"Looks kind of like a giant bird, doesn't it, dad?" Father and son are gazing up at Pablo Picasso's imposing, untitled sculpture outside the Daley Civic Center in Chicago. A full 12 years after its unveiling, vigorous debate continues as to what the artist "really" intended the sculpture to represent -- and what it looks like.

But now the skepticism and hostility that accompanied much of the debate in the early days is gone. Those who once insisted that Picasso was making fun of them and their city with his gift to late Mayor Richard J. Daley now generally accept the sculpture as one Chicago's more important landmarks. A few even admit being rather fond of it.

"I don't think the Picasso has a negative connotation at all any more," says Sally Draht of the Chicago Council of Fine Arts.

Indeed, her council's guide to sculpture in the Chicago Loop suggests that the Picasso is to the Windy City what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. To many visitors and residents, it is as familiar a visual symbol of the city as the Wrigley Building or the Water Tower. Children now slide down its steep base, with or without the benefit of snow, as if the sculpture had always been part of the scene. And tourists regularly buy up replicas of it on sourvenir plates and T-shirts.

More and more Americans who would never go out of their way to look at a work of art by going into a museum are finding that art is coming to them -- just in the natural course of daily work and shopping downtown.

Over the last decade or so, major contemporary works of sculpture and murals have been springing up with surprising regularity in some of the least likely places -- including shopping malls, housing developments, government and business plazas, subways, and airports.

Some, such as those erected near federal buildings under the General Services Administration's "art in architecture" program are wholly funded by US taxpayers. Under that program, one-half of 1 percent of construction costs are set aside for what Don Thalacker of GSA's fine arts division calls an effort to "humanize" federal buildings too often dismissed as ugly or depressing otherwise.

A handful of cities, counties, and states have similar "percent for art" programs in which up to 1 percent of construction costs is set aside for visual art works to accompany new buildings.

But many of the modern sculptures have sprung up in response to a matching federal grant program called "art in public places," sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. Since its start in 1966 it has dispensed more than $5 million, and local businesses, citizens and governments have chipped in much more.

"The whole idea is to make art much more accessible, so you can encounter it without a special trip to a museum," explains Pat Fuller, coordinator of the arts endowment program.

Slowly but surely, most of these contemporary art pieces, just by being in the midst of downtown activity, become familiar landmarks. The once-controversial Louise Nevelson sculpture in front of a federal building in Philadelphia, for instance, now is mentioned prominently on the city's Greyhound bus tour -- right along with the Liberty Bell.

In many cases, the public art goes into urban renewal sites. Like a magnet, it tends to attract more pedestrian and automobile traffic -- and often increased business activity. Wherever it is, the outdoor sculpture or art has a way of becoming the natural center for cultural activities as well as rallies and demonstrations.

Alexander Calder's sprawling red "La Grande Vitesse" in Grand Rapids, Mich., product of the first National Endowment for the Arts Public Places grant in 1967 , now graces the city's official stationery and decorates the doors of sanitation trucks. Local businesses also have erected a five-foot model of the work at the local airport. Some residents now even write off more recent works of outdoor sculpture in town as "not measuring up to the Calder." However, to those watching community response from the start, Grand Rapids residents have undergone a major change in art appreciation.

"With few exceptions, I think the general feeling originally was, "What are they foisting on us?" recalls Peggy Bransdorfer of the Grand Rapids Art Museum women's committee. "But, after it came, people who didn't like it, or wondered what it was, somehow developed this curious affinity for it. Even the people who don't really like the Calder as art have come to at least accept it and realize that they'd really miss it if it were gone . . . It's where everything happens -- the focal point for the whole downtown."

But few citizens apparently foresee the range of civic benefits from the beginning. Many residents (and even local newspaper), like those in Grand Rapids and chicago in the 1960s, are vigorously opposed. In memphis, when Richard hunt's abstract "I've-been-to-the-mountaintop" sculptural tribute to the late Dr. Martin Luther King was unveiled two years ago, a local headline bluntly asked, "Monument, or monumental mess?"

In some cases, commissions have had to be abandoned and grants refused.

"Generally, there's a settling-in period before the art becomes an integral part of the visual landscape," observes Pat Fuller of the National Endowment for the Arts. some of the initial opposition focuses on the quality of the work. Some residents will argue that the commissioned works do not qualify as art and that their own five-year- olds could do better.

"To some people, if it isn't a traditional general-on-a- horse, it just isn't a sculpture," says Ms. Draht.

But much of the early criticism, according to those who watch the pattern, concerns tax dollars spent -- or wasted, as critics prefer to describe it. When one GSA regional commissioner overheard two men grumbling about wasted taxpayer money at the dedication of the Calder "Flamingo" in Chicago five years ago, he promptly gave each of them a penny, saying he could not break it down to the fraction it really had cost them. They tried to return the refunds, but the GSA man wouldn't accept.

In the case of another Chicago GSA sculpture, the 110-foot-high filigreed baseball bat sculptured by Claes Oldenburg, poor timing is generally blamed for the out-rage of a few hundred taxpayers who complained about it by mail to the GSA.

The sculpture was to have been dedicated two years ago on April 7 -- the opening day of the major league baseball season. But because of a logistics snag, the dedication was moved to April 14 -- just before federal income tax returns were due. The connection between the two occasions was drawn both on network TV news that night and in 250 newspapers across the country the next day.

Mr. Thalacker recalls that the GSA received 300 complaints. But only four were from Chicago, and these were far outnumbered by positive letters from residents of the Windy City. He says he is sure that this city, through the many public sculptures installed here in recent years, is becoming increasingly sophisticated in art appreciation.

"After you go through an experience more than one time, you become less dogmatic about whether or not you'll ever like something," he says.

How the art work is introduced, experts say, can make an enormous difference in the warmth of citizen response. Dr. Marvin Sacknewr, president of the local committee that oversaw the commissioning and dedication last September in Miami of a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture of a mermaid, credits advance public relations work and discussion of the sculpture by art critics for paving the way to community acceptance.

"You've really got to talk it up and educate people," he says. "If it had appeared instantaneously, with no prelude, I'm sure there would have been a protest."

As some experts see it, however, there is no substitute for time in getting used to something new.

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