Kerry James Marshall Says He’s Done Making Public Art After One Too Many Institutions Tried to Cash In on His Work

Chicago isn't selling its Kerry James Marshall anymore, but the artist isn't taking anymore chances with public art.

Kerry James Marshall with A Monumental Journey. Photo courtesy of the Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation.

Kerry James Marshall wasn’t just upset when the city of Chicago revealed it was going to sell the painting he made for the Legler public library on Chicago’s West Side back in 1995. He was so disillusioned that he vowed never to make a public artwork again.

“It just seemed like a way of exploiting the work of artists in the city for short-term gain in a really short sighted kind of way,” Marshall told the Chicago Tribune. “And so I made a decision at that time I would never do another public work.”

And the artist hasn’t changed his mind, even after news broke this week that Chicago had had a change of part and wouldn’t be selling the work after all.

“There’s too many contingencies that go with public art, and there are more compromises than I think I’m going to be willing to make from here on out,” Marshall explained. Earlier this year, the artist unveiled a public art piece, dedicated to the country’s first bar association for black lawyers, in Des Moines, Iowa. Titled A Monumental Journey, it had been in the works for 12 years, plagued by delays even after Marshall personally paid for an expensive water feasibility study for the project.

In Chicago, the library’s nearly 23-foot-long by 10-foot canvas, Knowledge and Wonder, was set to fetch between $10 million and $15 million at Christie’s New York on November 15 before it was withdrawn from the auction. The city had paid just $10,000 for it at the time of its creation, and planned to fund a large-scale renovation project for the Legler branch with the proceeds.

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

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

The sale was set to follow on the heels of the record-setting auction of another piece Marshall created for Chicago early in his career: In May, the city’s Metropolitan Pier & Exposition Authority sold Past Times (1997) for $21.1 million to hip hop mogul Sean Combs, making Marshall the most expensive living African American artist at auction. The city had originally paid just $25,000 for the work.

When the city announced plans to part with Knowledge and Wonder, it was especially galling to Marshall because he had recently done another mural in Chicago, which is now on the facade of the city’s cultural center, for a symbolic fee of just $1. “I mean, why give away work that somebody else means to make money on?” he asked the Tribune. “At any opportunity, that work could be seen as nothing but cash on the wall.” (As the saga unfolded, Marshall previously told ARTnews: “You could say the City of Big Shoulders has wrung every bit of value they could from the fruits of my labor.”)

The artist emphasized that Knowledge and Wonder, with its depiction of black children and adults standing before a galaxy of oversize books, was created specifically to hang in a library. “Thematically,” said Marshall, “it’s an invitation to enter a world of knowledge and imagination.”

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