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EDITORIAL: A restored West Side regional library is worth the price of a painting

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

Giving up one treasure to regain another is always a tough decision.

So we understand those who object to selling a large painting by famed African-American artist Kerry James Marshall to restore a West Side library to regional status.

The painting, “Knowledge and Wonder,” now hangs on the second floor of the Chicago Public Library’s Legler branch in West Garfield Park. It is unquestionably one of the library’s gems and a triumph of the city’s “Percent for Art” program, which requires municipal construction and large renovation projects to set aside 1.33 percent of the money for public art. The painting was commissioned for $10,000 when Legler was renovated in 1993.

EDITORIAL

But the West Side needs an even bigger gem — a regional library, just as the South and North sides already have. Regional library status would mean more programming, longer hours and a significant expansion of the 1920s Beaux Arts building, which was decommissioned as a regional library in 1977.

Generations of writers and others can attest to how Chicago’s libraries shaped their lives and careers. Recently, author Harry Mark Petrakis recounted in these pages how in his childhood he would find a chair in a remote corner of a library and spend hours reading in the building’s “womblike ambience.” Chicago author Megan Stielstra talks about how she cut high school classes so she could hang around the library, inspired by Richard Wright’s account of sitting on the floor of a library as a young person, reading Theodore Dreiser. Playwright David Mamet calls the Chicago Public Library “my alma mater.”

Libraries also have become essential community centers, meeting spaces, cultural institutions and places where young people with difficult lives can find encouragement for their aspirations.

What makes this trade-off work — a painting for a better library — is that the painting’s value has shot up. City officials estimate the artwork could bring in more than $15 million at auction. Another of Marshall’s paintings, “Past Times,” which the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority bought in 1997 for $25,000, sold this year for $21.1 million.

A second justification for selling “Knowledge and Wonder” is that its skyrocketing value raises concerns that it can’t be properly protected from theft or damage. A library has nowhere near the security measures of an art museum.

We’ll hate to see “Knowledge and Wonder” go, particularly if it is to a private buyer who will take it off of public display.

But we’ll look forward to a restored regional library that brings greater vitality, learning and cultural enrichment to the West Side.

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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
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