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September 21, 2004

Alan Artner is Making Sense, and other art fair business I've missed

A couple art fair tidbits seem to have floated under my radar recently, but I've caught them all now and so it's time to get us all caught up.

The biggest bit of info I had overlooked: the Stray Show appears to be all but dead...

But, before we begin, a recap on the major players:

A) Thomas Blackman Associates (TBA), producers of Art Chicago and the Stray Show.

B) Pfingsten Publishing, producers of Chicago Contemporary & Classic (CC&C) (which has absorbed AntiquesChicago), as well as Art Miami and Artexpo.

C) a partnership of Expressions of Culture, Inc and dmg world media, producers, respectively, of SOFA and various Palm Beach art and antiques fairs and determined to establish their own (yet unnamed) fine art fair in our fine city.

(You can find a full rundown on the Chicago art fair doings here, here, here and here.)

Let's start things off with the Trib's Alan G. Artner. In a commentary piece a couple weeks back, the G-man pronounced any attempt at bringing a high-end international art fair to Chicago dead on arrival. "A 3rd art fair is not the solution when the phenomenon is dying":

As announced last week, the one promising something new, "Chicago Contemporary & Classic," will be a catch-all, attempting to draw on the audiences for modern and contemporary art, antiques, photography, works on paper and artist-designed furniture, which have been serviced comfortably by smaller fairs in Chicago throughout the year.
The old modern-and-contemporary fair, "Art Chicago," which for most of its history kept out second-tier dealers, can continue to admit them until a taste for work at that level dries up as well. And the remaining competitor, which has not yet a name but long has been content to mine a niche market of decorative sculpture, functional objects and crafts—the parent company organizes "SOFA Chicago"—can expand that sensibility until its effort, too, is just like the others.
This is supposed to revitalize the community?
Of course not. Art fairs are not about that. Despite diverse claims, they're about selling and schmoozing and showing you're a player.

Contrast this for a moment with Victor Cassidy's more positive assessment from the beginning of August.

Jumping to the beginning of this month we recall that Pfingsten has indeed eschewed any pretense of trying to do the Art Basel thing around here. To recap, as reported in the Sun-Times (9/1/04, now offline):

"If somebody were to announce an Art Basel-like show for Chicago, it wouldn't work, because that's such a high sliver of the marketplace that couldn't be pulled off overnight," said Rob Spademan, Pfingsten's marketing director. "Chicago needs to go for the $5,000 to $50,000 price point for collectors."

Flashing back to mid-August and Michael Workman in Newcity, we find that Pfingsten has also foresworn anything resembling the Stray Show:

Pfingsten has no plans to stage anything like Stray, opting instead to focus on building ties with the city's educational system by offering youth tours at the fair. "Stray Show had a lot of validity, it was very similar to Scope (in New York City) and shows put on in Los Angeles and London." says Vardy. "And I thought the Invitational was very good. But we're not going to pretend like we're the fair for everybody. We're very focused in our niche."

And alongside all the other uncertainty regarding TBA, between lawsuits and balance sheets, Workman reports that the future of the Stray Show itself hangs very much in the balance,

hinging on finding a location such as last year's warehouse on Kingsbury to stage it in. "I don't know if we'll do it again this year. Tom was really surprised he got it last year," says [Heather] Hubbs of the Kingsbury space. "Plans were to make it into a parking lot."

For what it's worth, TBA's website still has the announcement of the new site and dates for their big show slated for "the end of July." No word yet, however.

This all leaves us with TBA squarely in, as Workman puts it, "survival mode," the Stray Show (or anything like it) looking increasingly unlikely to materialize, and an admittedly second-tier niche show at the Pier offered up as a field trip destination.

Recall again that Mark Lyman of Expressions of Culture, Inc., whose company produces SOFA (a decorative and functional niche show which, it should be noted, now probably finds itself in competition with CC&C), insists that the opportunity remains for a top-tier fair in Chicago, but no solid plans have emerged from their camp as of yet, and Artner doesn't seem so sure. Indeed, Alan appears bearish on American art fairs in general:

Popular culture cannot be avoided. It comes to recipients regardless of their level of curiosity or effort. The fine arts, which traditionally have delved deeper, involve more. But American culture demands instant gratification. Art fairs, which provide a terrible environment for viewing and understanding, long have benefited from this quick-hit sensibility. Now, however, they have lost out to a society that even at the highest reaches spends an overwhelming amount of money on entertainment and knows or cares about little else.
A prediction: The fair emerging the commercial winner from next year's competition will be the one that panders to such taste most shamelessly. Museums and galleries have been doing it for some time with periodic attacks of conscience; art fairs are the places that will suffer them no more.
It's time to acknowledge that Chicago was the North American test case for big international contemporary art fairs with highbrow pretensions, and that phenomenon—which was fading long before the 25-year mark—is now as dead here as the fashion for monocles and plus-fours.

(I'm curious where that leaves Art Basel Miami Beach and the Armory Show.)

Workman writes of "the need for an art fair that connects the city culturally and artistically with the rest of the world," saying further that it is "essential to Chicago's standing as a world-class city." And this seems in keeping with a tendency to see the fortunes of the Chicago art world rising and falling on the back of our art expo (a rising tide and whatnot) or at the very least using it as a gauge by which to measure the scene's health. But is it really reasonable to do so?

I remain curious to see what sort of legitimate effect any big time international art fair (or biennial, for that matter) ever has on a local art scene. Surely there have been some investigations into this somewhere. I'm less skeptical than, err, curious.

But the question remains: does this debacle really warrant pessimism regarding Chicago art on the whole? For one possible response we again turn to Artner who insisted at the outset of the fall gallery season that, in spite of the art fair death throes and the loss of the Terra, the Chicago art scene is a picture of relative health. "The View from Our Critic: The art scene is thriving":

A short memory is a wonderful thing. It allows people to pronounce on the present without recalling what things were like in the past.
The pronouncement going around for months is that the art scene in Chicago in poor health. This is based, first, on the decline of Art Chicago, the art fair that for 25 years has taken place each spring at Navy Pier, and, second, on the wearying possibility that as many as three competing fairs will take place in 2005.
Well, guess what? Those are commercial considerations affecting only the people who trade in modern and contemporary art. The art scene is defined by all that one can see rather than buy, and that makes for a bigger picture—much bigger, and therefore healthier, than it was when was a college student riding the elevated train down from Evanston to look at art in Chicago.
This weekend is the kickoff of the fall art season, and more than 50 galleries will open exhibitions. That's about 20 more than the entire complement of local galleries in 1970, and the total scene now holds six times as many galleries. Of course, opinions differ on the quality of what the places show. Opinions always differ. But there can be no differing on this: Today, Chicago has 180 galleries where once there were only 30.
All of them—even the ones that ignore the hours they've posted—manage to keep their doors open, which means they're being sustained. How is not our concern. Whatever the business, all proprietors think they do too little. The point is, they do enough to keep going, some for quite a while: The Contemporary Art Workshop has been open since 1949. And since galleries charge no admission fee, we are the beneficiaries.
It's not New York, but all our hospitals do not make the Mayo Clinic either. Still, anybody who lived in Chicago for decades before dealers started calling themselves gallerists cannot help but notice the scene's expansion. It has become now what people in the 1970s were scarcely able to envision. And no matter what anyone thinks of it, that is a healthy fact.

"Alan Artner is Making Sense, and other art fair business I've missed"
Posted by Dan at 04:30 PM


Referenced in this post:

Armory Show
Art Basel Miami Beach
Art Chicago
Art Chicago: About the Fair
Art Miami
Artnet: Art Chicago Blues—Victor M. Cassidy
Artnet: Twelfth Hour at the Terra—Victor M. Cassidy
Chicago Contemporary & Classic
Chicago Tribune: A 3rd art fair is not the solution when the phenomenon is dying—Alan G. Artner
Chicago Tribune: The View from Our Critic: The art scene is thriving—Alan G. Artner
DMG World Media
Iconoduel: A Discouraging Art Fair Digest
Iconoduel: Art Chicago Back Under the Big Top in '05
Iconoduel: Art Fairs a Go-Go
Iconoduel: Three Fairs for Chicago
International Fine Art Expositions
Newcity: Eye Exam: All's Fair in Art and War—Michael Workman
Pfingsten Publishing, LLC
Stray Show
Thomas Blackman Associates: Corporate Information