selected from a pool of over 1,900 applicants and were chosen for their talents as well as for the diversity of perspective and artwork type that they would bring to the exhibit. A significant portion of the artists are women of color. 

The art selection process itself included over 56 panelists from various backgrounds participating in the selection across nine different panels.

The public art at Kansas City International Airport is a beautiful representation of our diverse, vibrant city in the heartland. Kansas City is so much more than a flyover state, and our new airport shows that.

Street Murals: A Signature of Crossroads Arts District

The Crossroads Arts District is a canvas for urban expression, and its street murals are a testament to the artistic spirit that thrives here. These murals serve as outdoor galleries, each telling a unique story and adding a splash of color to the city’s streetscape. What makes these murals particularly appealing is their accessibility. While many flock to the district for the artsy First Friday events, these murals are available at all times for anyone to appreciate, making art an integral part of everyday life in the district.

Notably, JT Daniels is a prolific artist whose work graces various locations in the district. His murals feature streamlined designs that represent the heartbeat of the urban community. Faces and figures overlap in his illustrations, symbolizing the diverse and ever-evolving human experience. 

kansas city crossroads murals
Crossroads Kansas City

Shuttlecocks: Juxtaposition at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

The Shuttlecocks in Kansas City are iconic and oversized sculptures located on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. These whimsical and playful artworks, created by artist Claes Oldenburg, stand at a towering 18 feet tall and weigh 5,500 pounds each. Resembling giant shuttlecocks used in the sport of badminton, these sculptures are a unique and eye-catching addition to the museum’s outdoor landscape. They not only showcase the city’s love for sports and culture but also serve as a prominent symbol of artistic expression within Kansas City’s cultural scene. Visitors are often drawn to the juxtaposition of these colossal shuttlecocks against the backdrop of the museum’s classical architecture, creating a fascinating blend of contemporary and traditional art.

shuttlecock statue on the front lawn of nelson atkins museum of art in kansas city
Kansas City Shuttlecocks

Bird Lives: A Tribute to Jazz Legend Charlie Parker

Known as “Yardbird” or simply “Bird,” saxophonist Charlie Parker was a pioneer of bebop and a key figure in Kansas City’s jazz scene. The magnificent sculpture features Parker’s face, eyes downcast, with the inscription “Bird Lives.” It is located in the middle of a plaza, also named after Parker, in the historic Jazz District and just west of the American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine Streets. Be sure to visit the museum to explore Parker’s legacy through exhibits showcasing his Grafton saxophone and other jazz artifacts.

The Community Bookshelf: Highlighting KC Public Library

This unique public art installation doubles as a functional KCMO Public Library Central Branch parking garage. Featuring 22 classic book titles represented by 25-foot-tall book spines, it’s a literary and artistic delight. Visitors can borrow books from the mini-library inside the garage while admiring the stunning book spines, creating a harmonious fusion of art and literature.

Liberty Memorial: Honoring WWI Soldiers

The iconic Liberty Memorial is located near Union Station. This memorial, standing 268 feet tall, is a tribute to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives during World War I. Its architectural elements, including Assyrian sphinxes and guardian spirits, create a solemn and impressive atmosphere. The memorial is situated on the grounds of the National WWI Museum, where you can explore exhibits that provide a deeper understanding of this pivotal period in history.

Heartland Harvest: A Copper Tribute to Agriculture

Located at the Kansas City Board of Trade building on the southern edge of the Country Club Plaza, “Heartland Harvest” is a striking 60-foot tall patinated copper sculpture. This artwork symbolizes the importance of hard red winter wheat to our local economy’s past, present, and future. 

The Pioneers: Honoring Westport’s Founders

In Westport, the bronze sculpture “The Pioneers” depicts three historic figures crucial to the development of the area. Alexander Majors, co-owner of the Pony Express, John Calvin McCoy, founder of Westport and co-founder of the Town of Kansas, and mountain man James Bridger are immortalized in this artwork. Explore the history of Westport further at the Alexander Majors House Museum or by visiting nearby historic sites like Kelly’s Westport Inn.

Modern Communication: A Thought-Provoking Bronze Statue

“Modern Communication,” a controversial life-size bronze statue by Terry Allen, invites contemplation about how we send, receive, and block communication. The statue portrays a businessman standing on a briefcase, with a shoe in his mouth, fingers in his ears, and a tie across his eyes—a stark reminder to pause, look around, and engage with the world outside our screens. This thought-provoking piece encourages us to reflect on the impact of modern technology on our lives. It is located in front of the entry to the Communications Center, between the police building and municipal court, in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

While this list shared the more well-known pieces of public art, there is artworks dispersed all throughout the City of Fountains. We recommend that you keep your eyes open – you never know when you’ll be strolling by local public art. 

Each sculpture, mural, and installation tells a unique story about our history, heritage, and the diverse community that makes Kansas City a truly special place. So, take a leisurely stroll or plan an art-filled day, and let these artistic gems enrich your life and deepen your connection to our beloved city.