City plan to sell $15M painting slammed as questionable way to upgrade library

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel has decided not to sell “Knowledge and Wonder,” a Kerry James Marshall painting, to help pay for renovations at the Legler library branch, where the painting was displayed. It is now in storage, and will be restored and put back into the library once renovations are complete. | Provided

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall on Monday raised serious concerns about Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to sell off a valuable piece of public art and use the proceeds to give the West Side a regional library.

Emanuel wants to restore the Legler branch library, 115 S. Pulaski Rd., to the regional status it held until the 1970s.

That would require the city to spend about $11.2 million to expand the 36,000-square-foot library and another $1.7 million-a-year to expand its programming and operating hours to match the city’s two other regional libraries.

To do that, Emanuel has made what Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly called the “difficult” decision to sell “Knowledge and Wonder,” a large painting by renowned artist Kerry James Marshall hanging on Legler’s second floor.

The sale will be handled by Christie’s Auction House. City Hall hopes it will bring upwards of $15 million.

To appease public art aficionados, Emanuel would create a public art fund to support art projects in under-served communities.

None of that sits well with Msall — because, he said, it’s “not tied to an operating plan.”

“There is no recurring revenue that the city or the library has identified as to how those services will be paid for. This is, at best, a one-time asset sale. If the decision is made to take this community asset out of the neighborhood, the money should be for longer-term investments — not operating expenses,” Msall said.

“We paid increased taxes in the cost of these public buildings to establish art and cultural installations that will enhance the experience. Now, just because the investment has a market value, the decision to take that out of the community is one that should be carefully considered. We would urge the City Council to hold hearings on what exactly are the city’s policies for what art gets sold.”

Without mentioning the name Richard M. Daley, Emanuel has repeatedly condemned his predecessor’s penchant for selling off city assets — such as the widely-despised parking meter deal — and using those one-time proceeds for ongoing expenses.

That’s apparently why Library Commissioner Brian Bannon insisted money from the over-sized painting be used exclusively on the library expansion and technology upgrades.

Also on tap for the library would be expanded hours, more employees and increased programming. Those will cost at least $1.7 million per year; that money will be in Emanuel’s eighth and final city budget, Bannon said.

The Legler branch library, 101 S. Pulaski Rd., was once a regional library — and would be again, under a plan the city will announce Wednesday. City officials had planned to sell off a valuable artwork that has been displayed on the building’s second floo

The Legler branch library, 101 S. Pulaski Rd., was once a regional library — and would be again, under a plan to sell off a valuable artwork now on display on the building’s second floor. | Google Streetview

Bannon argued that a neighborhood library was “not set up to maintain and secure” such a valuable painting.

“The value of the artist’s work has gone up exponentially, just over the last few years with the historic sale just last spring of a very comparable piece for just over $20 million,” Bannon said.

“This is the kind of thing that does sometimes happen. You have stuff that becomes so valuable, it isn’t safe or secure or can’t be maintained properly in a public building.”

Bannon noted that Legler was Chicago’s “original regional library” when it opened during the 1920’s. For some reason — nobody is quite certain why — Legler was “de-commissioned” as a regional library and downgraded to a branch library during the 1970’s, he said.

“Regional libraries serve as a mini-central library. The West Side doesn’t have one,” the commissioner said.

“What this will do is provide the same complement of services we have on the North and South Sides, in terms of Sunday hours, more evening and morning hours, additional programs for children and families, additional space for collections. It’ll serve as a hub for the West Side.”

Msall was not appeased by Bannon’s assurance about painting proceeds being used only for capital costs.

“The greatest concern is that they do not have a plan right now for the operating expense. Saying they’re gonna find a source in the future does not convince us that they won’t end up using a significant part of the asset proceeds in the short or even long-term to pay for the operating expenses,” Msall said.

Msall said the city should compile an inventory of all the artworks it owns. He noted that Marshall’s painting has “great value to the community” and was fulfilling its mission to expose local residents to a work of art.

“Taking it out of the community raises the question of what you’re going to replace it with,” Msall said, “and, why this community was chosen to have its community assets taken out of it in order to pay for essential library and other services.”

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