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Mayor says he won’t sell Kerry James Marshall painting to upgrade library

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

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he has decided not to sell a painting by artist Kerry James Marshall, downgrading his plan to give the West Side a regional library as a result.

Still, the mayor said anyone applauding his decision “should not think that our job is done.” He said his mission remains bringing “fairness and equity and investment to the West Side.”

“It can’t be shortchanged anymore,” Emanuel said in a Sunday telephone interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.

The mayor said he told Marshall his decision in a phone call two weeks ago. He said he told the artist he had hoped to sell “Knowledge and Wonder” as part of an “eloquent solution” that would restore the Legler branch library at 115 S. Pulaski Rd. to the regional status it held until the 1970s.

Marshall could not immediately be reached for comment Sunday. Last month, he complained to ARTnews, saying, “I am certain they could get more money if they sold the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza.”

“Kerry’s a friend,” Emanuel said. “And if he’s not happy, then it’s not something that works for everybody.”

The mayor said the city would still make a “down payment” of a little under $2 million to help expand Legler’s hours and bring 50 new computers to the branch in West Garfield Park. However, the original plan was to spend about $11.2 million to expand the 36,000-square-foot library. Emanuel also hoped to create a public art fund to support art projects in underserved communities.

Along the way, he made what Cultural Affairs and Special Events Commissioner Mark Kelly called the “difficult” decision to sell Marshall’s large painting, which hung on Legler’s second floor. The sale of the painting was to be handled by Christie’s Auction House, and City Hall hoped it would fetch upwards of $15 million.

Civic Federation President Laurence Msall complained that the painting’s sale was “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,” Msall said last month. “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.”

Now the painting is expected to return to Legler.

A Christie’s spokesperson said in a statement: “While Christie’s was highly confident in the market’s interest and enthusiasm for this masterpiece, we are also strong supporters of public art and we are pleased to see this outcome. All parties involved are delighted that Kerry James Marshall’s ‘Knowledge and Wonder’ will stay in Chicago — that had been a shared goal for the city and Christie’s throughout the sale process.”

Emanuel complained Sunday that an earlier sale of a Marshall painting that hung at McCormick Place did not generate similar criticism. He insisted the money from the sale of the library’s painting would have been invested back in the community.

However, he said, “if the artist isn’t happy, there’s no reason to go forward.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman