Discover gems of public art in Downtown Tempe and at ASU

Author: Nancy

Posted on: January 28, 2015
Last updated on: November 28th, 2018 at 9:00 am

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Painted Utility Box in Downtown Tempe

Painted Utility Box in Downtown Tempe

Taking a stroll around Tempe’s pedestrian-friendly downtown is always a pleasure, made more so by the many public art pieces sprinkled among the restaurants, shops and businesses along Mill Avenue and the adjacent streets and Tempe Town Lake.

Tempe is a true hub of visual arts where you’ll find works of art in unexpected places  thanks to Tempe’s extensive public arts programs, Since 1988, Tempe has commissioned a diverse collection of more than 70 temporary and permanent pieces incorporated in streetscapes and pathways, light rail and bus stops, public buildings, parks and other public spaces. The Art in Private Development ordinance, passed in 1991, has been instrumental in adding more than 100 privately-owned artworks to the city, blanketing Tempe’s 39 square miles with public art that is always accessible.  And new installations are always on the horizon.

The expansive and walkable Arizona State University (ASU) Tempe Campus also has an extensive public art collection.  Named one of the nation’s 10 best by Public Art Review, public art at ASU can be enjoyed by taking a self-guided walking tour. From Depression-era murals to contemporary sculpture, the university’s public art reflects the rich historic traditions of ASU and Arizona, as well as recent expressions by nationally renowned artists.

I love keeping fit and getting my art fix at the same time on walks around Tempe. I’m always struck by how man-made works of art blend with the natural beauty of our area. It’s nice to slow my pace a bit to smell the roses in the form of our lovely landscapes interspersed with wonderful works of art by local and nationally known artists. Here are just a few of my favorite examples of Tempe’s public art enjoyed during my walks in Downtown Tempe, Tempe Town Lake and ASU.

Tempe Town Lake – Slow down and take time to see the many works of art on both sides of the lake. The south side is lined with a series of granite tiles featuring 600 water words, phrases, and images comprising the Words Over Water. Cross the lovely pedestrian bridge, a sterling example of form following function, that connects both shores and you’ll find several impressive sculptures on the north side. Tempe Center for the Arts – Located on the south shore of Tempe Town Lake, next to the pedestrian bridge, is the Tempe Center for the Arts. A walk along the lake should also include time to explore the public art both inside and outside this architectural showpiece.

Tempe Transportation Center – Walk down Fifth Street to the Tempe Transportation Center and stop a while in the Origami Garden. The courtyard garden, with desert plants and environmental artwork featuring recycled glass, serves as a link between adjacent light rail and bus platforms, civic buildings and Arizona State University. While you’re there, take the light rail and hop on and off to see the intriguing public art works that add beauty and visual interest to our newest public transportation mode.

Tempe City Hall – Also located on Fifth Street is Tempe’s inverted pyramid City Hall building. This architectural masterpiece was way ahead of its time when it opened in early 1971, not only in looks, but function. It was designed to shade itself in the summer but let sunlight heat it in the winter. Aesthetically it stirred a lot of controversy 40 years ago, but today it’s one of Tempe’s most treasured landmarks, credited with changing the face of Downtown Tempe

Mill Avenue – Mill Avenue has lots of interesting sights, sounds and people watching that makes for a fun walk or bike ride. Also be on the lookout for pops of color along the way in the form of painted utility boxes. Once drab and  nondescript, the boxes have been transformed by local artists into colorful and whimsical 3-D works of art. They are so much fun, you’ll want to stop and look at all four sides. Also check out the big display windows in the Post Office on Mill and 5th Street which feature changing art highlighting local artists working in a variety of media and themes. The work in these windows is always fun, eye catching and unusual.

ASU – The original Tempe Campus is one of my favorite walks. You get a true architectural timeline that dates from the Victorian style of Old Main built in 1887, through mid-century modern to today’s beautiful lean, green LEED certified buildings. In and around the buildings, you’ll find all kinds of public art pieces that date way back to the 1930s up to the present.  One not to be missed is the most recent addition, the skyspace, Air Apparent, by internationally renowned artist James Turrell. It’s a large installation designed as an artistic interpretation of Native American Hohokam shade ramadas and pit houses. Inside the structure, the open ceiling of Air Apparent provides a framework for sky viewing, which is especially dramatic during sunrise and sunset when light fixtures at the top of the structure change from one vibrant color to another.  Air Apparent is located on the west side of Rural Road at Terrace Road and adjacent to the Science and Technology Building 4 (ISTB4). It’s also just five minutes from the University Drive & Rural Road light rail stop.

Believe me, this is just a very short list of public art to be found in Tempe. For more information about Tempe’s many public art sites , visit the City of Tempe’s public art website and the ASU public art website.




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