Revitalizing Chicago

by Britt Julious, September 2012

Due to a lack of prestige, art-world recognition, funding and infrastructure support, Art Chicago—the massive art exposition once held in Grant Park but ultimately relegated in 2006 to the Merchandise Mart in the River North neighborhood of the city—crumbled under the weight of its own age. The most successful art expositions do not need to cater to the youth market, but they do, at the very least, need to have a firm grasp on the galleries and artists that shape the contemporary art scene. They need stability. They need something that goes beyond what has always been done. And Art Chicago, despite its place as the sole major international contemporary art fair in the city, could not sustain itself as either culturally relevant or locally beloved. In February of this year, Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. announced the end of its more than thirty-year run.

In the end, Art Chicago suffered a lack of outside support, brought about by administrative disorder. At the Merchandise Mart, the fair was housed in a building so large that it warrants its own zip code, and the abundance of participating galleries proved particularly troubling. In fact, there were so many exhibitors that, in 2008, the exposition was ultimately divided into two separate expositions: Art Chicago and NEXT Art Fair, dedicated to more contemporary and emerging galleries. Though organizers of the event noted that they created a more selective benchmark for included galleries, any of the exposition’s returning attendees could easily recognize that the caliber of galleries had gone down noticeably, with many of the well known names from years past (including local institutions like the Richard Gray gallery) pulling out for greener pastures. A few years ago, I viewed an Angel Otero work in person, desperately tempted to touch the viscous and elaborately rich paintings. That’s not to say NEXTlacked for some stand-out galleries in its most recent iteration in 2011. But the number of artists and the power of the work were missing. Before the exposition was shut down earlier this year, it was again renamed NEXT Art Chicago

The lack of confidence in the relevancy of Chicago as an art festival incubator also shaped the fair’s outcome. In an email to vendors about the festival that was reprinted in The Chicago Tribune, executive director Staci Boris and director Ken Tyburski wrote, “While Chicago is home to a thriving arts community, including galleries, world-class museums, theaters, arts-related organizations, along with thousands of art enthusiasts, it is our conclusion that the great majority of the art fair market in the United States has gravitated toward the coasts. This is where MMPI will be reallocating its considerable resources.”

One of the city’s main struggles is to have its artists and spaces recognized on a local, national and international basis. Chicago is a city that supports the arts, that has internationally renowned art spaces, but the visual arts are often left out of the conversation. The most active local sources for visual arts coverage in the city are the smaller or more alternative weekly press outlets such as Newcity and Time Out Chicago. It is no surprise that visual arts coverage diminished in similar scale as the importance and stability of the city’s two main daily papers, The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times.

Before the festival’s announcement of its demise, Tony Karman, Art Chicago‘s former vice president and director from April 2006 to December 2010, announced the first annual EXPO CHICAGO, The International Exposition of Contemporary/Modern Art and Design. Located within Festival Hall at Navy Pier, the aim of the event is to “bridge a critical gap for Chicago’s contemporary arts community, helping to define the cultural future of Chicago, and inspire the city’s collector base.” Originally created as a bigger and better alternative to the unfocused Art Chicago, EXPO CHICAGO now stands as the most important contemporary art fair exposition in the city. Its aim is ambitious and does not go unnoticed.

EXPO CHICAGO aims to establish the city as a cultural destination and the exposition itself as a “preeminent art fair.” Dealers chosen to participate were limited to only one hundred, and include David Zwirner, Yvon Lambert, The Pace Gallery, as well as the aforementioned Richard Gray. With an interior space designed by Studio Gang Architects, the exposition hits all of the right marks, but perhaps the right marks are no longer good enough. In order for EXPO CHICAGO to truly succeed in the current art fair circuit, it needs to establish itself as something different, not just selective or attuned to “the best.” In terms of establishing itself within the city, it has already accomplished that task. Lacking a second major international fair, it can already assert its dominance. But its ability to make a defining statement on the world stage remains to be seen.