Kerry James Marshall, artist | file photo

Almost a month after the City of Chicago and the Chicago Public Library announced that it would sell a painting by acclaimed African-American artist Kerry James Marshall to convert Legler branch library into a West Side regional library, the city has reversed course.

The painting, which was taken out of the library shortly after the announcement, will be returned to the building. And CPL will make more modest improvements, extending service hours and adding computers. However, it is not clear exactly how much funding that would require and where the money will come from.

In 1995, the city commissioned Marshall to paint “Knowledge and Wonder” as part of Legler library renovations. On Oct. 1, the city and CPL announced that it would sell the paintings to help fund the series of upgrades, with the goal of turning Legler into a West Side regional library. Legler was a regional library until the 1970s, when it got downgraded. 

A press release issued at the time indicated a renovated children’s area, expanded YOUmedia space for teens, a much larger computer lab and adult workforce training on the second floor, and a Maker Space and a studio space with an artist in residence program.

Patrick Molloy, the library system’s director of government and public affairs, said at the time that Legler currently has more underutilized space than the two existing regional libraries, which gives the library system more opportunities to make improvements and add amenities. 

But even then, there were many unresolved questions hanging over the proposed upgrade. Molloy indicated that the list of improvements wasn’t necessarily set in stone. The specifics would depend on how much the painting sold for. He also acknowledged that the library system wouldn’t cover the day-to-day costs of extending the library’s service hours and keeping the new programs running. 

The initial announcement led to backlash from residents, members of the city’s art community and Marshall himself, who decried selling the art meant for the community to finance the improvements.

While the city originally stood by the plan, on Nov. 4, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city would pull the painting from the auction and bring it back to Legler “as soon as possible.” He told the Chicago Tribune that he simply had second thoughts. 

As of Nov. 9, the painting wasn’t back at Legler and a librarian at the branch said that she had no idea when it might be returned. 

In a Tribune interview published Nov. 7, Marshall said he was happy with the decision.

“On some level you have to understand that not everything that can be sold should be sold,” he was quoted as saying. “The fact that the work was owned by the city didn’t mean the city had a right to sell it, even for the reasons they claimed they were going to sell it for. The value of an artwork isn’t just what money you can get for it. Sometimes things have a little more intrinsic value than that.”

Artist Theaster Gates, who grew up on the West Side and currently lives on the South Side, said that he was glad the city changed its mind.

“Public art should never be sold,” he said.

Gates also said that he appreciated that Marshall was at a place where he could share his true feelings on the matter, without worrying about career repercussions. 

Molloy did not respond to seeking comment on the recent turn of events. Emanuel told the Tribune that there would be a “less ambitious” upgrade to Legler, with extended service hours and 50 new computers (up from the current 12), which the mayor said would be funded through $1.8 million in cost savings from other areas of the budget.  

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