Higher Hopes, or Just Higher Ceilings?

October 1, 2012 · Print This Article

“Art Chicago With Higher Ceilings.”  This is how one Chicago gallerist, who preferred to remain anonymous, described Expo Chicago.  Similarities are inevitable, not only those intrinsic to any Chicago art fair, but also those brought by president and director Tony Karman (vice president and director of Art Chicago from April 2006 to December  2010), as well as the familiar echoes of Navy Pier, where Art Chicago was held until 2004 and now the venue of choice for Expo.  But by last year, Art Chicago was foundering, and this year went tits-up at the last minute.  If Expo Chicago is going to succeed where Art Chicago ultimately failed (after, it should be added, over two decades of success), it’s going to have to have some major differences as well.  Hopefully, Karman is putting his experience with Art Chicago to good use in running Expo.

Sales were “cautiously positive, if not glowing,” according to Julia Halperin’s article on Art Info (which includes some specific works sold, and prices, including at least three in the million-dollar range).   Susan Snodgrass, writing for Art in America, quoted most gallerists as generally describing sales at the fair as “slow,” while describing others’ attitudes as “wait-and-see.”  That’s the tone I felt at the fair as well:  not ecstatic, but not the depressed gloom that had settled over Art Chicago by its final year, either.  I asked a pair of friends who worked the fair as section coordinators if people were selling much at Expo.  As soon as one had said, “In my section they weren’t,” the other exclaimed “In mine they were!”  So it seems to have been something of a mixed bag.

Descriptions of Karman’s strategy make heavy use of the phrase “quality over quantity,” and Snodgrass agrees with the assessment, saying, “Overall quality was high.”  Certainly there were plenty of well-known names on the walls of the bigger, blue-chip galleries, and gathered together the best (or at least the best-known) could have made for a respectable, if modest, exhibition at a small contemporary art museum.

This, though, is a narrow and safe definition of quality, and while it may sustain the sales necessary to carry Expo into another year, it runs the risk of trading artistic liberty to purchase a little financial safety.  There was relatively little unexpected at Expo; that which was surprising was mostly in the seventeen or so spaces in the Exposure project, dedicated to newer galleries such as Chicago’s Andrew Rafacz Gallery and The Mission Projects.  When these galleries sell work at a lower price point (compared to the sometimes seven figures the blue chip galleries list), and show artists with a less established sales record, it can be difficult to cover the costs of a regular art fair booth, and projects like Exposure may, if priced and juried right, attract an exciting energy to what could otherwise become an overly stodgy event.

It may be that calls for more experimental, risk-taking, emerging art are naïve, romantic notions rendered untenable by a harsh economic climate.  It may be that in addition to the smaller scale, and undeniably more attractive venue, of Expo in comparison to Art Chicago’s final days (the ceilings really are higher; the place looks like a Zeppelin hanger, which is awesome), some of the more experimental, challenging projects, and more exciting (though less established) galleries, will find themselves cut from the equation by the cold, hard logic of economics.

The argument could be made that this is the reality of holding an art fair in Chicago.  However, a counter-argument is being made in the form of the MDW (“Midway”) fair, which describes itself as “a showcase for independent art initiatives, spaces, galleries and artist groups, highlighting artist-run activities and experimental culture locally, nationally and internationally.” In many ways, it is everything that Expo isn’t (and Art Chicago wasn’t).  There won’t be any metallic silver spaceships (Weather balloons?  Inverted orange juicers?) hanging from colossal ceilings in a cyclopean amphitheatre, and glasses of wine aren’t likely to be delivered on sliver trays even at the Vernissage opening night event.  Booth prices are lower, sales tighter, and the whole economics of the thing scaled down.  There will be relatively few big-time European collectors, and no seven-figure sales, but instead there will be experimentation, unconventional spaces, and unexpected and surprising work.

MDW isn’t likely to rival Art Basel or Frieze in terms of dollar values moved, or the international reputation of the work seen.  (Note that I said nothing here about quality; there has been some exceptional work at both of the previous MDW fairs.)  MDW’s significant contribution to Chicago’s art scene is likely to remain “other than economic.”  Rather, it can provide a counterpoint to the commercial fairs, showing what can be done even in tough economic times.  It might even hope to lead the big boys by example, encouraging a more experimental and risk-taking attitude on the part of the big fair organizers, galleries, and collectors, to show and support the work of artists who are already performing the experiments and taking the risks.

The attitude, even among MDW’s organizers themselves, is that Chicago still needs a large, commercial art fair:  Ed Marszewski, one of MDW’s organizers, posted on Facebook, “Well, you know it.  Expo looks kind of fantastic.  We’ve got something to be proud of.”  Judging not only by the Facebook “likes” and comments, but also by the chatter in meatspace, the sentiment seemed to be shared pretty widely across a broad spectrum of Chicago’s art community, which had collectively exuded an aura of embarrassment over Art Chicago’s last few years.

Expo is almost certain to happen again next year, with some galleries already making plans to be there. (NewCity’s Robin Dluzen quotes Karman as saying, “There had better be a fair next year, or I don’t know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”)  Beyond that is anyone’s guess, and will depend in large part on next year’s sales.  Ultimately, though, for an art fair to truly succeed, and avoid Art Chicago’s final demise, it must remain interesting, compelling, and relevant.  This means new work by living artists, both established and emerging.  When a fair plays it too safe, it courts disaster.  Expo’s dealers may already have learned this lesson; Dluzen observes that “it was the contemporary, primary market art, not the Modern, secondary market art, that was being moved.”  Hopefully, Karman will pay close heed to this lesson, and perhaps even follow, in part, the example being set by MDW.  If Expo is to be Chicago’s chance at a lasting, world-class art fair, it’s going to have to be both profitable and exciting.  That’s a delicate balance, and next year is going to be a demanding test of how well Expo strikes it.

 

Expo Chicago is scheduled for September 18-22, 2013, at Navy Pier.  MDW takes place this November 9th to 11th, 2012, at Mana Contemporary Art Center, just off Cermak Road in Pilsen.

Top Feature Image:  Scan of rapid prototype of my head, made by Tom Burtonwood while we were working together at the Bad at Sports booth at Expo Chicago.

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