In February 2012, when Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. announced it was pulling the plug on the city’s only major art fair, a number of dealers breathed a sigh of relief. Next Art Chicago had been struggling for years: In 2006, the fair was almost canceled when it became clear, a few days before it was scheduled to open in Grant Park, that construction wouldn’t be completed in time. Rumors swirled of then-owner Thomas Blackman’s financial trouble, and MMPI swooped in to acquire the fair. “[Merchandise Mart] was wonderful to save the day the first time around,” says West Loop gallery owner Rhona Hoffman. But, she points out, with its low ceilings and dim lighting, “Merchandise Mart is a location nobody wants to be in.”
Next Art Chicago was an incarnation of Art Chicago, established in 1980 as the Chicago International Art Exposition. It continued, in some form or another, with frequent name changes, for decades. But in recent years, the fair struggled due to dwindling sales and a declining number of high-end dealers, potentially because of competition from fairs in other cities—or, some say, because of bad management. “[Merchandise Mart] made the installation and the deinstallation very rough on the dealers, and their lack of good signage and directions made it very difficult for the visitors to know what elevator to take up,” Hoffman says. Merchandise Mart did not reply to requests for comment.
When Next Art Chicago was canceled, she and some dealers had already turned their focus to a new art fair on the block—or rather, the pier. On Thursday 20, the inaugural International Exposition of Contemporary/Modern Art and Design, or Expo Chicago, debuts at Navy Pier, running through Sunday 23. Founder Tony Karman, who left his gig as vice president and director of Art Chicago in 2010, once thought he’d be competing against his old employer. Now, Expo stakes its claim as the only major art fair in town.
Expectations are predictably high for the first year. Karman, a charismatic president and director, follows a Daniel Burnham–ish “no little plans” modus operandi. A typical quote: “I’m not trying to do just an art fair, because if I was just doing that, it would stir no souls.”
Whether Expo Chicago will attain high status locally, nationally or internationally remains to be seen, but Chicago gallerists, artists and curators seem optimistic. Through three key steps, Expo Chicago promises to be different and, organizers and dealers hope, more profitable.
Step No. 1 Relocate
Karman says “two magic words” will help shape Expo’s success: Navy Pier. “I think moving back into [this venue] is a significant signal to the art world—similar to FIAC [International Contemporary Art Fair] moving back into the Grand Palais in Paris—that this is a serious professional fair.” Expo Chicago will be located in the spacious, well-lit Festival Hall, which features 55-foot-high ceilings and a presentation floor of 170,000 square feet. “It’s a better environment [than Merchandise Mart] for looking at art,” says Michael Darling, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Chicago art impresario Ed Marzewski, who organizes alternative fests and runs Bridgeport’s Co-Prosperity Sphere, an experimental cultural center, agrees. “Something like this is perfect for the Pier, in my mind,” he says. As an art curator/planner on the team to remake Navy Pier’s public spaces before its 2016 centennial, Marzewski isn’t just thinking of the fair’s historical context, but also of the tourist attraction’s future. Expo Chicago tapped the forward-thinking Studio Gang Architects, led by MacArthur fellow and Aqua Tower designer Jeanne Gang, to design the interior environment. It features a floor plan inspired by the Chicago street grid, as well as mirrored Mylar cones suspended above the exhibits, reflecting the activity below. Meanwhile, a program called In/Situ, organized by curator and critic Michael Ned Holte and featuring artists such as Robert Barry, Fiona Conner and Theaster Gates, will take advantage of the expansive space by featuring large-scale installations, plus site-specific and performative works.
Step No. 2 Keep It Small
Rather than cram as many dealers as possible into the space, the number of exhibiting galleries is capped at around 120 (13 of which are Chicago-based). By comparison, last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach had more than 260 participating galleries. The 2012 Expo Chicago exhibitors were chosen by a selection committee composed of Hoffman, Anthony Meier (San Francisco’s Anthony Meier Fine Arts) and Chris D’Amelio (New York’s D’Amelio Gallery). “I’m glad they’ve been so stringent about keeping the number of galleries small, because I think that’s been a downfall of some recent fairs in other cities,” Darling says. “There’s just too much, and the quality often tends to suffer.”
Expo Chicago also added a component called Exposure, which provides 17 galleries that have been in business for five years or less with 200-square-foot booths at reduced rates. One participating Chicago gallery is the Mission in West Town, which has been in operation for a year and a half and has never exhibited at a major fair. “We’re honored that we were invited,” says director Natalia Ferreyra. “The Mission brings artists that are really pushing the envelope in South America to an international platform, and Tony and Nicole [Berry, Expo Chicago deputy director] have been great supporters of our vision.”
For some Chicago galleries, though, the costs are prohibitive: $22,000 for regular exhibitors and $8,000–$9,000 for Exposure. “The main part of the fair is entirely too expensive for me, and my gallery is deemed ‘too old’ for Exposure,” says Scott Speh of Western Exhibitions in the West Loop, which opened in 2004. (Expo Chicago’s prices are on par with fairs in other cities, Karman says.) Speh’s gallery will participate in the second annual Gallery Weekend Chicago, of which Speh is a cofounder, which is a separate, multievent program that runs concurrently with the fair, Friday 21 through Sunday 23 and includes 15 Chicago galleries (seven of which are also exhibiting at Expo Chicago). Featuring gallery visits, private museum tours, VIP parties and more to a select group of national and international collectors and curators, Gallery Weekend seeks to promote Chicago’s contemporary art scene in a nonfair environment. “It’s become less interesting for me to present in an art-fair setting in my own hometown when I have this terrific [gallery] space here,” says cofounder and gallery owner Monique Meloche. Still, Gallery Weekend supports Expo; Meloche says she chose the dates to coincide with the fair, and is working with Karman to make sure the two events’ VIP programming doesn’t conflict.
Step No. 3 Collaborate
Next Art Chicago had its share of collaborations, but Karman has gunned for even stronger partnerships for this fair, teaming with institutions such as the Art Institute, the Children’s Museum and the Renaissance Society. The MCA will serve as an ancillary host, with the opening-night gala, Vernissage—a revived Art Chicago tradition—functioning as a fund-raiser for the museum. The MCA’s Darling is also participating in a panel discussion with other curators as part of the fair’s Dialogues series, presented in partnership with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the MCA Store will sell art books at the Expo, along with New York’s Printed Matter. In one of Expo’s most intriguing collaborations, Hoffman and the Natural Resources Defense Council are sourcing garbage from the Chicago, Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to re-create Gordon Matta-Clark’s Garbage Wall. Whereas the late artist’s 1970 installation was created in New York for the first Earth Day, this version will highlight water pollution in the Midwest.
Of these partnerships, Karman says he has worked closely with all of the curatorial teams at every Chicago cultural institution, and “they have been enthusiastic and very helpful in making sure the art world outside and inside Chicago is activated.” Amid this buzz, Karman believes, “There’s no doubt [Expo Chicago] has stirred many souls.”
Will it also stir up sales? “That’s the big question,” Meloche says. “That’s what’s going to get dealers to come back again for year two.” In the ’90s, Art Chicago was one of only a few international art fairs. Today, there’s a glut. It’s risky to start a new fair in this climate, Marzewski admits, but he applauds Expo Chicago’s efforts. “Strategically and tactically, everything seems pretty smart,” he says.