A guide to discovering Kansas City's public art installations
Take this self-guided tour of the major sculptures, murals and other public works of art around Kansas City.
This story was first published in KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.
Kansas City is home to a wide array of public art that’s easily accessible but often overlooked. Perhaps you’re preoccupied while driving, riding the KC Streetcar or zooming down the street on a scooter. Maybe you don’t spend much time in that neighborhood or part of the city.
Whether you were unaware of these public works of art or simply considered them a backdrop, let's remedy the situation. Touring public art is an opportunity to break up your daily routine, experience artistic gems located throughout the city and enrich life when you feel cooped up.
Here's where you can start.
You don’t have to be a jazz fanatic to appreciate this magnificent sculpture in the historic 18th and Vine District. Bird Lives is a tribute to Charlie Parker, Kansas City’s legendary jazz saxophonist, bandleader and composer. Known as “Yardbird” or “Bird” for short, Parker was a key architect of bebop that distinguished Kansas City’s jazz scene and sound.
The massive sculpture features the face of Parker, eyes downcast, atop a base with the inscription “Bird Lives.” Head to the nearby American Jazz Museum, pay a modest admission fee and view Parker’s Grafton saxophone, jazz artifacts and graphics on exhibit.
The iconic Liberty Memorial, a tribute to the soldiers who died in World War I, rises 268 feet above the north lawn of Memorial Hill in Penn Valley Park. While you’ve likely driven past the structure en route to Union Station or Crown Center, it's worth visiting to walk around the cylindrical tower and behold its scale and architectural features.
Unlike many examples of Art Deco architecture throughout Kansas City, the memorial was fashioned in a related style known as Egyptian Revival. Architectural elements to explore include two guardian Assyrian sphinxes, 40-foot tall guardian spirits carved by Robert Aitken, and The Great Frieze, sculpted by Great War veteran Edmond Amateis.
Located on the southern edge of the Country Club Plaza, Heartland Harvest is a 60-foot tall patinated copper sculpture installed in 1999 on the north face of the former Kansas City Board of Trade building. An outline of hard red winter wheat cut into copper panels symbolizes the crop’s importance to the past, present and future of the local economy.
Designer Joel Marquardt of Gastinger Walker Harden Architects collaborated with A. Zahner Company, a local custom metal fabricator known for its distinctive work across the U.S. and in Mexico, Korea and Canada.
This Is Us
North Kansas City is home to “This Is Us,” a mural created by artist Spaceship Zulu. The mural pays homage to the bygone Missouri riverfront town of Harlem, a “riverboat ferry drop off location for many of the 5,000 to 9,000 African American cowboys that headed west during that time.” The mural’s imagery also references urban development that includes arts and industrialization as part of modern North Kansas City’s growth.
Not too far away, you'll find another piece of public artwork. Artist Sijia Chen created Bloom, a stainless steel sculpture of colorful flower petals located in Richards Park at Iron Street and Armour Road across the street from the North Kansas City YMCA.
And another recently-installed mural at 2005 Swift Ave., home of the McCrummen Immigration Law Group, celebrates diversity in North Kansas City.
John Calvin McCoy was the founder of Westport and co-founder of the Town of Kansas, which became Kansas City. And mountain man James Bridger purchased Chouteau’s Store at 504 Westport Road, one of Westport’s oldest buildings located next to Kelly’s Westport Inn.
This controversial life-size bronze statue created by Terry Allen is off the beaten path, unless you happen to have business near the Kansas City Police Department and Municipal Court.
The statue's appearance is thought-provoking: A businessman stands on a briefcase with a shoe stuffed in his mouth, his fingers plugged into his ears and his tie wrapped across his eyes. The work inspires contemplation about how communication is sent, received and blocked.
Modern Communication was originally installed in 1995 in front of the City Communications Center and then reinstalled in 2015 following construction to the building.
In contrast to modern communication via text and social media on mobile phones, the statue is a sly reminder to stop, remove those technological blinders, look around and pay attention to the world around us. Message received.
Explore more public art
Of course, numerous other displays of public art are easy to spot all over Kansas City. These include the Bartle Sky Stations, the iconic Shuttlecocks on the grounds of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, The Scout in Penn Valley Park and the Crying Giant and Spider at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.
You can see dozens of street murals across the Crossroads Arts District and Alexander Austin’s Isis Theatre mural at 31st and Troost. There's the walkable tour of public art at Crown Center that includes Alexander Calder’s Shiva. And the sculptural installation Confluence uses reclaimed materials to bring life to the West Bottoms.
Stretch your legs and see how many pieces of public art you can spot in downtown Kansas City using this handy printable map.
Want more adventures like this? Sign up for KCUR's Creative Adventure Email.