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Apr. 21, 2008 

The brilliance behind Artropolis, the giant-sized festival of fairs that comes to Chicago this weekend, Apr. 25-28, 2008, is simple enough: If you are going to own the centerpiece of a massive art fair event, why not own the satellite fairs as well? Merchandise Mart Properties chief Chris Kennedy gets the ultimate credit for this brainstorm to re-energize the venerable (but stumbling) Art Chicago art fair with the addition of four associated fairs, notably the much buzzed-about new Next fair of hip contemporary art.

Kennedy was also smart to get a good selection committee for the more blue chip Art Chicago, including Paul Gray of Richard Gray Gallery and Richard Solomon of Pace Prints, and to get for Next the talent behind the successful Volta art fair -- in this case, Chicago dealer Kavi Gupta and New York dealer-critic Christian Viveros-Faune. With a lineup like this, Art Chicago might just be ready to turn a corner and become a success again. All it needs are some collectors and a flurry of sales.

Just two years after the near-collapse of Art Chicago at the hands of Thomas Blackman and its subsequent bailout by the Mart [see "Artnet News," Apr. 25, 2006], Artropolis is proceeding with a certain force. In addition to the two main contemporary fairs, a third highlight could well turn out to be the so-called Artist Project, which is billed as a chance for independent artists to show their own work, much in the fashion of Takashi Murakami’s Geisai. For 2008, its second year, the Artist Project has been expanded to an impressive 240 booths from less than 50 in 2007.

The final two fairs are the long-running International Antiques Fair and the Intuit Show of Outsider and Folk Art. All told, that’s more than 700 exhibitors. And since all of these events are owned by the same conglomerate, they are housed in the same massive exhibition venue, and visitors don’t have to schlep around the way they do in Miami or New York. It’s one-stop shopping.

Some 180 galleries are represented at Art Chicago this year, and while the show lacks some of the top-tier international galleries (Gagosian, Thaddaeus Ropac, Sprüth Magers and White Cube, among others), it does have its contingent of heavy-hitters. Those making the pilgrimage to the Windy City include Barry Friedman, Annely Juda, Knoedler, Yvon Lambert, Marlborough Gallery, Karsten Greve, Timothy Taylor, Galerie Thomas, Shoshana Wayne and Zwirner & Wirth, as well as a strong contingent of 26 galleries from Chicago’s homegrown scene, including Stephen Daiter, Carl Hammer, Rhona Hoffman and moniquemeloche.

Art Chicago also mounts a good program of special events. Returning from 2007 is "New Insight," a show organized by Renaissance Society director Susanne Ghez that puts the spotlight on talented grad students from various elite art schools. Twenty-three young artists have been selected from places like Yale, Cal Arts and, of course, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Other side events include a lecture on "The Lower Ninth Ward Meets the Soul of the Art World: Contemporary Art, New Orleans and Community," with Los Angeles collage wizard Mark Bradford and curator Dan Cameron (presumably a promo for Cameron’s "Prospect 1 New Orleans" show in the Big Easy later this year), as well as panels on evergreen topics like curators, collectors and "What Gives Art Value?"

Increasingly, in our straitened economic times, an art fair’s VIP program is central to luring buyers to the art fairs. The Art Chicago VIP program promises everything from exclusive tours of local collections to complimentary car service, and even picks up the entire travel costs of some collectors. "It’s money well spent," said one insider.

The new Next fair is being billed as a "selectively curated exhibition format" that includes not only commercial galleries but also artist collectives, art publications and private collections -- "a virtual clearinghouse for the best of contemporary art." About 160 galleries from 16 cities are signed up, many presenting focused installations limited to just one or two artists. Commercial galleries include Chung King Project, Cohan and Leslie, DCKT Contemporary, FRED, The Happy Lion, Kim Light / Lightbox, Leo Koenig Inc., Jack the Pelican Presents, Pierogi, Seventeen and Walsh Gallery. Several dealers are participating in both Art Chicago and Next, including Yvon Lambert, Franklin Parrasch and Zwirner & Wirth.

The Next fair’s lecture series is the exact same one as Art Chicago, a fruit of cross-ownership. A distinct feature, however, is "Goffo," a special mini-exhibition focusing on multiples and editions, bringing in nine spaces with a focus on such work: Alogon Gallery, Bertran Projects, Cinders Gallery, featherproof, The Green Lantern, Imperfect Articles, Pele Prints, Sara Ranchouse and Sonnenzimmer.

The Next fair also has a Projects section, including works by Guy Ben-Ner, Ricky Swallow, Leo Villareal and Jonathan Schipper. Schipper, who has showed his work at Pierogi in Williamsburg, has designed an installation in which two muscle cars travel at each other at a snail’s pace, thus crashing in slow-motion throughout the length of the event. Visitors are also promised "special video booths" and bars and lounges throughout the exhibition space -- all pretty ambitious for a first-time event, which shows it pays to have a powerful patron.

The Artist Project is housed on the eighth floor of the Merchandise Mart, where about 240 intrepid artists have paid $1,500 apiece to rent 10 x 10 ft. booths to represent themselves. More than 70 percent of the participants are local, hailing from Illinois, though a few are flying in from out of the way places like Gatineau in Quebec (Laura Brown Breetvelt), San Miguel de Allende in Mexico (Murray R. Friedman) or Neuilly Sur Seine in France (J.J. Beaume).

The Merchandise Mart International Antiques Fair, now its 11th year, also takes place at the eight floor of the building, with 135 galleries. From Chicago alone, participants are Aaron Galleries, Andrew Hollingsworth, Chicago Center for the Print / Poster, Douglas Rosin Decorative Arts and Antiques, Harlan J. Berk Ltd., Malcolm Franklin, Inc., Platt Fine Art, Rita Bucheit, Ltd., The Country House / Richard Norton and The Golden Triangle. A program of lectures is sponsored by Traditional Home magazine.

And finally, there’s the Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art, put together by Chicago’s nonprofit Intuit Center, which also publishes Outsider magazine. Thirty galleries focusing on self-taught and outsider art are involved, from New York’s American Primitive Gallery and the Ames Gallery from Berkeley to Tanner Hill Gallery from Chattanooga and Yard Dog from Austin. For the uninitiated, Randy Vick, associate professor of art therapy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, is giving a series of "Outsider Art 101" lectures during the course of the fair.

Also look for special events like "Partisan" at the Mart, an exhibition of work organized by Chicago artists and responding to the political season. But don’t forget to get some fresh air! Saturday, Apr. 26, 2008, the galleries of the River North and West Loop districts are staying open late, offering free shuttle bus services to and from the Merchandise Mart, departing at 7:15 pm (see for info).

And last but not least, Chicago dealer Thomas Monahan is taking advantage of the weekend to put together a commercial show of Latin American art at the River East Art Center, including works by modernist stars like Wilfredo Lam, Roberto Matta and Rufino Tamayo. According to Monahan, Chicago Arteahora, as the show is called, is a prelude to launching his very own Latin-American art fair for Art Chicago weekend.

For all the activity, however, the spring art fair season in Chicago includes one notable absence -- the Bridge Art Fair, which got its start as a satellite to Art Chicago in 2004 and which has since evolved into its own international franchise, with incarnations in Berlin, London, Miami Beach and New York. Bridge’s absence is all the more notable in that it was prominently advertised as part of Artropolis 2007, setting up at a space on the Merchandise Mart "campus" outside the building.

Bridge director Michael Workman said that the decision was mainly commercial. In his analysis, the market in Chicago was soft in 2007, and didn’t offer the same kind of collector base as other cities, leading to the decision to launch Bridge New York during Armory Week, rather than return to Chicago.

On the other hand, the Merchandise Mart’s empire-building may also have played a part. Workman said that the Mart offered to buy the Bridge franchise, as a condition of Bridge’s continued participation in Artropolis, but that the fair’s organizers felt that this would sacrifice too much independence. "We didn’t want to have a corporate parent," he said. (A representative of Merchandise Mart said that it was policy not to comment on such matters.)

Next up for Bridge is a fair during the Frieze Art Fair, Oct. 16-19, 2008, at the Trafalgar Hotel in London. Bridge’s headquarters remain in Chicago.

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