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  • Writer's pictureSteven Hansen

Not-So-Public Art Delights by Surprise

Updated: May 31

Steve Hansen

Public art pieces like murals, sculptures, and performances enliven community gathering spaces, civic centers, and parks. Whatever your opinion may be of any singular art piece, public art has a way of humanizing a place by encouraging interaction and dialog and instilling a sense of community pride. Artworks that are out in the open – both public projects and private installations – let local residents and visitors know that culture, heritage, and creativity are valued here.

But what about public art creations that are hidden from normal view? Wait…what?

Some “secret” public art installations are designed to delight casual passersby by surprise. They integrate art into our everyday environment in clever ways and make their discovery an intimate, one-on-one experience.

Here are some artworks that are out in the open, although ingeniously concealed from view -- except to those lucky enough to stumble upon them!


“Huna” mural, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

Sean Yoro, also known as Hula, is a Los Angeles-based artist originally from Hawaii. His work explores the connection between humans and the environment, especially oceans. He created his 2017 mural “Huna” on a seawall in the harbor of Saint John, New Brunswick (Canada), in the Bay of Fundy, using eco-friendly paints, while balancing on a stand-up paddleboard.

The drastically changing tides of the area – rising and falling several feet per hour -- made the timing of each day’s work critical. Once finished, the painting was completely submerged twice each day by 28-foot-high tides. Only a few traces of it remain today.

Hula has also painted giant images on melting icebergs to call attention to rapidly changing climate conditions in the Arctic.

“Times Square” sound installation, New York City, NY

Allison Meier/

Not only is “Times Square” hidden from view, but as a sound installation located in the middle of Times Square in New York City, it's nearly indistinguishable over the ceaseless cacophony of car horns and millions of tourists clamoring around the pedestrian plaza between 45th and 46th Streets at Broadway and Seventh Avenue.

Its location is also unmarked, but if you find yourself right above the steam vent grating at that location, you’ll be rewarded with the sound of its constant deep hum or gong vibration clearly bellowing up from deep underground.

Created and installed by American composer and artist Max Neuhaus in 1977, it is one of the first known public sound art pieces and is still playing, 24/7, after several renovations.


Stealth Towers, Worldwide

Cell towers are usually built by a tower company and leased to wireless communication carriers like AT&T, and Verizon, police and fire departments, and radio and TV broadcasters. There are roughly 5 million of them currently dotting the globe.

In most cases, these constructions look exactly like what they are: giant industrial steel towers, festooned with various antennae receivers/transmitters or microwave dishes. But some municipalities require the towers to blend in with the local surroundings by camouflaging them as native trees.

These are referred to as “stealth towers.” In reality, these artistic constructions fool nobody and instead become fanciful landmarks of their own.

Musical Highway, Tijeras, NM


Located just outside Tijeras, NM, about an hour southwest of Santa Fe, a specially grooved roadway plays “America the Beautiful” when you drive along in the right lane at 45 mph. You’ll find it on Hwy 333/Route 66 between mileposts 4 and 5. Otherwise quite unnoticeable, a sign marks its starting point.

This artful oddity was created by the New Mexico Department of Transportation and National Geographic in 2014. Listen to it, plus two other musical roadways.

“Dandelion Cluster No. 3,” New York City, NY

American artist Patrick Jacobs creates installations that intentionally blur the boundaries between the traditional artistic media of painting, sculpture, and photography. Many of his most intriguing pieces are tiny dioramas of startlingly realistic looking natural settings.

His 2011 installation, “Dandelion Cluster No. 3” is viewable through a small peephole embedded in the exterior wall of the Museum of Arts & Design that faces Broadway. Modest signage above the peephole suggests, “Enter other worlds here” (see header photo at the top of this page). The miniature scene is composed of paper, styrene, copper, wax, and cat hair, among other materials, using tweezers and brushes.

The piece goes virtually unnoticed by the thousands of pedestrians who rush past it every day, mere inches away.

Street Shadows, Redwood City, CA

Damon Belanger

California creative Damon Belanger’s take on public art is that it should be fun. His 20 commissioned pieces for Redwood City slyly enliven the otherwise humdrum downtown streetscape. Seemingly nothing more than normal sidewalk shadows cast by mailboxes and park benches, most passing motorists wouldn’t pay any attention. But at sidewalk level, his weird and silly fake shadows come alive and delight any and all passersby, from age 1 to 100.

“Dwellings” at the Breuer Building, New York City, NY

Artist Charles Simonds’s 1981 installation “Dwellings,” at the Whitney Museum’s former 945 Madison Avenue location, looks like a kind of imaginary hideaway of wee folk. His miniature clay village nestled in a corner of a window ledge in the building’s second floor landing is meant “to create the experience of movement through time, an awareness of our own mortality.”

Two additional components of the imaginary village are located in a direct sightline across the street on a second-story windowsill and a rooftop chimney at 940 Madison Avenue. (Bring binoculars to locate those!)

Discreet as it is, Simonds’s work has developed a secret fan base over the past 40 years. Discovery of the secretive three-piece installation by keen observers – often children – is an unforgettable delight.

After the Whitney relocated to a new building in the city’s Meatpacking district in 2015, its famous Marcel Breuer-designed building at 945 Madison Avenue became a temporary home to several special exhibitions of works from the Met Museum and the Frick Collection. The building was recently purchased by Sotheby’s and the corporation has agreed to let the “Dwellings” installation remain in place and open to the public to view.

IFC Movie Peephole, New York City, NY

ajay_suresh/CC by 2.0; Steve Hansen

An unmarked round steel plate about the size of an Eggo pancake is positioned at head height on the Sixth Avenue façade of the IFC Center theatre complex (the former Waverly Theater) in Greenwich Village. The metal plate (located between the two illuminated movie posters in the lower right-hand corner of the top photo in this post) could be mistaken for an electrical box or an air vent of some kind. On closer inspection, two attached smaller round plates look like peephole covers, because that’s exactly what they are.

Go up and slide the covers apart, put your head against the plate and peer through the openings to watch whatever movie is currently playing in theater B. Will people think you’re a bit peculiar doing this? No. This is New York.

Casa dei Pesci, Talamone, Italy

"Siren" by Giorgio Butini; photo by Marta Clinco

La Casa dei Pesci Museo Sottomarino is a unique seafloor museum located off the coast of Tuscany near Talamone, Italy. Here, underwater artworks create a captivating ecosystem and raise awareness about illegal fishing practices. Beginning in 2012, a network of artists has been creating magnificent statues, using environmentally friendly marble blocks donated by the Michelangelo Quarries in Carrara, and installing them 5 meters underwater.

The sculptures, now numbering 44 to date, act as both beautiful “obstacles” against illegal trawling, and enchanting homes that encourage fish repopulation.

La Casa dei Pesci is one of a handful of underwater museums around the world that can only be visited by scuba diving art lovers.



“The Lightning Field,” Near Quemado, NM

Dia Art Foundation

The exact location of Walter De Maria’s 1977 installation of 400 polished stainless steel 20-foot poles in a remote western New Mexico desert is a tightly held secret. People may apply for permission to see the vast sculpture field through Dia Art Foundation who commissioned it. If accepted, visitors are picked up in Quemado and driven to stay at an overnight cabin at the site but may not bring any electronic recording devices along.

"The Lightning Field" is best enjoyed as an immersive experience, wandering among the poles within the square mile field. Weirdly changing light effects observed throughout the day from dawn to sunset charge the piece with a mesmerizing vibe. Thunderstorms heighten the effects dramatically.


:-) Please like and share this post with other art lovers -- thanks!

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