On October 1, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city will auction off a monumental Kerry James Marshall mural, Knowledge & Wonder, at a Christie’s sale in New York. Commissioned in 1995 for West Garfield Park’s Legler Branch Library, the mural depicts 15 black children and adults gazing at a library, which Marshall has imagined as a vivid portal to the universe. The proceeds from the sale will go toward expanding services at the Legler Branch Library so it can stand as a regional library for the West Side.
The decision may be well-intended, but it must be reconsidered. The lack of public input on the fate of the mural — or what the money acquired from its sale is used for — is wrong. We saw a similar situation play out earlier this year, when the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority voted to sell Chicago’s other major publicly owned Marshall painting, Past Times. It raked in $21.1 million (from Sean Combs), with proceeds going toward maintenance at McCormick Place, where the artwork had resided for years. But we shouldn’t be selling unique assets to support such projects. That’s what we float bonds for.
Mayor Emanuel, of all people, knows there are lots of ways to raise money — whether for libraries, capital improvements of convention centers, or new bike paths along the lakefront.
But selling off these valuable paintings throws out the baby with the bathwater. If the city wants to improve its libraries — which I 100 percent support — it can do so without depriving us of our cultural heritage.
Marshall himself is not entirely pleased with the sale. Although Emanuel says the artist is helping to “write the next chapter in the history of Chicago Public Library," Marshall, citing another mural he created for the city for a fee of $1, recently told Artnews that “the City of Big Shoulders has wrung every bit of value they could from the fruits of my labor.”
These sales call attention to a larger problem: Chicago lacks a public, transparent decision-making process for parting with city assets — especially public artworks. The public art ordinance is mute on the subject, and that must change.
The back-room decisions to get rid of both these unique, Chicago-rooted assets — site-specific public commissions that supported the artist while he was just establishing himself in Chicago — call to mind the ways our current president decides to do something: unilaterally, public and precedent be damned. Once we sell these paintings, they are gone.
It’s distressing that the residents of West Garfield Park won’t be able to enjoy a Kerry James Marshall mural painted for their local library. But it’s all the more tragic given that Marshall’s entire oeuvre centers on life as a black person, often in Chicago, and on inserting black individuals into the historical canon.
There are times when deaccessioning artworks makes sense. I, for one, would propose deaccessioning Reading Cones, the Richard Serra sculpture that currently resides in Grant Park. It was an unsolicited gift from the Leo Burnett Company in 1990 and has no particular tie to the city. We’ve seemingly never quite known what to do with it: The city had put it in the park on a temporary basis, planning to place it in State Street Mall, which was then under construction. But for some reason, the Serra still stands in its original location.
Chicago’s libraries house some of our most valuable art treasures. They are among the few establishments in the city that have participated in the Percent for Art program, which stipulates that 1.33 percent any public building’s construction budget be set aside for public art. Yet libraries too often disrespect the very artworks commissioned for their spaces. Take the Harold Washington Library, where — as I learned when I worked for the city — a mural by feminist and former Chicagoan Nancy Spero was cut into during a 2016 renovation to the children’s library.
Adding insult to injury in the case of Marshall’s paintings: In the United States, artists do not receive a percentage of an auction sale of their work. They do in dozens of other countries, like the United Kingdom. If the MPEA and Mayor Emanuel had auctioned Past Times in London, Marshall would have received a cut. But they sold it in New York City, and plan to do the same with Knowledge & Wonder.
Clearly, the city needs to update its Percent for Art ordinance. And when selling off public artworks, we ought to consider the example set by local art appraiser Joel Straus, who recommended selling McCormick Place’s Marshall in the first place. Straus recently auctioned off a study for Past Times from his personal collection for $1.8 million. Afterward, he offered Marshall a royalty for the sale in gratitude.
The Christie’s sale is scheduled for November 15. There’s still time to keep Knowledge & Wonder in Chicago. There’s also plenty of time to improve our public art ordinance. But it’s imperative that Chicagoans speak up against selling off our cultural heritage for a fast buck.
Barbara Koenen is a Chicago-based artist and arts administrator. She worked with the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events for more than 20 years.