What’s So Fair About Art, Anyway?

May 9, 2012 · Print This Article

Last month would have been the latest round of NEXT/Art Chicago, Chicago’s annual art fair at Merchandise Mart.  I say would have been, because early in February, it was announced that NEXT/Art Chicago had been cancelled.  The announcement came suddenly, and on fairly short notice:  we had already received our VIP invitation, and were planning on sending our students to the fair on a field trip.  News of the fair’s cancellation first came to my attention via Facebook, the New American Paintings blog, and Chicago Art Magazine.  By the following day the story had become the talk of the town, and WBEZ ran a story including an interview with Tony Karmen, VP of Art Chicago from 2006 to 2010, who recently left to start his own Chicago art fair, Expo Chicago.

As the dust of the announcement has settled over the past two months, we’ve been left to reflect on the potential consequences of the cancellation of Art Chicago, and perhaps more importantly, its significance as an indicator of which way the wind is blowing for Chicago’s future as an art city.  At the end of that WBEZ story, host Tony Sarabia asked Allison Cuddy for her closing thoughts:  “It’s a fascinating story, I think we’ll carry through the day working on the story, and think about the relevance of art fairs to the overall art scene in Chicago.”

The end of NEXT/Art Chicago and the beginning of Expo Chicago invite some speculation as to the role art fairs can play.  In her recent article for FNews Magazine, Sarah Hamilton interviewed some local art world players, including Tom Burtonwood, Aron Gent, and Tony Karmen about their thoughts on the end of Next Art Chicago, and the dawn of Expo Chicago.  Hamilton also cites an article by Jerry Saltz in which he describes Adam Lindeman’s view that art fairs should exist solely for the benefit of high-dollar collectors as “autocoprophagic.”

Must the merit of an art fair be determined on economic grounds alone?  Who do they serve?  Are art fairs a simple facilitation of the business transaction between gallerists and collectors?  Not that there’s anything wrong with this; those transactions are how artists make their livings.  But need this be the limit of what an art fair is?

As an educator, I had been bringing my college art classes to NEXT/Art Chicago (facilitated by the really easy access to free passes), and had been looking forward to having Expo Chicago as a Fall Semester counterpoint.  Of course, the very accessibility that would have facilitated this access for my students is the antithesis of the “wall…[made] out of gold or marble,” which my friend Tom Burtonwood, in Hamilton’s article, suggests Karmen build to “keep the riff raff away.”  If Karmen follows Lindeman’s advice, and Burtonwood’s, he wouldn’t let my students anywhere near the place.

It’s easy for a teacher like myself to expect art fairs to provide students with a free art-viewing experience, but if art fairs aren’t profitable, they’ll cease to exist…at least, under the current, profit-motivated model.  Tom (along with Lindeman) may be right about what’s good for the art business, and if he is, access may be a zero-sum game:  what’s good for the art viewing public, having art fairs serve as a traveling carnival of art from around the world for their viewing pleasure, may be exactly the opposite of the exclusive atmosphere that allows them to exist in the first place.

But, and this may just be me and a bunch of other Johnny-and-Janie-Come-Latelys trying to ride the Occupy bandwagon, we could even wonder whether art fairs could exist under other terms, which need not even necessarily be profitable.  Alternative models have been tried, including the numerous satellite fairs that spring up around Art Basel Miami Beach (Aqua, Scope, Pulse, Fountain, Verge, and about a dozen others), which can be seen as symbiotic organisms whose relationship with their host may be either parasitic, commensalist (beneficial to one, harmless to the other), or mutualistic (beneficial to both).  The satellite fairs may draw buyers away from the main event, they may increase the overall buzz and street cred of an otherwise conservative event, or they may pick up some table scraps from the periphery without really affecting the main fair.  Satellite fairs have followed both for-profit and non-profit models.

At the end of Hamilton’s article, Aron Gent muses that the loss of NEXT Art Chicago, and the success or failure of the upcoming EXPO, is no big deal:  “Maybe we don’t need to worry about having kickass fairs.  Maybe we should focus on taking artists and galleries down to Miami.”  As an artist, I’d love to get my work in front of a new group of collectors, and any excuse to skip out on Chicago for a few days in December is a good one.  I imagine the cost, and therefore the risk, for a Chicago gallery doing a fair are much higher when the venue is out of town, though, and for a lot of them it may not be worth the risk.

A homegrown fair, whether NEXT/Art Chicago, Expo Chicago, MDW, or something new, could conceivably be a means of attracting collectors local, national, and international, to look at and hopefully collect works by Chicago-based artists worthy of an international audience, without imposing the burden on artists or dealers on traveling and shipping the work to rent a booth at an art fair in another city.  The challenge, though, remains as always to convince collectors that Chicago is a good place to spend their money.  I was recently fortunate enough to have one of the pieces from my show at Linda Warren Projects acquired by Howard Tullman for his collection, and so at least at the moment, I am optimistic.  There are collectors who buy from Chicago artists, and whether it’s at an art fair, from a gallery, or otherwise, they are the supporters who enable artists to continue making their work.

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