Mayor Reverses Decision to Auction Kerry James Marshall Public Art



Just a few weeks ago the international art world scratched it head when the news was shared that the City of Chicago decided to sell a monumental public work by artist Kerry James Marshall, which the city commissioned for the Legler Branch Library in West Garfield Park in 1995 for $10,000. The initial estimates were that the work could sell at auction for $10–15 million and the painting was to be auctioned off by Christie's. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel said the money from the sale would 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.

But the public outcry was loud and clear. Following a record-setting sale by the City, earlier this year, of another work by Marshall (Past Times sold for $21.1 million at Sotheby’s to Sean Combs (AKA P-Diddy)), the optics of quickly selling another unique cultural asset for vague budgetary purposes were less than positive. Chicago prizes its public art collection and has built a stellar reputation as one of the best spots in the world to view and appreciate public art created by a range of artists, from emerging to blue chip. To think that the most financially valuable works could be carved up and sold to the highest bidder was deeply upsetting, especially to the artist who created this most recent work destinted for the auction block. 

Marshall was quoted as saying, “I am certain they could get more money if they sold the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza.”

Now, just over a week before the work was to be sold, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has changed his mind, managing to keep in tact his otherwise positive reputation as a civic leader and man who is supportive of arts and culture in the city. The Mayor made the decision to pull Marshall's Knowledge and Wonder from the Nov. 15 auction at Christie’s in New York City.

In Monday's Chicago Tribune Mayor Emanuel admitted, “I was swimming and thought, ‘This is not what I wanted, given the city’s contributions to public art, and Kerry’s a friend and also a great ambassador for Chicago,’” Emanuel said Sunday afternoon. “I reached out to him and said, ‘Look, I don’t want this. If you’re not happy, I don’t want to go forward.’”

The sale was intended to raise money for the library it was commissioned for, but instead the work will be reinstalled in the Legler as soon as possible, and now the mayor said it will also have additional security to protect it. A revised plan to support the library is being evaluated.

Chicago's perpetual struggle of being the second (or third) city when compared to its coastal peers means we are always trying to make the case to students, individuals, families and businesses (hi Amazon!) that being and staying here is worth it in so many ways. In this case, score one for keeping a big piece of Chicago right where it belongs. 

Read the Chicago Tribune story here


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