A lone painting by a celebrated contemporary artist turned into a windfall Wednesday night for a small municipal agency in Chicago.
While it was not the most expensive piece auctioned off Wednesday — that was a small Jackson Pollock drip painting on paper that sold for $34.1 million — it most likely produced one of the biggest returns on investment for one of the least likely of collectors.
The authority, which was formed by the state of Illinois, oversees McCormick Square, which includes the McCormick Place convention center, the Wintrust Arena and two hotels along the lakefront. It is required to spend a portion of its budget on art displayed to the public. As a result, it currently possesses more than 100 pieces from a wide variety of artists.
One of the works it bought in 1997 was Marshall’s “Past Times,” which the agency acquired from the Koplin Gallery in Los Angeles, one of Marshall’s dealers. (It is now the Koplin Del Rio Gallery of Seattle.) A celebrated African-American contemporary artist based in Chicago, Marshall began his rise to prominence in the 1980s for his depictions of black culture.
He painted “Past Times” the same year the authority bought it (and the same year he was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant”). The work is a lush panorama of African-Americans taking part in several leisurely activities. Among them: golf, croquet, picnicking and boating. In the background are buildings that evoke public housing towers.
“The whole project is about placing the black figure in the space of traditional painting, where that figure is very hard to find historically,” said Ian Alteveer, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which hosted a traveling retrospective of Marshall’s work, including “Past Times,” at the Met Breuer in 2016-2017.
After it was acquired for McCormick Square, the painting hung in the hallway of the convention center for years with very little protection, making it susceptible to theft or damage, even as its value grew. The authority lent the piece out for the traveling show, which began at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and also traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles.
Officials began to question whether it was appropriate to keep the painting at McCormick Place. They sent it to storage while they contemplated what to do with it.
“We’re not a museum,” said Healey said in an interview before the auction. “We’re a convention center. We’re not set up to display a piece of art of this value.”
The agency decided this year to put it up for auction. Sotheby’s had estimated it would sell for $8 million to $12 million. It ended up selling for almost double the top-end estimate. Healey said the money would be put toward the infrastructure needs of the campus.
Although the sale was greatly profitable for the agency, it may deprive the public of a highly valued work of art. (The buyer was not identified.) But Healey noted that Marshall has been based in Chicago for decades and that his work is easy to find nearby, including at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center, where Marshall painted a mural — “Rush More” — honoring 20 women who have shaped the city’s cultural scene.
“If we were a museum, it would be a much different answer than it is as a convention center operator,” Healey said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.