Last fall, outspoken opposition from Chicago artist Kerry James Marshall forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to pull the plug on a controversial plan to sell off the valuable mural Marshall had generously donated to the city and use the money to fund a West Side regional library.
Emanuel’s Plan B was to make a “down payment” of just under $2 million to help expand hours at the Chicago Public Library’s Legler branch hours. He also would have brought 50 new computers to the branch at 115 S. Pulaski Rd. in West Garfield Park.
That was a far cry from the mayor’s original plan to spend $11.2 million on a 36,000-square-foot Legler expansion and another $1.7 million-a-year to expand its programming and operating hours to match the city’s two other regional libraries.
On Wednesday, Chicago’s retiring mayor shifted back to Plan A, with help from Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who doubles as the state’s chief librarian.
Emanuel and White held a news conference at Legler to announce that they have found another way to restore the West Side branch library to the regional status it held until the 1970s.
According to the mayor’s office, a two-year, $4 million investment from the Illinois State Library will support technology upgrades and infrastructure, while a $7.5 million investment from the City will support “building upgrades,” additional services and Sunday and expanded weekday hours scheduled to begin this spring.
City Hall said the $7.5 million city investment will come from “2019 budgeted dollars” and from proceeds generated by a general-obligation bond issue for infrastructure improvements. Once the expansion is completed, the Marshall mural now in storage will be returned to Legler.
The new regional library will also pioneer a new “Artist in Residence” program by reserving studio space where a local artist can work and host arts programs for West Side residents.
Marshall could not be reached for comment on the mayor’s alternative plan.
Emanuel had originally planned to raise the entire $15 million needed for the regional library upgrade by selling off “Knowledge and Wonder,” a large painting by Marshall that hung on the second floor of the Legler branch.
To appease public art aficionados, Emanuel wanted to create a public art fund to support art projects in under-served communities.
But, the sale of a highly-acclaimed and donated painting by a renowned local artist did not sit well with Marshall.
A story in ARTnews quoted Marshall as saying, “I am certain they could get more money if they sold the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza.”
During that interview, conducted while Marshall was in London, the artist also said: “Considering that only last year Mayor Emanuel and Commissioner Kelly dedicated another mural I designed downtown for which I was asked to accept one dollar, you could say the City of Big Shoulders has wrung every bit of value they could from the fruits of my labor.”
Civic Federation President Laurence Msall had also raised questions about the proposed sale of a valuable piece of public art because the “one-time asset sale” was not “tied to an operating plan” and no “re-curring revenue” was identified to bankroll services at the Legler branch.
Still, Emanuel stood his ground until Marshall went public with his outspoken opposition.
“Kerry’s a friend. And if he’s not happy, then it’s not something that works for everybody,” the mayor told the Sun-Times in November.
Even in retreat, Emanuel complained an earlier sale of a Marshall painting that hung at McCormick Place did not generate similar criticism.
But, he said, “If the artist isn’t happy, there’s no reason to go forward.”
The sale of “Knowledge and Wonder” would have been handled by Christie’s Auction House. City Hall was counting on it to generate upwards of $15 million.
The auction house welcomed the mayor’s abrupt about-face.
“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,” a statement from Christie’s said then.
“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.”