Chicago Pulls Kerry James Marshall Painting From Auction Following Criticism

A beloved painting by an artist who has become synonymous with Chicago won’t be sold at auction by the city after all.

Kerry James Marshall’s “Knowledge and Wonder” was set to be sold at Christie’s on Nov. 15. Mr. Marshall, a Chicago-based artist who rose to prominence because of his lush depictions of black culture, finished the painting in 1995 for display in the Legler branch of the Chicago Public Library. In early October, Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, announced that the city would sell the work, with the proceeds going toward upgrading the library, a decision met with fierce criticism from public-arts advocates. The artist himself criticized the move in the aftermath of the decision.

“I am certain they could get more money if they sold the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza,” Mr. Marshall said in a statement to ArtNews, adding, “You could say the City of Big Shoulders has wrung every bit of value they could from the fruits of my labor.” In May, his painting “Past Times,” which hung in a Chicago convention center, sold for $21.1 million at Sotheby’s in New York, bringing in an unexpected windfall for a small municipal agency in Chicago, the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

“Knowledge and Wonder,” a mural depicting several black figures of varying ages staring at larger-than-life books, had been estimated to sell for $10 million to $15 million.

[Read a Times critic on why “Knowledge and Wonder” should stay in Chicago]

Mr. Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, “I was swimming and thought, ‘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.’”

“I reached out to him and said, ‘Look, I don’t want this,’” Mr. Emanuel added. “‘If you’re not happy, I don’t want to go forward.’”

Christie’s said in a statement that the auction house and the city had “withdrawn the painting by mutual agreement.”

“While Christie’s was highly confident in the market’s interest and enthusiasm for this masterpiece,” the statement added, “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.”

In an interview with the Tribune, Mr. Marshall called Mr. Emanuel’s move “the right decision.”

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

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