PostHeaderIcon Looking to Rebottle the Magic

Navy Pier

Navy Pier

Cats have their proverbial nine lives.  But art fairs?  Later this week, Expo Chicago becomes the sixth incarnation, by my count, of the successful art fair launched by Michigan print dealer, John Wilson, in 1980. From the mid-80s through the 1990s, the Chicago International Art Exposition (simply known as Art Chicago) on Navy Pier was America’s best venue to view art from around the world. Now, a new promoter–but an old hand of art fairs–hopes to rekindle that flame.

Tom Karmen

Tony Karman

Tony Karman has been hanging around Chicago fairs since 1982. He became a valued adviser to Wilson and his successor, Tom Blackman. When Blackman’s finances threatened Art Chicago’s 2006 fair, Chris Kennedy rescued it and named Karman to lead its Merchandise Mart edition. That auspicious start ended in ashes in 2010 amid much grumbling by dealers about too many lower-grade exhibitors, poor buying crowds  and high expenses. He left after the 2010 show. When the Mart cancelled the 2012 fair earlier this year, Karman set his plans for Expo Chicago in motion.

He appears to have learned from the Mart’s mistakes. Wilson’s first Art Expo had 80 dealers. The number at the Mart approached 200 with leading international dealers on one floor and the newer, edgier NEXT show on another. Karman will have 120 dealers, a strong showing in light of the show’s disappointing last years.

Karman credits the work of his selection committee, Chicago dealer Rhona Hoffman, Anthony Meier from San Francisco and New York’s Chris D’Amelio, along with strong word-of-mouth buzz from many leading dealers such as Richard Gray and Karsten Greve. They have assembled a stellar list with many long-time supporters and top galleries not seen in Chicago for several years, like London’s Annely Juda, Germany’s Hans Mayer, Montreal’s Landau Fine Art, Paris’ Daniel Templon and New York’s Haunch of Venison and Matthew Marks Gallery. In all, fifty New York galleries are fielding booths.

Such support expresses dealers’ confidence in Karman’s vision and managerial ability. His first decision was to move the fair from its usual Spring date to September.  “September is when galleries have their opening A-game up,” he says. Next was to keep participation low and top-drawer. “Accenting quality, not quantity and presenting the art in a respectful way as the art world demands ” Karman says was key in convincing dealers to give Chicago another chance.  Another major draw is going back to Navy Pier, a site beloved by dealers for its waterfront location and natural light. A final touch was hiring award-winning architect, Jeanne Gang to provide a visually-arresting design for the art.

Jeanne Gang and Aqua Building

Jeanne Gang and her 82-story Aqua building design

Surrounding the buying and selling, Karman and his team have planned four days of art-related “Dialogues”, assembled a cadre of Chicago art collectors to give out-of-town guests tours of noted home collections and revived the opening night Vernissage benefit for the Museum of Contemporary Art.

This fair looks like a winner. All the right ingredients are in place. Only two questions remain: Will the people come? and Will they buy?  Whether dealers return in 2013–and Chicago regains its place on the art tour circuit–is riding on the results. I’ll return next week with my assessment.

Postscript: My three visits to Expo were a revelation combined with a large dose of deja vu. Tony Karmen and his team  created an art fair that revived memories of the fair in its heyday. The space looked spectacular, thanks to Studio Gang Architects, the art was wide-ranging and world-class, the reduced number of exhibitors felt right, giving fairgoers a chance to take in all the art in a single day. And the dealers were an impressive group of top domestic and European galleries with few duds in the mix. The sight of so much creative beauty stirred a strong emotional impact in me.

Initial atmosphere among dealers was optimistic. On Friday, Jim Dempsey of the local gallery, Corbett vs. Dempsey, echoed that sentiment. “There’s still some good ghosts up in the rafters.”

By closing day on Sunday, however, dealers were expressing mixed emotions. Traffic had been lighter than expected and buyers were not plentiful. Was the economy to blame? As much as Karmen sought to revive the dream, perhaps it was confirmation that you can’t go home again?

Not only can’t one return to the 1990s but the art world has changed beyond recognition in the past 20 years. When Chicago was the top American fair, there were only three major contemporary art competitors (Basel, Paris, Cologne). Now, one dealer cited 167 art fairs worldwide. Art critic Jerry Saltz, speaking at Expo, called the new phenomenon “moving tent casino cities”. Basel Miami, Frieze, Expo New York didn’t exist in 2000 but now head the pack.

I sampled about a dozen dealers on Sunday. The consensus was that business was not as much as expected. The William Shearburn Gallery in St. Louis had few sales. However, the gallery rep was waiting to hear from a possible buyer for a large, beautiful blue and orange Robert Motherwell canvas. If it sold, the fair would have been a success. Many galleries probably left Chicago not having sold enough to recoup the cost.

The big question remaining is: Will they return?  The cost to come is significant. Robert Mann of the self-named New York gallery, had shown at 8 prior fairs and done very well but admitted his experience this year is making him wonder if he can afford to return, even though he found Expo a “beautiful show”.

I did hear several reasons why they will. Even some dealers who had light sales expressed the view that coming to Chicago is a long-term investment that may take up to three years to achieve success. Anthony Meier, a member of Expo’s selection committee, expressed this positive view. “It’s totally cumulative,” he said. He also noted that museums plan collector trips up to 18 months in advance and that Expo Chicago didn’t exist 18 months earlier. He thinks that lost audience will come next year.

Another reason dealers cited in Chicago’s favor is that our city is a “serious” fair. Chicago is known for its serious collectors and major collections. Dealers say they are growing tired of the party atmosphere that prevails at Basel Miami and New York. The reason to do an art fair is to recruit new clients and the NY-Miami-London art loop draws the same small circle. Dealers see Chicago as a way to renew ties with the rest of America and meet a new generation of collectors. “Chicago is a unique platform for people who don’t do other shows,” Meier says.

Another dealer who has been away several years thought Chicago was a good experience. “It’s not the numbers, it’s the quality,” says Robert Landau of Landau Fine Art in Montreal. He liked the collection of other quality dealers in attendance. While refusing to cite sales, he says he saw collectors from Texas, New York and Florida and will definitely be back in 2013.

Two weeks after the fair’s closing, Karmen has yet to release sales figures or the number of returning galleries next year, a sure sign of disappointing financial results. However, if Landau and Meier are representative, Karmen’s efforts have generated enough good will to insure a second shot at returning Chicago to its former high perch.

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