Expo Chicago is a ‘game changer’ in the art world
By Madeline Nusser September 20, 2013 1:28PM
Expo Chicago at Navy Pier
Edition Chicago at Chicago Artists Coalition; Fountain Art Fair at Mana Contemporary
When: Expo Chicago, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sept. 20-21 and from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 22; Edition Chicago, noon-7 p.m. Sept. 20, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sept. 21 and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 22; Fountain Art Fair, noon–midnight Sept. 20-21 and noon-5 p.m. Sept. 22
Where: Expo Chicago
(expochicago.com), 600 E. Grand Ave.; Chicago Artists Coalition (editionchicago.com), 217 N. Carpenter St., Chicago; Fountain Art Fair (fountainartfair.com), 2233 S. Throop St., Chicago
Cost: Expo Chicago, daily $20, weekend $30; Edition Chicago, donation $10; Fountain Art Fair, VIP $50, daily $10, weekend $15
Updated: October 21, 2013 6:15AM
Chicago art fairs might have reached their nadir when, in 2006, unpaid union workers walked off the job, halting construction on Art Chicago’s Grant Park tent. Or perhaps things hit bottom after it was rebranded as Artropolis, a mixed bag of art and antique shows that eventually fizzled out.
Chicago’s newest art fair, Expo Chicago, rolls the dice this weekend at Navy Pier. To weather its pivotal sophomore year, the fair must compete with more than 100 international fairs, many of them new, all aiming to attract the same blue-chip galleries.
Expo president Tony Karman is unabashedly optimistic. His goal: to make Expo the Midwest fair and, tougher yet, the place to see art in September.
“We looked at what worked and what did not,” Karman said over coffee outside his River North offices in Chicago.
Karman counts a return to Navy Pier and an attempt to involve the city — especially its world-renowned restaurants — as keys to the inaugural fair’s successes.
As far as challenges: “We continue to [try to attract] collectors from around the country,” he said. Ever the diplomat, Karman stresses that 2012’s fair drove collectors. But to further improve their numbers, he spent time wining and dining art communities in Kansas City, St. Louis, Minnesota and Texas.
If anyone understands what makes a Chicago art fair float, it’s Karman. He entered the business in 1983 as a fair security guard. He stuck around after Chicago’s art staple reached its height in the early 1990s, when Navy Pier built Festival Hall to house North America’s best art show. Then he quietly ducked out in late 2010. But that summer, amidst rumblings concerning the flailing fair’s future, Karman made a big announcement: He had partnered with the producers of the SOFA, the international exposition of Sculpture Objects & Functional Art + Design, to start his own fair, the International Exposition of Contemporary and Modern Art or, more modestly, Expo Chicago.
Corbett vs. Dempsey is in. The Chicago modern and contemporary powerhouse participates in four to six annual expositions including the winter’s de rigueur art world event, Art Basel in Miami Beach. “Fairs are very expensive, [so] we take selection very serious,” co-owner John Corbett said by telephone. “That said, the home base is important to us.”
The gallery plans to co-curate the biggest space possible — two large booths mashed together — with New York dealer David Nolan. In an unconventional twist, the booth will be shaped like a face with some 70 portraits dotting the wall at eye line.
“Fairs can get boring,” Corbett said. “You go from booth to booth to booth. It’s most interesting to us when you see something and it provokes you to understand it in a new way.”
One of Expo Chicago’s biggest challenges: “art fair fatigue.” Some in the city’s art community are questioning whether Expo Chicago— which operates with convention hall booths and dealers chosen by a traditional application process — has gone far enough to differentiate itself.
Part of its competition comes from the crop of satellite fairs that have popped up this weekend. New York’s traveling Fountain Art Fair will set up shop at Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood outpost of Mana Studios (an arts company headquartered in the New York City area), running shuttles to and from Navy Pier.
“We aim to feel more like an exhibition than an art fair,” Fountain co-founder John Leo said by phone. The all-inclusive event accepts any gallery or artist who forks over around $1,500. “Galleries are closing down and repositioning themselves as having a space at fairs year-round, so the whole point [of a fair] is the galleries being successful.” Fountain’s own physical space, in New York City’s Meatpacking District, shuttered in 2010 when, Leo said, the rent “went exponential.”
Across town, first-time fair Edition Chicago sets out to be small, experimental and high-quality. Creative director Andrew Rafacz, owner of the eponymous gallery in Chicago’s West Loop, said he wanted to offer “something at a different price point,” Rafacz said. “By doing something no- or low-risk, dealers can get more experimental, show something that wouldn’t be shown at another art fair.”
Taking place at Chicago Artists’ Coalition’s Fulton Market loft space, the show handpicked a small number of up-and-coming dealers. “I’ve done fairs where I’m next to a booth that looks like no one vetted it, and I’ve participated in fairs where I felt I belonged, ” the gallerist said. “If we have even a tiny bit of this feeling, that’s our goal.”
“What interests me is getting people who are willing to buy pieces a few times in their life,” chimed in CAC executive director Carolina Jayaram. “We want to do something accessible for them.” Edition worked with Karman to reach out to burgeoning collectors and present cross-marketed events.
And this is perhaps the secret to his longevity: Karman, in his indelible optimism, is easy to pair up with, and impossible to dislike. “When I started, if you’d asked me if I’d be doing this 30 years later, I’d chuckle,” Karman said. “When I launched, people thought I was crazy — they might still think I’m crazy.”
In hindsight, one thing’s for certain: Chicago changed the game. For better or worse, it is now an art fair world.
“Does the art world need another art fair?” Rafacz mused. “We’re doing something elastic and lean. Year two is a defining year [for Expo], and I think everybody’s waiting for how it plays out.”
Madeline Nusser is a freelance writer.