Kerry James Marshall, artist

The Chicago Public Library system is looking to give the West Side something it hasn’t had in decades — a library that’s open on Sundays and has longer weekday hours than regular neighborhood branch libraries. It just needs to sell a painting.

The library system is made up of the main Harold Washington Library, two regional libraries and dozens of neighborhood branch libraries. The regional libraries are meant to be smaller versions of the main library, with longer hours and more resources than the neighborhood branches. 

But while the North Side has Sulzer Regional Library and the South Side has Woodson Regional Library, the West Side hasn’t had a regional library of its own since 1977, when West Garfield Park’s Legler Library, 115 S. Pulaski Road, was converted into a neighborhood branch library. 

Now, CPL is looking to restore Legler Library’s regional status, increasing hours and adding more programs in 2019. But to pay for those improvements, the library system and the city plan to auction off “Knowledge & Wonder,” a painting critically acclaimed artist Kerry James Marshall created specifically for Legler. 

According to Art News magazine, the painting could fetch “between $10 million and $15 million by Christie’s in New York, where it will go to auction this fall.”

Although CPL officials described selling the painting as a difficult, but necessary choice, critics — Marshall himself — argued that the city and the library system should have figured out some other way to fund the upgrade.

Legler is the oldest library facility to still be operating on the West Side. According to CPL, it was built in 1920 and named after Henry Legler, who served as the system’s chief librarian from 1909 to 1917. The site also notes that it was actually the first regional library in Chicago. 

Patrick Molloy, the CPL’s director of government and public affairs, said that the staff is still looking through historical documents to figure out why Legler lost its regional status. He said that their best theory so far is that the library was part of a system that put more focus on branch libraries. 

Even after losing its regional status, Legler wasn’t entirely neglected. It went through several renovations. Most recently, it underwent a $913,000 renovation starting in 2017. In addition, Legler was the first West Side library to get the YOUmedia space, a multimedia space geared toward teens.

“Knowledge and Wonder” was commissioned by the city in 1995 as part of the Percent for Art program, which required that, at least 1.33 percent of the construction costs of renovated or newly built municipal buildings go toward adding public art. 

Marshall, who currently lives in Chicago, is a black artist who uses his paintings to challenge stereotypes and preconceptions about African-Americans. True to form, “Knowledge and Wonder” depicts black kids and a few adults staring at a wall of giant books.

According to CPL’s website, Marshall’s piece isn’t the only piece of art in the building. Legler also had a carved wood sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett and a Great Depression era mural, “Wilderness, Winter River Scene,” by Midwestern artist R. Fayerweather Babcock. 

The press release on the site went into some of the planned improvements, saying that they would include “the addition of multiple community and study spaces, an increase in collections, new lighting and building systems, accessibility improvements, and parking lot and security enhancements.”

The press release also mentions that the children’s area would be upgraded to a children’s library similar to Thomas Hughes Children’s Library that takes up a significant portion of Harold Washington Library’s second floor. 

The YOUmedia space would be expanded to include a “state of the art sound studio.” For adults, the library will have a much larger computer lab and adult workforce training on the second floor. 

Legler will also get a free Maker Space — a first for the West Side. In a first for the CPL system as a whole, the library system plans to set up a studio space where an artist in residence “will develop art projects and host adult, teen and family arts programs.”

“There’s no dedicated art studio in our branches or regionals,” Molloy said. “That’s something we’re really excited about.”

He went on to explain that Legler has a great deal of underutilized space. This gives CPL a greater opportunity to build something new and modern, something that reflects the patrons’ needs.

“The goal is to invest [in the building] and make it a fully functional, 21th century regional library,” Molloy said.

He also told this newspaper that all those plans represent a wish list of what CPL would do with the money. The details may change once they actually know how much the painting sells for.

In a statement to media, Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), whose ward includes Legler Library, described the sale of Marshall’s painting as a win for the West Side.

“We are proud to have had Kerry James Marshall’s artwork in our community for a long time and we are so thrilled it will now help us transform a critical neighborhood anchor not only for West Garfield Park, but for the entire West Side community,” he stated. 

“This is a proud example of how city officials come together to find innovative ways to positive changes to our city.”

But the idea that the improvements would come at the cost of selling a piece of art meant for the community struck many the wrong way. 

“I am certain they could get more money if they sold the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza,” he told Art News magazine. 

“Considering that only last year Mayor Emanuel and Commissioner [of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs Mark] Kelly dedicated another mural I designed downtown for which I was asked to accept one dollar,” Marshall added, “you could say the City of Big Shoulders has wrung every bit of value they could from the fruits of my labor.”

There is a question of long-term sustainability. In the past, CPL cited salaries and other employee-related expenses as major reason why branch libraries couldn’t stay open longer than they currently are.  

Molloy said that the sale of the painting would only cover the improvements themselves, and acknowledged that CPL would have to cover the day-to-day costs some other way. He said that those specifics won’t be decided until the paintings are sold.

“I think we’re all comfortable that we’re able to move forward,” Molloy said. “Specifics, we will need to finalize.”

While the press release mentions that the changes would start to take effect at the beginning of next year, Molloy said that while this is when CPL would ideally want to phase the changes in the actual timeline will depend on when the painting is sold.

“The way I understand it is, they have two big auctions — one in November, one in May,” Molloy said.


Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...