We want it to be a series of discoveries. Turn the corner and see something different,” says Ed Byers, executive director of the Oak Park Public Library.

What you see when you wander through the Lake Street library’s stacks, meeting rooms and reading places is a growing collection of contemporary American art.

So far, 14 pieces”paintings, quilts, a photograph and ink-and-pencil illustrations”have been purchased and put on permanent display. They join “Unity and Growth,” the 1966 sculpture by Carole Harrison, formerly outside the old building, that was restored and moved inside the new building.

At the start, Byers recalls, there was some debate about what kind of art would be suitable for the new library. But as soon as plans started to take shape, it was clear that one massive piece wouldn’t suit it. The library board authorized Byers to start selecting a collection of pieces “with the clear understanding that I had no expertise and would seek the advice of others,” he says.

There were some basic guidelines. Pieces had to be contemporary (ideally not older than the building itself), and by American artists, including some from Oak Park. That last requirement made choosing the advisory committee a bit dicey, since the logical members”local artists”had a built-in conflict of interest.

So Byers chose “fellow travelers, with a deep abiding interest in art but not really artists, at least as far as I knew,” he explains. He selected committee members Janet Kelenson (a library board member), Sandy Meade, Charity Piet (of the Oak Park Area Arts Council), Frank Pond (who works for the Village of Oak Park), Aaron Skog, and Camille Wilson White (executive director of OPAAC).

Their first job was fundraising. Starting with about $50,000 from the library budget, they added money earned from the Bricks for Art Program (inscribed bricks were sold and installed in front of the building) and the Gala Preview Party. The bricks sold out, raising $65,000, and the party raised another $65,000.

“Frankly, we had more money than we thought we would,” notes Byers. “Big visions don’t always equal money.”

Armed with the cash, the committee came up with what Byers calls a “logic test. It sounds simple but I can’t tell you how much work went into it,” he says. They would search for “contemporary American art which will engage our multicultural community with works that are challenging, intriguing, and enduring.”

And one more thing: the art had to be big. There were enormous empty spaces on the library walls, and small stuff just wouldn’t do.

A call went out to Oak Park artists, who were permitted to submit up to 10 slides each. The committee received and reviewed 600 proposals. The slides were anonymous, although it was inevitable that some work would be familiar. Committee members were careful, Byers says, not to mention any names.

It took six months to settle on pieces by seven local artists. One piece was no longer available, so the local choices became paintings by Jonathan Franklin, Nancy Fong and Tia Jones; two quilts from Bill Kerr and Weeks Ringle, and a photograph by Tom Palazzolo. (Three illustration boards from graphic artist Chris Ware were purchased in a later round, but the committee didn’t realize he was an Oak Parker when his work was chosen.)

Finding work from outside Oak Park was more problematic, so Byers brought in a professional consultant, Patti Gilford. She showed the committee dozens of artists, “contemporary finds good enough to pay for,” Byers says. They were looking at “the bottom of the professional national market.

“We rapidly learned that anything we all agreed on immediately was at least $50,000 over our budget,” he recalls.

Gilford led them to artist Jane Hammond, whose round “Happiness on Your Hands,” was the committee’s first purchase, and to Kehinde Wiley, who had seven pieces for sale at Art Chicago. Six went the first night of the exhibit, and the committee later purchased the last one. (Wiley has since had a major exhibit of his work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.) Other national artists in the library’s collection are John Winslow, Emilio Lobato and T. L. Solien.

The collection is “a work in progress,” says Byers. A piece by Chicago artist Dan Gustin has been commissioned for the entrance to the Veteran’s Room. There’s still some money left, and Byers hopes to add to it from time to time. The art fund also gets 20 percent of money raised from sales at the second floor gallery, which showcases a local artist or group each month.

Consider these photos an introduction to the art in the library. Then go see the real thing.

“Laura Stuart

Join the discussion on social media!