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Expo Chicago's Tony Karman
Expo Chicago's Tony Karman


Feb. 9, 2012

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Every city of any note, from Houston to San Francisco to Aspen, Palm Springs and East Hampton, seems to have its own art fair these days. So when news came earlier this week of plans to shut down the 30-year-old Art Chicago, which was once counted as the second most important art fair after Art Basel, you had to wonder what’s gone wrong in the Windy City.

The decision to put Art Chicago six feet under was made by the gang at Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. (MMPI), which only got into the art-fair business a few years ago -- it owns the Armory Show, Art Toronto and Volta. “The great majority of the art fair market in the United States has gravitated toward the coasts,” read a statement from MMPI. “This is where MMPI will be reallocating its considerable resources.”

MMPI had been scrambling to bring Art Chicago back. Just this year it had rechristened the venerable if troubled fair Next Art Chicago after combining it with Next, its own satellite fair of younger dealers. So it turns out that Next Art Chicago is no Art Chicago. By the way, exactly these kinds of difficulties were predicted here by Chicago art critic Pedro Vélez.

But Chicago isn’t quite ready to give up yet. Former Art Chicago director Tony Karman’s new Expo Chicago fair debuts this fall, Sept. 20-23, 2012, at Art Chicago’s original 1981 home, the Navy Pier.

“I respectfully disagree” with those who doubt Chicago’s market viability, Karman said. “Many of the collectors -- whether they’re in their latter years of collecting or have been doing it for 20 years -- they attended a great fair in Chicago and they remember where Chicago sat in the international art world. They remember what Chicago meant.”

Some observers speculate that the MMPI didn’t devote enough attention to its Chicago event, particularly after launching Art Platform L.A. last year, and simply couldn’t draw high-caliber dealers. Karman has yet to announce his full exhibitor list, but has said that Luhring Augustine, Richard Gray Gallery, Salon 94, Barbara Mathes Gallery, David Zwirner, Yvon Lambert, Rhona Hoffman Gallery and Chris D’Amelio’s new space have already signed on -- none of which showed at Art Chicago last year.

Another boost could be Rahm Emanuel, the Wilco-loving new mayor of Chicago who has more than once declared his intentions to “raise up” the city’s art scene. When Expo Chicago announced its formation last November, Emanuel said in a statement, “This contemporary international exposition will bring artists, dealers, collectors, and curators from around the world to experience Chicago’s culture, and will further establish Chicago as an international leader in the arts.”

And let’s not forget the fairs that have weathered the storm. SOFA Chicago is scheduled to take place Nov. 4-6, 2012, and the independent MDW Fair returns sometime this year, with dates yet to be determined.

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