Earlier this month, Christie’s announced that it planned to sell Kerry James Marshall’s Knowledge and Wonder (1995), a mural produced for the Chicago Public Library that depicts 15 black men, women, and children standing in front of oversized books and magazines, at its New York auction house on November 15. The work was estimated to sell for between $10 million and $15 million, and was being sold by the city of Chicago to support an upgrade of the branch for which the mural was commissioned, the Legler Library. But following a controversy surrounding the plan to auction the work—which some, including Marshall himself, have questioned—Christie’s has officially withdrawn Knowledge and Wonder from the sale.
The auction house confirmed the news, which was first reported by the Chicago Tribune and Bloomberg. According to the Tribune report, the work will remain at the Legler Library, where it will be remounted as soon as possible.
Emanuel told the Tribune, “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,’ ” Emanuel said Sunday afternoon. “I reached out to him and said, ‘Look, I don’t want this. If you’re not happy, I don’t want to go forward.’ ”
In a statement, Christie’s said that the painting’s withdrawal was done by “mutual agreement” with the city of Chicago. “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. 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.”
The decision to yank the work from the sale comes amid a swirl of controversy. Museum officials and politicians had been left divided over whether the work should head to auction at all. In October, shortly after the news was first announced, Marshall told ARTnews, “I am certain they could get more money if they sold the Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza. Considering that only last year Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel and Commissioner [of the Department of Cultural Affairs Mark] 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.”
In the plan originally laid out by the auction house, the funds gained from the sale would go toward improvements on the Legler Library. The Tribune previously reported that the money would enable the library to host “longer hours, significantly more services and programs for adults and children, and collections unique to the surrounding West Side community,” and to build a new STEM-focused children’s library, a sound studio for teens, and a studio space for artists-in-residence. Some of the funds would also go toward Chicago’s public art program.
Knowledge and Wonder had been commissioned by the Legler Library for $100,000 in 1993 as part of Chicago’s “Percent for Art” program, which ensures that 1.33 percent of the costs associated with construction or renovation of a space in the city support the creation of a new public work.
Emanuel told the Tribune, “I own the decision to try and create equity for the West Side. I own the idea of trying to find an elegant solution. And I own pulling it back when it doesn’t work for everybody.”