Recapturing past glories while moving forward can be a tricky business, but that's what the inaugural Expo Chicago is attempting to do as it launches next week in a familiar location for a Chicago art fair: Navy Pier.
For more than 20 years, the pier played host to the city's premier art fair, launched in 1980 as the Chicago International Art Exposition and known for most of its life span as Art Chicago. During its peak years in the 1990s and early 2000s, Art Chicago was widely regarded as one of the world's elite art expositions alongside the older Art Basel and Art Cologne.
But Art Chicago left Navy Pier after the 2004 event, moved to a Grant Park tent in 2005 and, when its owner hit a financial wall, was almost canceled days before the 2006 event (also scheduled for Grant Park) until the Merchandise Mart swooped in to host the fair. Art Chicago remained at the Merchandise Mart through 2011, but with the economy faltering and dealer participation and sales dwindling, the Merchandise Mart announced in February that it was pulling the plug on the fair, which was scheduled for April. Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. President Mark Falanga told the Tribune that the message from dealers had been that "the buyers, the collectors are going to the coasts to purchase art, and they're not buying enough in Chicago to justify a fair here."
Tony Karman, who had been Art Chicago's vice president and director from April 2006 to December 2010, thought differently. In June 2011 he announced plans for a new art fair at Navy Pier, Expo Chicago, which runs Thursday through the following Sunday, with a preview/benefit Wednesday night.
When it was announced, Expo Chicago, of which Karman is president and director, was viewed as a possible rival to Art Chicago, a scenario borne out as some dealers bailed on Art Chicago to sign up with the new event. Now that Art Chicago is officially kaput, Expo Chicago can be seen as its successor.
"It probably cleared the air for a lot of people even outside of Chicago in some ways," Karman, 54, said of Art Chicago's demise.
Then again, he'd been working to differentiate Expo Chicago from Art Chicago in both content and presentation, a necessity given the event's far-from-modest goals of reversing Chicago's decade of slippage in the art world and re-establishing the city as a hub for international dealers and collectors amid heightened worldwide competition.
The driving idea in lining up dealers and artwork for Expo Chicago, which is presenting contemporary and modern art as well as design, has been "quality, not quantity," Karman said. In its peak years Art Chicago exceeded 200 dealers/galleries, and even some fairs at Merchandise Mart approached that number. But Karman and his team kept Expo Chicago capped at about 100 dealers, with 17 more slots going to newer galleries for a section called Exposure. (The Next fair for emerging artists, held concurrently with Art Chicago at Merchandise Mart before the two merged, was larger.)
"The litmus test is the quality of our exhibitors," Karman said. "That's the draw."
Those 120 or so slots were curated by a selection committee that included Chicago gallery owner Rhona Hoffman plus gallery owners from New York and San Francisco. The competitive process resulted in some prominent galleries returning to Chicago after a long absence, such as the Zurich/St. Moritz-based Galerie Gmurzynska and Montreal's Landau Fine Art, while some Art Chicago mainstays were turned away.
"They did not let me in," said William Lieberman of River North's Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, which, he said, had participated in all but one of the Art Chicago fairs. "It's not good. My artists are pretty upset."
Still, he acknowledged that Expo Chicago "has got a good list of dealers, no doubt about it."
"The quality is going to be much better than it was the past five or six years, which is good for the collecting base here and elsewhere to attend," said local collector Bob Mollers, who said he has attended each of Chicago's major art fairs.
An announced list of 104 Expo Chicago galleries includes 12 from Chicago and 46 from New York (with one based in both cities). Close to 20 are from Europe. Karman said a key to luring the national and international dealers has been the setting.
"All I had to say was 'Navy Pier' and 'September' and the wave of support continued to roll," Karman said. "The enthusiasm for the collectors to come back to this city and this venue is unparalleled."
Not only does Navy Pier have familiar, positive associations for some dealers who had presented there years ago, but it also boasts practical advantages. Catherine Edelman of River North's Catherine Edelman Gallery, an Art Chicago staple that also will be at Expo Chicago, said she'll appreciate being able to display art on 12-foot walls amid the soaring ceilings of Navy Pier's Festival Hall compared with the 8-foot walls of the relatively low-ceilinged Merchandise Mart.
"There's just no comparison," Edelman said. "It's a hall that was built for the exhibition of art versus the Merchandise Mart, which was not built for the exhibition of art."
The large space and limited number of exhibitors also translates to bigger booths for the galleries, with four available levels ranging from 400 to 1,000 square feet, Karman said.
"Larger booths and less of them allow for a really beautiful presentation," said Karman, noting that most dealers wound up in the 600-plus-square-foot range. "There was a yearning to get back to this venue, not only because of the glorious past but because of the sheer ability to present (art) the way they feel it should be presented."
Nonetheless, Chicago's predominant art fair moved out of Navy Pier once already, with art dealers talking publicly in 2004 about how much Art Chicago had fallen behind Art Basel Miami Beach, which launched in 2002, and other fairs in New York and London. The competition has only increased since then; this spring New York debuted a version of London's popular Frieze Art Fair, and the London Frieze begins Oct. 11, Paris' FIAC kicks off a week later and Art Basel Miami Beach takes place in December.