Artist Jesse Howard was a patron at the Oak Park Public Library’s main branch long before his work was included in the library’s permanent collection last week.
“To me, this library is like a cultural center,” Howard said during a March 22 unveiling ceremony for his work, “Rennie in Rhapsody,” which will be displayed on the library’s second floor.
“I’ve been coming here for 10 or 15 years,” he said. “This place is incredible. They’ve always taken care of me.”
Library staff member Kelly Knowles said during the unveiling that library officials “ask that every work in our permanent collection be enduring, intriguing and challenging.”
Theodore N. Foss, library board vice president, said a committee comprising library board members, staff and community members were responsible for vetting Howard’s work, which was purchased through the library’s art fund.
“We had a little bit of money and we wanted something that really spoke to the values that Kelly talked about,” Foss told the crowd of roughly 60 people who attended the ceremony.
“We looked at Jesse’s work at an exhibition he had late last year at the University Club in downtown Chicago, then we visited his [home studio in Maywood],” he said.
For Knowles, who said she’s known Howard for close to a decade, the unveiling speaks to the library’s function as a public space that both showcases and cultivates the creation and appreciation of art.
“Oak Park is a creative community,” Knowles said.
But striking a balance between being a space for art and a space for people is not easy. So far, the library has managed the cohabitation through a combination of finesse, patience and ingenuity.
The Howard acquisition comes as the library is focusing on conserving and protecting the roughly two dozen works of art that are in its permanent collection — most of which were purchased between 2004 and 2006.
Jim Madigan, the library’s deputy director, said the collection’s total value was estimated at $775,000 when it was appraised last year.
That valuation, which is nothing to sneeze at, is still not an excuse to treat the library like a museum, Knowles said. No work is too good or too valuable to be kept out of sneezing, coughing or touching (that is to say, human) distance.
During a tour of the collection provided by Madigan and Knowles last Thursday afternoon, a patron’s book bag was propped on the edge of a table in a third-floor study room, slouching against the edge of “Rusty Brown: Where Will We Be in 2003,” a framed ink and blue pencil illustration by the famous Oak Park cartoonist and graphic novelist Chris Ware.
One of the jewels in the collection, Kehinde Wiley’s “Easter Realness #2” — which hangs unassumingly on a wall on the third floor — has risen in value as the artist has grown in prominence.
The library purchased the painting for $16,000 from the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago in 2004, when Wiley was still an up-and-coming talent.
By January 2017, after Wiley’s work had appeared on the hit TV show Empire and the artist had been selected to paint former president Barack Obama’s Smithsonian portrait, the painting was appraised at $125,000.
During last week’s tour, a study carrel on wheels, oblivious to that provenance, was positioned mere inches away from the Wiley, an edge pointing in the direction of the 117 x 117-inch oil on canvas.
Madigan and Knowles reacted with understated urgency, briskly rolling the desk away and taking mental notes for future reference.
It wasn’t exactly a close call. Much of the library’s furniture — mobile, sleek (the carrel wasn’t the typical boxy, walled contraption) and soft — acts as an extra, non-intrusive layer of protection for the art that doesn’t come at the expense of people’s comfort.
“This used to be in the Children’s Department, and sometimes children are inspired by the art and want to add to it,” said Madigan, pointing to Jacob Hashimoto’s “skip skitter start trip vault bounce – and other attempts at flight,” a kaleidoscopic multidimensional work of wood, paper, acrylic and nylon that courts curiosity.
“There were pencil marks in this area here,” Madigan said, referencing a small section of the wall-sized work, which hangs on the third floor near the administrative offices.
“We’re in the process of rehanging a lot of our pieces so that they’re all about 50 inches off the ground, for security purposes,” he said.
The point again, Knowles emphasized, is to preserve and protect the works without prohibiting public engagement.
“We want full viewership and full access in a space that can’t be protected,” she said. “So maybe staging is your best resort.”
Art hasn’t always been as central to the library as it is now, although the seeds of the library’s current artistic focus go back several decades, Madigan said.
In 1959, the Village Art Fair, a now-defunct organization that held an outdoor art fair each year in the village, purchased a painting for an unknown amount of money and donated it to the library.
The work, by Claude Bentley — a well-known abstract painter born in New York City who studied at Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago under Louis Ritman and Max Kahn — hangs in Madigan’s office.
In 1964, library officials ensured that architectural drawings for the second library building, built on the site of the current main library, included a place “right outside of the door for a sculpture,” Madigan said.
“There was a national competition for that piece of art,” he said.
Carole Harrison, a Michigan-based artist, won for “Unity and Growth,” a brass and copper sculpture that is the first piece of art attentive patrons see when walking through the library’s main entrance.
“Then there was really no art for a long time,” Madigan said.
Things changed in the 1990s, when library officials began conversations with Joseph R. Shapiro, an Oak Park resident who was the founding president of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a trustee at the Art Institute of Chicago and one of the country’s most renowned collectors of 20th century modern art.
“He and the director at the time, Carol Brey, said it would be great to have a gallery space here in the library,” Madigan recalled. “The success with that gallery, for the five or six years before we built this building in 2003, really changed our thinking.”
Knowles said that Brey and Shapiro’s influence “informed the way we built this building.” The new library features a permanent, second-floor gallery space that regularly showcases the work of local artists.
“The first thing we did in building this facility was have the [Carole Harrison] statue renovated and brought inside for protection so it could welcome people as they come into the library,” Madigan said.
The library also hosted two fundraisers in order to accumulate money for a fund to acquire its permanent collection — an eclectic array of work by local and national artists, including local artists of national renown, such as Ware.
Not all acquisitions were purchased. Some, like a mask created by the renowned Oak Park sculptor Geraldine McCullough, were donated.
Over the last 12 years, however, there has been a lull in new acquisitions as the library has refocused its attention on preserving the collection, some of which has been loaned out to other institutions — a mark of its growing reputation.
A floor-to-ceiling Higgins Glass partition that hangs in the first-floor lobby is now protected by a wooden rail, installed after patrons kept accidentally running into the work. A surveillance camera hovers over the Wiley painting, a reflection of the artist’s growing profile.
Some pieces have been moved — not merely for security and preservation purposes, but out of aesthetic, perhaps even spiritual, concerns. Knowles and Madigan approach displaying the art with the seriousness of museum curators.
“The pieces speak to each other,” Knowles said.
As last week’s tour ended, Knowles and Madigan stopped by the first-floor Children’s Department to check on a drawing donated to the library by the late Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, the co-founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History and a pioneer in Chicago’s black arts scene.
In the drawing, which was recently framed and prepared for display, a black girl with pony tails jumps rope as two other girls look on. It may have a lot to say to Howard’s “Rennie,” which, the artist explained, was inspired by the black women in his life who struggled through various indignities while keeping their dignity intact.
“First, let me give a shout-out to ‘Enough is Enough,’ #MeToo, and Black Lives Matter,” he said by way of introduction.