City of Chicago to Auction Library Painting by Kerry James Marshall


Early this summer CGN reviewed some of our favorite (and mostly) under-rated works of public art in Chicago's world famous public art collection. We chose a handful of pieces that bring us joy when we encounter them ourselves and that make us so proud to welcome others from around the world to our city. Through the City of Chicago's public art collection, we are all owners of breathtaking works by Alex Katz, Ellsworth Kelly, Jean DuBuffet, Louise Nevelson, Anish Kapoor, Jaume Plensa, Richard Serra, Claes Oldenburg and so many others. 

This week we heard the news that the City has decided to sell another work by an artist who even calls Chicago his home: Kerry James Marshall. The early estimates are that this work, commissioned for the Legler Branch Library in West Garfield Park in 1995 for $10,000, could sell at auction for $10–15 million. The painting will be auctioned off by Christie's. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel says the money from the sale will be used to improve and update the west side library as well as to invest in up and coming artists who may some day gain international renown like Marshall has.

Earlier in 2018 the Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority (MPEA owns McCormick Place and Navy Pier) sold Marshall’s monumental painting Past Times for $21.1 million at Sotheby’s to Sean Combs (AKA P-Diddy). It was commissioned more than two decades ago in 1997 for $25,000. In both cases it was the City that commissioned Marshall to create the pieces for the collection. 

In 2017 Marshall painted a 132 x 100 foot mural (commissioned for $1!) on the back of the Chicago Cultural Center again at the behest of the City. With two works leaving the public sphere, this newest mural is more important to us than ever, and hopefully the fact that it has been painted on the building itself means that it won't be crated up and shipped to a New York auction house.

Artist and former City Department of Cultural Affairs official Barbara Koenen put it this way on Facebook on October 1, "Mayor Rahm Emanuel has decided to auction off the Kerry James Marshall painting at Legler Branch Library. It is being removed from the library tonight. Supposedly they want to use the [money] to make Legler a regional library and also establish a Rahm Emanuel and Amy Rule Public Art Fund."

Koenan, in addition to calling for the implementation of official guidelines about deaccessioning public art, points out that with one work having been auctioned (see above) earlier this year, once this additional work is gone, what will be left? Who is making these deaccession decisions and what are the proceeds being used for? Are there steps artists can take when a work is being aquired that would ensure it remains public and is not eligible for a sale? It seems like the short term gains do not outweigh the value of holding onto a longstanding cultural asset.

The security issues involved in keeping such a work in a public library are serious and likely now expensive as the value of Marshall's work continues to increase, following his major retrospective at the MCA, Mastry, so it is understandable that the painting may not be able to always call the Legler Library home, but there could be more secure, as well as publicly visible, venues for Knowledge and Wonder in City spaces. 

In the Art Newspaper this week, Chicago-based dealer Rhona Hoffman, who represents Marshall, said, “If Kerry gave them permission to sell it for the benefit of a public art fund and the library, then bless them; if he didn’t, then the public library should be ashamed of themselves...I am very sad to see it leave the city.”

Obviously the city will have a new mayor in 2019, and the question should be asked if there are formal plans or ordinances that may be put in place to safeguard the works in the City's collection, so that it does not become standard practice that once a work of art of an artist's market value grows exponentially a part of the public collection automatically gets sold to the highest bidder, who is most likely a private collector or institution that will take the work out of public view.

A few thoughtful measures, including ongoing discussions with living artists about the placement and state of their work in the city's collection, would not be limits as much as protections for all Chicagoans and visitors who value the accessibility of art and culture in the city. 


Additional reading:

Chicago Sun Times

The Art Newspaper


Crain's Chicago Business



Top image: Kerry James Marshall, Knowledge & Wonder (1995) (via Christie’s)