Much public art is in the form of monuments and memorials, such as statues and allegorical figures; but modern art brought with it non-figurative public art, including art whose function is not to commemorate but to complement the natural or built environment in which it stands.
Public art is usually of durable, easily cared-for material, especially that exhibited in non-controlled environments, particularly outdoors. Sculptural materials include stone, concrete, and metals such as bronze, steel, and aluminum; flat art media include durable murals. Public art may be integrated with architecture and landscaping in the creation or renovation of buildings and sites.
Some public art is intended to be ephemeral, going so far as to include temporary installations and performance pieces.
Some public artists use the freedom afforded by an outdoor site to create very large works that would be unfeasible in a gallery.
Public artists range from the greatest masters such as Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró, to artists who specialize in public art such as Claes Oldenburg and Pierre Granche, to anonymous artists who make surreptitious interventions.
Public art is usually installed with the authorization and collaboration of the government or company that owns or administers the space. Some governments actively encourage the creation of public art, for example, budgeting for artworks in new buildings. The government of Quebec requires that the budget for all new publicly funded buildings set aside 1% for artwork. New York City has a law that requires that no less than 1% of the first twenty million dollars, plus no less than one half of 1% of the amount exceeding twenty million dollars be allocated for art work in any public building that is owned by the city. The maximum allocation for any site is $400,000. The spending limit for the New York program is 1.5 million dollars per year.
Many large companies such as banks and insurance companies invest in large art collections which they display in the public spaces of their buildings. Even fast food restaurants such as McDonald's have purchased art and install the art in some of their restaurants.
Public art is sometimes intentionally sited for areas where it will receive a great deal of viewers, for example in a metro station or opera house. The converse would be an area set aside for public art, such as a sculpture garden.