Funny things happen when people are exposed to outdoor sculptures.

In Richfield, people put costumes on the life-size bronze of a former mayor. On Minneapolis' Minnehaha Parkway, kids clamber up a big bronze bunny. And before three giant bronze bulls lying peacefully on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus were anchored to the ground, nighttime pranksters flipped over two of the 1,400-pound beasts.

The newest addition to the Twin Cities' booming public sculpture scene will be dedicated in Edina next month. The 10-foot stainless steel sculpture in Centennial Lakes Park is meant as a metaphor for the continuum of life. But it almost certainly will be known simply as "the big pine cone."

Sculptures are popping up all over in public places in Twin Cities suburbs as well as the central cities. Cities that don't already have them are creating public art committees. With the encouragement of cities, savvy developers are adding sculptures to their projects as a way to soften sometimes forbidding stretches of parking lots.

Advocates for public art say it creates a sense of place and is just plain fun.

"Public art is much less passive than the kind of art you see in a museum," said Jack Becker, executive director of Forecast Public Art in St. Paul and a consultant on public art projects in the region.

"Sculpture ... is like theater," he said. "You move around it, it changes in the light, you're one-on-one with it and it changes with you."

Spreading in Richfield

It also can be infectious. A hotbed for public sculpture is Richfield, a community not known for its wealth. But willing developers, an arts commission, interested city officials and generous donors have made sure sculpture abounds.

In one block of Lyndale Avenue, there's a sculpture that moves in the wind, the bronze of former Mayor Marty Kirsch and a sculpture of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Nestled across the street behind a parking ramp are a dozen sculptures in Kirchbak Sculpture Garden, which honors one of the founders of the former Richfield Bank and Trust.

"It just kind of got into their blood [in Richfield]," Becker said. "They realize that this is part of the way suburbs develop a unique identity for themselves and make themselves distinct."

Wayzata set up a public art committee last fall and is discussing projects for two redevelopment projects. "We think it adds something special to your downtown ... that special oomph," said city planner Bryan Gadow.

The first project for Edina's public art committee was an art-glass window for the City Hall that opened in 2004. Sculptures also are displayed in the city's Grandview Park, and sculptures and other art may be added to the Promenade, which links Centennial Lakes with the Galleria area.

Just south of the Promenade, the pine cone will be dedicated on Sept. 13. It was paid for by John and Jean Hedberg, who owned the gravel business that occupied the land where Centennial Lakes is located. The sculptor is Marcia McEachron, who has other works on display in the Twin Cities.

Public art is "the presence of human imagination in public places," McEachron said. "It says, 'We are here.'"

Fueled by donors, developers

Like the pine cone, most of the sculpture erected in public places in suburbs is paid for by donors or developers. Jan Susee, a Richfield attorney who is one of the city's biggest public art advocates, said a little bit of public money or a decision to honor someone can get fundraising rolling. That's what happened with Kirchbak Sculpture Garden, he said.

St. Louis Park asks developers to contribute to a fund to pay for art at their site or for arts projects elsewhere in the city. Two sculptures will go up near the redeveloped corner of 36th Street and Wooddale Avenue, said City Manager Tom Harmening. In Edina, residents can contribute to a public art fund by adding a donation to their quarterly utility bill. Only about 100 families do so now, said Linda Kieffer, chairwoman of Edina's public art committee, but she hopes more will.

"It's a painless way to raise money, and the beauty is it's voluntary," she said.

The risk to public sculpture is that it can be loved too much. The midnight flipping of the U's giant bulls may have been amusing, but "it's a nightmare for the people who have to care for them," Becker said. Said Kieffer, "All you can do is choose pieces that are durable [and] can withstand the elements and rigorous cleaning, should it need it."

Richfield's newest sculpture is a whimsical bronze of a boy in goggles and a cape balancing on a paper airplane with arms outstretched. It's at a main entrance to Cedar Point Commons, a retail development at Hwy. 77 and 66th Street. The developer, Ryan Companies, bought the sculpture and has paid for others at developments in Apple Valley and Maple Grove.

Richfield Council Member Sue Sandahl thinks her city may have enough sculptures along the 66th Street corridor for a "sculpture crawl." She has encouraged a business owner on the street to think about adding a sculpture on one corner. Later, she said, perhaps a school art department would be interested in doing a sculpture. The tour would end with the little-known Kirchbak Sculpture Garden -- "the best-kept secret in Richfield," Sandahl said.

"I can envision having this all across the city," she said.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380