‘It’s the Right Decision’: Kerry James Marshall Applauds Chicago’s Choice Not to Auction His Painting That Hung at a Local Library

Chicago's mayor bowed to the artist's wishes in withdrawing the work from Christie's.

Kerry James Marshall, Knowledge and Wonder (1995). Photo courtesy of Christie's.

The city of Chicago has decided against its plan to auction Kerry James Marshall’s painting Knowledge and Wonder (1995), currently housed at the Chicago Public Library, following widespread criticism of the decision, including from the artist himself.

“It’s the right decision to make,” Marshall told the Chicago Tribune. The proposed sale “seemed like a way of exploiting the work of artists in the city for short-term gain in a really shortsighted kind of way. It certainly would make one believe there’s no reason to do anything because you have some kind of civic pride as a citizen.”

The city has withdrawn the painting from the upcoming November 15 auction at Christie’s New York, where it carried a pre-sale estimate of $10 million–15 million. It had paid just $10,000 for the 10-by-23-foot long painting, which depicts African American adults and children standing before an array of larger-than-life books. The City of Chicago Public Art Program commissioned the work as part of the Percent for Art Ordinance, which requires that Chicago’s municipal construction projects spend 1.33 percent of their budget on public art.

Funds from the sale would have gone toward a massive expansion project at the Legler branch of the Chicago Public Library, where the painting had hung, and would have helped establish an endowment for new public art projects in Chicago’s under-served communities.

Kerry James Marshall. Photo BARBARA SAX/AFP/Getty Images.

Kerry James Marshall. Photo: BARBARA SAX/AFP/Getty Images.

Marshall has long been vocal in his disapproval. In October he pointed out that he had just recently completed a mural for downtown Chicago for a symbolic fee of just $1, telling ARTnews “you could say the City of Big Shoulders has wrung every bit of value they could from the fruits of my labor.”

Following backlash from Marshall and other critics, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel began to have second thoughts. “This is not what I wanted, given the city’s contributions to public art, and Kerry’s a friend and also a great ambassador for Chicago,’” Emanuel told the Tribune. “I reached out to [Marshall] and said, ‘Look, I don’t want this. If you’re not happy, I don’t want to go forward.’”

The city will proceed with a less ambitious version of the renovation plan, which would transform the Legler into the library system’s first regional branch on the west side of Chicago. (Established in 1920, the Legler was actually the first regional library in the city, but lost its regional status in 1977 due to declining circulation.) Emanuel has cobbled together a new $1.8 million budget for the project, reduced from $10.5 million–11 million.

Kerry James Marshall, <i>Past Times</i> (1997). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Kerry James Marshall, Past Times (1997). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

“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,” the auction house said in a statement. “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, and one we were actively working towards together these last weeks.”

Despite Christie’s supportive statement, some have speculated that the controversy may have cooled the potential market for the work. Art advisor Benjamin Godsill speculated as much on Twitter: “‏Gonna go out on a limb here and say there wasn’t a lot of bidding appetite for a picture this big, at this estimate, with this baggage,” he wrote.

Kerry James Marshall, <em>Knowledge and Wonder</em> (1995). Photo courtesy of Christie's.

Kerry James Marshall, Knowledge and Wonder (1995). Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

Marshall is the world’s most expensive living African American artist at auction, a distinction he acquired through another sale of work created for the city of Chicago early in his career. In May, the city’s Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority consigned Past Times, which it commissioned for just $25,000 back in 1997, to Sotheby’s New York. The work, which was a highlight of the artist’s critically acclaimed traveling retrospective in 2016 and 2017, sold for $21.1 million to hip hop mogul Sean Combs.

Following the cancellation of the upcoming sale, Knowledge and Wonder will return to its original home on the second floor at the Legler library, according to Bloomberg. The branch also boasts a carved wood sculpture by Elizabeth Catlett, also acquired through the Percent for Art program, and an R. Fayerweather Babcock mural, Wilderness, Winter River Scene, which was funded by the Work Projects Administration in 1934.

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