The 6 Ugliest Pieces of Public Art in Philly

Including the newly installed Barnes Totem and those creepy people at 16th and Vine.

Philadelphia has more outdoor sculpture than any city in the country. This is the kind of fact we Philadelphians like to trot out when we have tourists in town. (Usually between the requisite cheesesteak and Rocky visit.) What we don’t mention is that a lot of that public art is downright ugly—including the newest addition to our cultural landscape, the Barnes Totem. Here, a list of other pieces that make our eyes burn and our visitors swoon. Feel free to add your own favorite visual travesties in the comments.

The Barnes Totem

I, unlike many people, think the Barnes is a great addition to the city’s bustling museum district. I, also unlike many people, don’t get the hype surrounding Ellsworth Kelly’s abstract sculpture. It looks like commercial air conditioning equipment.

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Open Air Aquarium

Look, I’m no professional here, but wouldn’t these look cooler if they more closely resembled actual fish?

Ugly Public Art in Philadelphia: Open Air Sculpture at Penn's Landing

Philadelphia Firsts

Located across from the northeast corner of LOVE Park, this strange little sculpture sits atop a city building. Though it is supposed to represent some of Philly’s unique experiences—the nation’s first zoo and art school, for example—it mostly just looks like a junky kindergarten collage. Also, of all the notable Philadelphians to showcase, this sculpture features Mary Cassatt, whose weird pale babies always freak me out.

Ugly Public Art in Philadelphia: Philadelphia Firsts at 15th and Arch Streets in Philadelphia

Paint Torch

Created by acclaimed artist Claes Oldenburg—he’s the man behind the marvelous Clothespin sculpture across from City Hall—last year’s addition to the Lenfest Plaza by PAFA is tacky as hell. A paintbrush in front of an art school? How nuanced! And if I had a quarter for every person who told me that the dollop of paint looked like a dollop of something much, much grosser, I’d be a rich lady.

Philadelphia Beacons

Besides the fact that these look like they should be in the hands of the world’s tallest air traffic controller, these glittering pillars caused a big ol’ controversy in the late ’90s. [Read more about it in this story by Philly Post contributor Brian Howard.]

Ugly Public Art in Philadelphia: Philadelphia Beacons at Broad and Washington streets


True story: I once saw a small child start weeping at the sight of this terrifying sculpture.