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Art Chicago Blues
by Victor M. Cassidy

New challenges -- a lawsuit and two potential competitors -- are facing Art Chicago, the modern and contemporary art fair staged by Thomas Blackman Associates (TBA) at Chicagos Navy Pier each May for the last 12 years.

Before he launched Art Chicago in 1992, Thomas Blackman had been assistant to John Wilson, director of Chicago International Art Exposition, which was established in 1982. After vanquishing the Chicago International Art Exposition and other competitors, Blackman made Art Chicago a financial and critical success. Later, he organized the San Francisco International Art Exposition and a few years ago underwrote the noncommercial Stray Show of small experimental art galleries in Chicago. Early in 2003, Blackman announced a new expo called Art Las Vegas, but postponed it indefinitely in August of that year.

Despite his efforts to expand his fair business, Blackman has faced powerful competition from the new contemporary shows on the East Coast, notably the Armory Show in New York City and Art Basel Miami Beach. Art Chicagos roster of gallery participants has fallen from 206 exhibitors in 2002 to 192 exhibitors in 2003 and 159 galleries in 2004. The losses have included top international galleries (e.g., Annely Juda from London, Robert Landau from Montreal, George Adams from New York). The San Francisco exposition shrank from 101 exhibitors in 2003 to 79 exhibitors in 2004.

Two months ago, just a few weeks after the close of Art Chicago 2004, Blackman announced plans to move the 2005 installment to a new venue and date -- a large tent someplace in downtown Chicago during the month of July. Blackman said that the changes would mark a "new beginning" for the embattled fair.

But earlier this month, it was learned that the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA), which owns Navy Pier, has sued Art Chicago for $375,000, its unpaid 2004 rent. The MPEA wants the Cook County Circuit Court to seize Art Chicagos lighting and booth equipment and to prevent Art Chicago from selling other assets. The suit also revealed that Art Chicago had written a $103,500 check for its 2004 rent in April that bounced. Though Art Chicago has been known to pay its bills slowly, it managed to pay its 2003 rent without court action.

Whats more, according to the court filings, MPEA has signed a contract with Pfingsten Publishing to produce an art exposition at Navy Pier in early May of 2005. Based in Seven Hills, Ohio, Pfingsten publishes Art Business News, Framing Business News, Décor, Art Expressions and other trade magazines. Pfingsten owns Art Miami, which is directed by Ilana Vardy, who worked for some years as Thomas Blackman's assistant. Vardys presence in management suggests that Pfingstens Chicago expo will have high standards.

Another art-fair producer also has its eye on Chicago. Mark Lyman, director of SOFA Chicago, the Midwest version of the chain of Sculptural Objects and Functional Art expositions, is partnering with DMG World Media, a British firm, to produce what he claims will be "a very important and top-rated art show for the Chicago market." Lyman has made a success of SOFA and kept standards high, so if he can find a venue and get his show off the ground, it is sure to be worth attending.

It is sad to see Thomas Blackman in trouble. Personally very popular, he has done a great deal for the local art community. But if he does go down, as seems quite possible at this point, Chicago will have at least one -- and possibly two -- strong art expositions next year.

VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.