C'mon — who doesn't love a good comeback story? Tony Karman gave us a great one when he launched Expo Chicago in September, a new and improved contemporary art fair that earned high marks for its visually sumptuous design, spacious exhibitor booths — which looked like art galleries, not cramped mall kiosks — and most important, for the impressive quality of the art on display. The former vice president and director of Art Chicago, Karman insisted "the art comes first," and it showed.
Karman wanted Expo to be choosier about its exhibitors than Art Chicago was. With the help of powerhouse dealer Rhona Hoffman, he persuaded blue-chip galleries like Yvon Lambert in Paris and David Zwirner in New York to give a Chicago fair another shot.
Speaking by phone from Miami a few weeks ago, where he was attending the Art Basel fair, Karman said "it wasn't too hard" to get them back. A few key factors helped seal the deal — chief among them, Expo's Navy Pier location, its selectiveness and its prime fall time slot.
Karman's less-is-more ethos happens to be right on trend. Art fair regulars have long complained that the big art fairs are too big, there are too many of them and too much of the art they show is forgettable. The time is ripe for strategic retooling, and Karman, along with a few other experts in the art fair business, is at the forefront of figuring out how to make these admittedly market-driven affairs less crass and more meaningful.
One model: Armory Show founder Paul Morris announced this month that he will create a new, ultra-exclusive event called, ahem, "Chosen." More like a private club for top-tier museum brass and collectors than a traditional art fair, it will showcase only the very best art on the market. Morris had resigned his position as vice president of art shows and events for Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., which counts both the Armory and the now-defunct Art Chicago fairs among its holdings, in September.
Thankfully, Karman's vision for Expo is a lot more civic-minded than what Morris appears to be planning. Karman says he'll forge partnerships between Expo and a number of other institutions, with the aim of creating a four- or five-day cultural bonanza here that will attract tourists from all over the world. He also wants Expo to provide a platform for art institutions in "flyover" cities like Denver; Dallas; Columbus, Ohio; and Toronto.
Will it be enough? Bottom lines remain bottom lines; if dealers don't make money, they won't stick around.
The good news, according to Karman, is that "a lot of business was done" at Expo this year, and he says many of the exhibitors who did well plan to return next September, "knowing that done right, this will only get better."
Time will tell whether Expo can sustain momentum over the long haul, but at least now we have hope. Karman is building Chicago a better art fair, but more than that, he's proving that when it comes to art, it's quality, not quantity, that matters.
Claudine Ise is a special contributor to the Tribune
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