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May 3, 2005

Fair Thee Well

[cross-posted at Grammar.police]

Reviews of art fairs tend toward the scattershot. By nature too large and unfocused to be amenable to easy summary, fairs invariably lend themselves to unfocused lists that lose the forest for the trees on the one hand or impossibly general blanket assessments leveled against often incommensurable variety on the other.

Having already attempted the former, at least thus far for the two main Chicago fairs (here and here), allow me to try my hand at the latter, with the added advantage of being pretty well uninformed and lacking anything truly substantial to say. Couple these virtues with some arch metaphors and tedious word play and there's only one name for what I'm shoveling: pure blogging gold!

So without further ado...

Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair...

Just as there are a multitude of critical approaches to assessing a fair, there are a plethora of gauges of a fair's success. At the end of the day, though, only one matters: art fairs are largely economic affairs, with the bottom line of success ultimately being the bottom lines of organizers' and gallerists' ledgers.

In this sense at least, an art fair's goals can run directly counter to those of its public (its non-art-buying public, that is). Perhaps Chicago Contemporary & Classic's Ilana Vardy is right when she suggests, though not in so many words, that the cutting edge of international contemporary art and the catholic tastes of the cultivated don't ultimately make for the most salable commodities or lucrative enterprises in a more conservative greater-Midwestern market. Maybe competing at the level of Art Basel Miami Beach is a pipe dream and maybe a re-imagining of a Chicago fair requires us to lower our sights and lower our price points. And perhaps art fair success must come with a certain amount of bruising to our collective cosmopolitan ego.

That said, Wednesday's opening night preview—the earliest thing on offer all week and competing, as such, against no one—was incredibly sedate for such an event. And, according to a mid-fair report on Art Letter's message board, the fair had "no attendance and the gallerists [were] openly griping in front of the few people who [did] attend." And this is not to mention how profoundly Navy Pier sucks as an art fair destination.

So, how did CC&C's exhibitors fare sales-wise? I have no idea myself, and am in no position to find out, but it would be interesting to see, as it might help us approach the ultimate question here: namely, will CC&C be returning next year to continue its bid for the mantle of Chicago art fair king? Cited everywhere toward an answer to this is the seven-year contract Pfingsten Publishing signed with McPier when taking the reigns of the pier expo (in what I have to imagine was an attempt to pressure Art Chicago out of the game early in the going) and the certitude this implies. But then Fred Camper wrote in last week's Reader:

Chicago Contemporary & Classic has a seven-year contract at Navy Pier, but when I queried Vardy about next year she replied, "Ask me in two weeks."

So things seem a bit less than certain.

Don't Call it a Comeback...

"Rebuilding."

It's a phrase that bears a ringing familiarity to the ears of any Chicago sports fan.

The Cubs, the Bears, the post-nineties Bulls, the White Sox and the Hawks (wait, the who?) have all made such an art of the "rebuilding phase" that they now seem to delight in bringing us rebuilding year after rebuilding year, in perpetuity.

And now we find Thomas Blackman seeming to take a similar tack in his view of his latterly suffering Art Chicago. From the most recent Time Out Chicago:

"I promised that when I left the pier, I was going to try to pull off a show that was so spectacular it would help keep the fair at a very high level, and I would start with the help of the city and Park District. I think we have an interesting group of dealers." Blackman calls Art Chicago in the Park "a prototype" for the future. "This is my year off," he says, gesturing at Butler Field. For him, it's a small show, and all of the work put into it was done early. In previous years, confronted with the challenge of staging another behemoth fair, he would still be busy painting walls.

So even Thomas Blackman Associates is willing to recognize that this year's installment was sub-par. It's certainly understandable given a shortened time-frame (having only announced the rebirth of Art Chicago as late as November) and dramatic change of venue. And what was presented this past weekend may well have exceeded the expectations of those who wrote off Blackman's fair as all but dead, if simply by getting off the ground at all.

Yet, as many have been wont to point out over the past weeks, the fair's roster of exhibitors lacks any number of heavy-hitters (so necessary to reliably draw out the collectors) be they from New York, overseas or even home-grown (oft cited, as here, were the absences of blue-chip locals Rhona Hoffman, Donald Young and Richard Gray). In this fickle and fashionable art world, can Art Chicago really ever recover such lost cache?

From my own perspective, Art Chicago, though it left very much to be desired, had the vastly more successful go of the two competing fairs this year, and a casual survey of press and internet reactions suggests that I'm far from alone in this sentiment. But all this opinion amounts to a whole lot of jack without black ink on that pesky bottom line. And again, I know not a thing of sales returns and other such vulgar figures, and so cannot weigh in on this most important of matters. At any rate, the big question is not so narrowly local as all that anyways, as TBA's biggest competition comes not from the pier, but from places like the Swiss bankers' playground down in Miami.

Art Chicago's fundamentals seem to give them the leg up on CC&C in most respects (e.g.; location, should they again secure their spot in Grant Park; experience in their market; continued gallery support, especially locally; and a brand name, however diluted) but are they strong enough to give the fair national (let alone international) staying power? Ultimately only time will tell whether we're catching a last glimpse of a sinking ship or just waiting for our hardy, tempest-tossed vessel to return safely to port.

The verdict?

Cautious uncertainty.

"Fair Thee Well"
Posted by Dan at 01:59 AM

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Referenced in this post:


Art Basel Miami Beach
Art Chicago
Art Letter: Forum > Art Chicago—pg 2
Chicago Contemporary & Classic
Chicago Reader
Chicago Tribune: Can two art fairs revitalize Chicago?—Charles Storch with Alan G. Artner
Donald Young Gallery
Grammar.police: Fair Thee Well
Iconoduel: Art Chicago 2005 Highlights
Iconoduel: Art Chicago Lives: or Location, location, location
Iconoduel: Chicago Contemporary & Classic Highlights
Iconoduel: Today's Gratuitous Non-art Post
Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority
Pfingsten Publishing, LLC
Rhona Hoffman Gallery
Richard Gray Gallery
Time Out Chicago
UBS