The materials range from fused glass to quilted fabric to metals. There are ink and oils on board, paper and canvas. The artists come from New York, LA, Colorado, Michigan, and closer to home in Riverside and Chicago, but mostly from Oak Park. Some are known nationally while others are familiar in the neighborhood. 

The assemblage is roughly 30 pieces strong, yet, this permanent collection is in a free public space with a purpose of making everyone who visits feel welcome. 

The Oak Park Public Library’s art collection is a gem that is becoming more interactive with the public. Inspiration plaques now accompany much of the art. See Margaret Burroughs’ prints, one accompanied by a poem written by her, another “An Elegy for Margaret Burroughs” by Kevin Coval, a Chicago poet. 

Find Tom Palazzolo’s “A View From Bridge” photo and learn about his filmmaking. Learn about cartoonist Chris Ware as a musician or see the 1927 music that inspired another artwork. 

“All of these plaques are designed to inspire you to go somewhere in the library collection and learn more,” said Jim Madigan, Oak Park Library’s deputy director.

Soon, viewing the art will become even more personal by hearing from the artists directly. Madigan, along with Kelly Knowles, supervisor of branch and access services, are recording interviews with artists. 

There will be plaques with a phone number to call to hear what the artists have to say. “In Conversation” will kick off in a couple of months.

While Madigan is set to retire this month, Knowles will begin overseeing the art collection. Maintenance of the permanent art pieces includes updating insurance appraisals every five years, scheduling cleaning and repairs, coordinating donations and considering new works. 

When the latest work, Jesse Howard’s “Rennie In Rhapsody,” was added last spring, many things were considered, according to Madigan, including that he is known in the community, a regular at the Oak Park library and that his art is relatable.  

“His work fits into our desire to fit into a multicultural community,” Madigan said.

Tax dollars are not used to acquire new works and maintaining the permanent collection. When the new library was being built, a campaign to sell bricks and an opening gala raised funds still in use today. The Art Gallery, with monthly changing exhibits by local artists, also contributes. When an artist sells a work from here, the library receives 20 percent, like any art gallery.  

Madigan also said having a quality collection attracts donors. Recent significant acquisitions from donors include a mask by Oak Park artist Geraldine McCullough, a large-scale image by Irish photographer Paul Seawright and a glass plate, “Fish Gotta Swim, Birds Gotta Fly” by Frances and Michael Higgins. 

Madigan said they have an art collection because he believes “the library is the premier cultural institution in Oak Park,” and most “do not have a dedicated gallery space, but Oak Park seemed to want one.”

That started in the mid-1990s when a former library director and Oak Park resident, art collector and Museum of Contemporary Art founder Joseph Shapiro combined forces to create a gallery space in the former main library for local artists to exhibit. 

The next step was to build a permanent collection, according to Madigan, which was done in earnest when the new main library was erected.  

Two significant pieces were already in the library’s possession. The Village Art Fair of Oak Park (a now defunct organization) had bought a 1959 Claude Bentley abstract painting they gave the library, and in the mid-1960s, they commissioned a sculpture for the entrance to the previous Main Library. The larger-than-life brass and copper “Unity and Growth” by Carole Harrison still welcomes visitors at the current main library, opened in 2003. 

The guiding principal, that art be “challenging, intriguing and enduring,” was established when the new main library was building its permanent collection in 2003. 

 “Art speaks to people in a different language … and sometimes art can speak to people of different cultures.” Madigan said. “Art can make people feel welcome in a space.”

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