By various measures -- including the number of exhibitors (780), number of artworks on view (16,000) and, most notably, sheer square footage (more than 230,000) -- last weekend’s Artropolis, Apr. 25-28, 2008, a suite of five art fairs at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, was huge. "There has never been an art fair of this size and scope in Chicago," Mart president Christopher G. Kennedy said in a speech this month, "or anywhere else in the world."
But was it too big? Several top exhibitors this year’s event, which includes the blue-chip Art Chicago, the emerging art fair NEXT and three other shows (including the Artist Project, featuring unagented artists selling their work directly), say Artropolis may have diluted its audience among too many galleries and shows in the midst of a weakening art market in a U.S. economy slipping into a recession.
The result, several dealers told Artnet Magazine, was disappointing sales. "It wasn’t as good as last year," said Montreal modern art dealer Robert Landau, who still sold what he described as a "double digit" number of pieces. The big-ticket works in his booth, a painting by René Magritte priced at $15 million and an Amedeo Modigliani offered for $17.5 million, failed to sell at the fair. "No. 1, we can’t ignore what’s going on in the American economy today," Landau went on. "For the buyer that comes into this building to buy this type of art -- the average art here, the $5,000, $10,000, $15,000 ticket -- that sort of people are a little bit concerned about the economy."
As for no. 2, Landau said that Artropolis could be criticized for showing "too much cheap art." The dealer thought that the fair should focus on the high-end market. "Watering down what’s going on in this building is a mistake," he suggested.
Anita Beckers, a contemporary dealer from Frankfurt who had booths in both Art Chicago and NEXT, was also disappointed in her sales, listing the size of the fair as one of several reasons. "The fair in general is too big," she said. "The people go around to all the floors and become so exhausted. It should be smaller and more focused."
Joining the chorus of negative comments from exhibitors were Chicago dealer Tony Wight (who had booths in Art Chicago and NEXT but sold only one work), New York dealer Diane Villani ("If I count my time and trucking and framing and hotels, no, I haven’t broken even") and Mark Hughes, director of Galerie Lelong in Chelsea ("It’s been quiet").
On the other hand, several other dealers, icluding Chicago’s Carrie Secrist, Thomas McCormick and Russell Bowman, reported strong sales. "We were very pleased," said Secrist, who sold three paintings by Robert Standish at $50,000 each, along with several newly commissioned iterations of Petroc Sesti’s Event Horizon, a large glass bell jar containing a mysteriously swirling vortex of clear liquid.
But Secrist agreed that Artropolis’s vast size might have put off some viewers. "It seemed like the NEXT fair, even though it had a lot of great galleries, made the whole thing seem very large," she said. "That made a difference for some people, and not in a good way. They were overwhelmed, and it seemed like too much."
Mart vice president Mark Falanga, Kennedy’s top lieutenant for Artropolis, defended the size of the fair. "The way the show is structured here is that there are five distinct and discrete shows, and if somebody wanted to have an overwhelming show experience, they could do that. But what we’ve provided here is a very convenient way for people to design their own experience. If someone was just interested in modern masters, or in contemporary art by well-known artists, they could craft that for themselves. . . . We think the art at the fair is very strong, and to start scaling back may or may not be the right approach."
By various measures, Falanga argued, Artropolis was a success. He noted that overall attendance, projected to be between 45,000 and 50,000, was up from 2007, as was the number of registered VIP guests. He pointed in particular to a survey taken late Monday, the final day of the fair, in which 96 percent of Art Chicago dealers said they planned to return next year. Of those, he said, 34 percent indicated a desire for a larger booth space. "To us, that’s the most tangible indication of what they thought of the Chicago marketplace and how confident they feel in us as fair producers."
As for the Artist Project, a lightly juried show which grew from about 50 artists’ booths last year to about 300 in 2008, it drew criticism for both its large size and uneven quality. The project did not exactly add class to the overall effort. "We will be making some changes to that show," Falanga said. "It’s unclear what they’ll be."
And what of NEXT? Co-organizer Christian Viveros-Faune said he thought the core group of about 70 galleries did brisk business. Pierogi Gallery from Williamsburg in Brooklyn, for example, sold a new example of Jonathan Schipper’s The Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle, which consistently drew crowds throughout the fair, for $100,000, and the sale of a second version of the work is pending. The large-scale sculpture features two American muscle cars in a slow-motion collision powered by a small wind turbine.
Viveros-Faune also noted that the West Collection of Philadelphia, which had an exhibition at NEXT, spent upwards of $400,000 on works by younger artists at the show. The organization also garnered a lot of attention by exhibiting $125,000 in cash in a plastic display case, funds that it plans to disburse to ten artists in a new art purchase program.
KEVIN NANCE is critic-at-large at the Chicago Sun-Times.