The Chicago Public Library Is Selling a Kerry James Marshall Painting to Fund Public Art in Underserved Communities

The work is heading to Christie's with an estimate of $10-15 million.

Portrait of Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

In a move that is sure to be closely watched, the Chicago Public Library is consigning the Kerry James Marshall painting Knowledge and Wonder (1995) to Christie’s. Proceeds from the work will fund the renovation of the Legler Branch Library on the city’s west side and the endowment of the city’s first-ever fund to support public art projects in under-served communities.

Measuring 10 feet in height by more than 23 feet in length, the large-scale work has been estimated at $10 million–15 million. The artwork has been on view at the Legler Branch of the city’s library since it was completed, meaning that its sale will benefit the much-needed modernization of the building that housed it for more than two decades.

Rendered in Marshall’s unmistakable style, the painting depicts children and adults in front of over-sized textbooks. Knowledge and Wonder was commissioned by the city library in the mid-1990s as part of the “Percent for Art” program, which requires all construction and renovation initiatives of municipal buildings to spend 1.33 percent of their budget on public art for display on the premises. Since its completion the work was only moved for its inclusion in the Chicago Cultural Center’s 2014 exhibition “35 Years of Public Art.”

“In Knowledge and Wonder, Kerry James Marshall realizes an iconic modern-day history painting rife with layered meaning and symbols of inspiration,” Christie’s senior specialist of Post-War and Contemporary Art, Alexis Klein, said in a statement. “In this seminal masterpiece, the artist opens up the art historical canon to a new generation, promoting knowledge and learning as the tools necessary for social change.”

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

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

The sale is a big enough deal that Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel also made an official statement. “Kerry James Marshall is helping not only write the next chapter in the history of Chicago Public Library, his work will go directly towards supporting the West Side of Chicago. With this investment, Legler will become a vital community anchor for families to gather, students to get homework help, and job-seekers to connect with life-changing opportunities.”

Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, Emanuel added, “It’s up on the second floor. Not many people knew it even existed.”

The Legler Branch Library. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Legler Branch Library in Chicago. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It is unlikely to remain obscure. The little-known artwork could even surpass Marshall’s auction record set in May, when hip-hop star Diddy bought his large-scale painting Past Times (1997) at Sotheby’s for $21 million, setting a world record for the artist. Past Times had been consigned by Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, which owns and operates the city’s Navy Pier and McCormick Place convention centers. The corporation had purchased the work in 1997 for $25,000.


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