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The White Hat Guide to

Public Art in Melbourne

Just wandering the streets of the city will bring you in contact with numbers of public sculptures, murals and other art works.

Art before Melbourne

Melbourne was the name given to the European settlement commenced by Batman and Fawkner in 1835. Aboriginal people lived in the area tens of thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans and had a complex culture and art. We leave commentary on Aboriginal art in this period to those better placed to do so. However we thoroughly recommended a visit to the Aboriginal Gallery at the National Gallery (Australian Collection) to all visitors to Melbourne.

What is public art?

There are many parts of our built environment that display great craft and are artistically pleasing but are not necessarily labeled as 'art'. On the other hand there are many objects which show little craft or depth of thinking but are funded by an arts budget or are labeled by their creators as 'art'. (It is worth noting that anything that has to label itself xxxx Art such as Mural Art or Graffiti Art is already indicating that it has not generally been recognised as art and therefore using xxxx Art as a marketing label.) Some art destroys the art that went before it (see Melbourne's Disappearing Hidden Gems from our Melbourne newsletter No.151). So what constitutes public art?

Since long before the existence of Melbourne the question "what is art?" has sparked fierce debate. At White Hat we don't claim to have a definitive answer and will leave it for you to decide what belongs under the label Public Art.

Public Monuments & Memorials

Francis Ormond - statue
Memorial to Francis Ormond

In Melbourne there are public memorials, often in the form of statues, to people directly associated with Melbourne such as Governor Charles La Trobe, Tommy Bent, Justice Higinbotham, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Burke & Wills, , Sir Rupert Hamer, John Cain, Sir Henry Bolte, Weary Dunlop, Sir Redmond Barry, Francis Ormond, Sidney Myer, John Batman, John Fawkner. George Marshall-Hall and many others. Photos of these monuments can be found at many of the pages linked above.

In addition, reflecting Victoria's roots as a British Colony and the fact that the monarch of Britain is still Australia's head of state, there are various monuments and memorials to monarchs and 'heroes of the empire' who never visited Melbourne. These include Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, Governor Gordon of Khartoum and Nurse Cavell.

There are also memorials and monuments to people of international significance including John F Kennedy and Raoul Wallenberg.

Some monuments have an important part in Melbourne history but often go un-noticed. You can read some of these at The White Hat Guide to 7 Monuments of Melbourne.

Because Melbourne is a very young city and much of it was created by private rather than public initiative, there is little surprise that many of the public memorials are a result of individuals or the wider public contributing funds to create monuments to ensure that the life and work of a particular individual should not be forgotten. There is thus a certain irony in the current fashion for publicly funded conceptual art to denigrate the people who wished these achievements to be remembered and, similarly in the number of these monuments which have become covered with 'unofficial street art' in the form of graffiti.

Other public monuments commemorate events or heritage associated with the site. Like all Australian cities, Melbourne has numbers of memorials to the First and Second World Wars, many of them in the precinct of the Shrine of Remembrance. Some other memorials include those to Victoria's women pioneers and the Old Melbourne Cemetery.

Not all public memorials are good art - that is often not their purpose and the public artist has to satisfy almost as many conflicting requirements as artists working under patronage in the Renaissance courts. The monument needs to reflect the attitudes and mores of the time and the funders. Most of Melbourne's nineteenth century monuments were the result of private benefactors and public subscriptions and the artist would usually be expected to submit and modify designs for the people who were paying for the monument. By the earlier part of the the twentieth century some monuments were funded by governments using public money and the artist would usually be expected to create a monument that was acceptable to the public at large and/or the government of the day. In more recent times the artist may not have to please the government or the public but to please the bodies and committees that dispense public monies for such art.

In addition the artist needs to be aware of the language and iconography of western art -who should appear on horseback and in what position and so on. A walk through the Domain presents number of examples of public art making use of this language and symbolism. Even if the artist chooses to thumb his/her nose at such artistic language they need to know what impact that will have on the informed viewer.

When you observe the public memorials in central Melbourne, there were only two until the 1920s that were for a women (and both of them English). Later a small bust of Nellie Melba appeared, and now (reflecting current values) the only significant new additions have been of sportswomen such as Betty Cuthbert. Even though we have listed numbers of women associated with Melbourne in our 200 Significant Australians (such as Caroline Chisholm, Louise Hanson-Dyer and Mary MacKillop) you won't find a major memorial to any of them in the centre of Melbourne.

The lack of Aboriginal people represented in such memorials is not surprising as many Aboriginal cultures forbid the representation of the deceased. However there is a representation of Bungaree.

Ronald Ridley's book Melbourne Monuments is the best available guide to public monuments in Melbourne. It is well researched, well written with numbers of insights into Melbourne's history, and provides a suggested self-guided walking tour of these monuments. For a different style of monument you can take a guided walking tour of Melbourne General Cemetery.

Civic Art


The public sculpture Vault (known unkindly by many in Melbourne as The Yellow Peril) can be found outside ACCA. This sculpture caused an outcry when first placed in the City Square - firstly because it was modern and confronting to Middle Melbourne and secondly because it didn't seem in sympathy with the surrounding architecture. It was subsequently banished from the centre of the city and publicly funded art in Melbourne has since been restricted much more to the whimsical or smaller scale politically correct decoration or temporary installations. Laudable though these projects may be in supporting artists still learning their craft, the better public art in recent time has usually come from commissions from corporations, larger organisations and public benefactors who can be more concerned with artistic merit and less with being re-elected or satisfying the agendas of funding bodies.

The ones which seem to best characterise Melbourne today have a sense of whimsy. The Three Businessmen Who Brought Their Own Lunch, Larry Latrobe, weather vanes, The Public Purse, Brunswick street street signs.

The Public Purse

Larry Latrobe

Displayed Art

Statuary outside State Library

Some public art in Melbourne was not specifically designed for the place in which it stands. Stand alone sculptures were often purchased by the city burgers or donated by public spirited citizens and erected outside public buildings or in our parks. Good examples can be found outside the State Library (dating from the time it was also our art gallery) and in our city parks and gardens.





Public Art as part of the Urban Landscape

Forward Surge

Much public art in Melbourne has been commissioned, created or chosen to form part of the urban landscape and enhance the experience of living, working or passing through a particular precinct.

When the Docklands area was redeveloped starting in the 1990s, developers were required to set aside a portion of their budget for public art. As a result this area has some of the greatest concentration of public art works in Melbourne. Outside the Dockland Stadium are the works Threaded Field and Art Wall, while close by is John Kelly's Cow up a Tree with its oblique reference to William Dobell. The shiny white sculptures at Newquay are Silence by Adrian Mauriks.

Many buildings choose to enhance their public spaces - forecourts, atriums, etc - with sculpture and other art.


Good architecture is of course a form of public art and has been referred to as "inhabited sculpture". However a number of Melbourne buildings, particularly those dating from the nineteenth century, incorporate sculpture into their facades and architectural decorations. Good (and bad) examples can be found in much of Collins Street as well as on our two major cathedrals. (One has a gargoyle from the 1990s with its mouth wide open which purportedly represents a premier and art minister of that time). You can find more recent examples in the large bronze figures that Nonda Katsalidis has integrated into the base of his city apartment buildings and in mobile sculptures.

Perhaps the most common form of art incorporated into the structure of a building is the mural. At best they complement the structure and at their worst they seem 'stuck on'. There is a large mural at Eastern Hill Fire Station. You will find a Napier Waller fresco above the door at the T&G Building (now KPMG House). You can find a characteristic Mirka Mora mural at the Princes Bridge end of Flinders Street Station in Swanston Street. as well as in the restaurant Tollarno in St Kilda. For more information on Murals see The White Hat Guide to 7 Murals of Melbourne.

The modern Republic Tower (designed by Nonda Katsalidis) on the corner of Queen & Latrobe streets is unusual in that incorporates a large public art display area into the facade of the building. The artworks change four times a year.

Semi-Public (art in city buildings etc.)

Much public art in Melbourne is in buildings which may be only open to the public at certain times and under certain conditions. Public buildings such as Parliament House may have restricted access depending on their daily functions. Theatres and sporting arenas may only be open to paying customers. Licensed premises such as Young & Jackson's (the home of Chloe) are likely to have age and dress requirements. Commercial buildings are unlikely to welcome tour groups that disrupt their daily business. Certain clubs may only be open to guests of members and certain corporate and government areas may require an appropriate dress and behavior code and introduction from a trusted client. Thus there is quite a continuum of what may or may not be considered as 'public'.

The Royal Exhibition Building has an extensively painted interior in the grand Victorian style while the main hall of the Melbourne Town Hall features large panels by ..

The mural Symmetry of Sport and Italian glass mosaic tiles both designed by Leonard French can be seen in the trophy hall of Beaurepaire Centre at Melbourne University.

Jeffrey Smart - Container Train
Jeffrey Smart
Container Train in Landscape

Jeffrey Smart's Container Train in Landscape was commissioned in 1983 to hang in the foyer of the Fairfax Theatre of the Melbourne Arts Centre. The painting comes into view at the top of the entrance stairs, and by cunning use of forced perspective the train appears to remain at the same distance as the viewer descends the stairs. It is painted on five panels. As a consummate craftsman, Smart integrates the painting with the colours and columns of the foyer, and as a consummate artist uses numbers of visual devices to extract beauty form a seemingly unpromising subject.

Those who know the painting well may notice that the above image (from the website of the organisation selling the print) is in fact a mirror image of the original. Never fear - if you buy the print it is the right way round.

Eureka Stockade by Sidney Nolan

This large mural (20m by 3.6 m) is made up of 66 panels of jewellery enamel on copper. The mural is in the form of a "line drawing" which Nolan applied to the enamel with finger and thumb before the copper sheets were then fired. The subject is the Eureka Stockade civil uprising on the Ballarat goldfields in 1854 which forms an important part of Australia's history. The work was created in collaboration with the enamellers Patrick Furse and Robin Banks. Even though the foyer where it is located is usually closed at night, the mural is illuminated and clearly visible through the windows during the evening.

Location: Ground Floor Foyer, Reserve Bank of Australia, 60 Collins Street, Melbourne

Community Art


Art Installations & Changing Displays

In recent years, government bodies such as the City of Melbourne have funded numbers of temporary installations - usually in the style of Conceptual Art. Below are some current examples:

'No Answer' - a temporary art installation

see also a recent encounter

Unofficial and Alternative Art

If none of the above is to your taste you can search out the council�s art in the laneways projects. For instance in Hosiers Lane and off Centre Place you are likely to find examples of stencil art and cultural jamming. Cultural jamming is the technique of using images or icons from a given culture but changing the message conveyed. Much of what is being �jammed� in the alleys is commercial and popular culture, but as none of us from White Hat has ever decided to immerse ourselves in commercial culture (we would be useless in a trivia quiz that required us to know advertising jingles) the messages are largely lost on us.

The White Hat Quiz

  • Various statues in The Domain and connected gardens show people on horseback. How can you tell the status of a person from a 19th century equestrian statue?
To find the answers to questions like these ask a White Hat Accredited Guide or subscribe to our free newsletter where similar questions and answers are provided each week. For a sample of previous questions see The White Hat Quiz.

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