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April 26, 2006

Defining 'Debacle' Up

So, I've obviously been out for a spell. Have I missed anything?


Front page news: 'Art Fair Fiasco'

Yeah. This weekend's forecast calls for "a lingering storm system."

Short story: with Art Chicago's Thursday Vernissage days away, this week found the fair's Grant Park set-up not nearly ready for primetime. From the AP via the Sun-Times:

Some of the 125 gallery owners and artists expected at this year's three-day festival arrived Tuesday to find the large white tents that hold the show empty—with a dirt floor, no walls and no workers.

"We arrived here, see this and ... nothing," said gallery owner Patrick Baer, who traveled from Dresden, Germany, for the show. "I'm not happy."

Rumors flew that it was simply too late to salvage Thomas Blackman Assoicates' fair. Managing an eleventh hour move to the Merchandise Mart, though, they've averted at least total disaster.

Erik Wenzel at Art or Idiocy (who was on top of this story even before Thomas Blackman's mom knew about it) notes that 104 of an original 125 exhibitors remain.

In the blogs:

Art or Idiocy I, Art or Idiocy II, Art or Idiocy III
Fresh Paint I, Fresh Paint II
Sharkforum I, Sharkforum II
Brian Ulrich
Bad at Sports
Edward Winkleman

Metroblogging Chicago I, Metroblogging Chicago II, Metroblogging Chicago III
Gapers Block I, Gapers Block II

The Tribune's Artner and Storch tag-teamed the story late last night, before the change of venue was announced:

Blackman's brief announcement capped a week of frantic attempts by him to retain a grip on the show and reach for a financial lifeline. He put up his Chicago company for sale and even pledged personally owned art works as loan collateral, but negotiations were too rushed and too late, according to two people with whom he dealt.


The first obvious sign of trouble came last week, when some unions represented at the site engaged in informational picketing.

Thomas Villanova, president of the Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades Council, said non-union floor installers from a Wisconsin firm had been brought in, and the unions demanded the out-of-towners be paid prevailing wages. Villanova said the dispute was resolved, but he didn't elaborate.

Nonetheless, no workers were at the site Tuesday.

For those outside of Chicago, note that accusations of unions gumming up the convention industry works are nothing new in these parts.

But that certainly can't be the whole story, given TBA's financial woes, can it?

From today's Sun-Times:

Blackman did not return calls seeking comment.

Some in the Chicago art community were embarrassed its premier event was in such flux.

"To the world, this is the face of art in Chicago,'' said Natalie van Straaten of the Chicago Art Dealers Association. "Everyone's reputation is on the line, not just Thomas Blackman's.''

One contractor, who said he received a bad check after paying his employees, complained, "I'm just a little guy. This is earth-shattering for us.'' Work at the site stopped last week, preventing completion of the interior of the tent, another contractor said.

In fact, TBA's reputation has taken a number of hits of late.

Last season's Art Fair War was launched after Art Chicago was essentially booted from Navy Pier over a bounced rent check. And, though it came out looking relatively shiny in the face of the competition, the subsequent 2005 installment was far leaner than past shows (even with the formerly separate Stray Show absorbed into the main event) and boasted its own logistical hang-ups. At the time this was all chalked up to 2005 being a stopgap, rebuilding year.

At the same time, the 7th installment of TBA's San Francisco International Art Exposition foundered for apparent lack of interest, and the show was finally canned completely a mere month out from the scheduled 2006 dates for SFIAE 8.

This past February also saw the firm abandon plans for Art New York, planned to be held concurrent with the ADAA's Art Show. The reason? "We didn’t allow enough time to organize it." (Art New York 2007 remains tentatively scheduled to coincide with next year's Armory Show.)

And now this.

Now I'm far from 'plugged in' or 'in the loop' or whatever cliché you prefer, but complaints regarding TBA's management seem to be legion, as testified to by the harsh words former gallerist Paul Klein shared after a trip down to ABMB '04:

The success of the Basel / Miami Fair is completely attributable to the remarkable competence of the organizers, and the failure of Art Chicago likewise lies solely in the hands of those who put it on. Art Chicago has suffered from a thorough lack of vision and bad manners.

Many are prone to laud Miami and blame Chicago for the fairs’ relative success or lack thereof, but that's not really the truth. It is however safe to say that the Miami extravaganza is easily 4 times larger than Art Chicago in a city less than one quarter the size - so of course it’s going to have a greater impact there.

This is not to say that Chicago blew it, or that we can't have a kick ass fair here. But it damn sure says that none of the existing players are sufficiently competent to pull off a good Chicago show. There are certainly many collectors who want to come back to Chicago, but I'm not sure this country's increasing population of philistines will support 3 fairs (the 2nd being the Armory show in New York).

Next May, at least in theory, we will have two, mediocre at best, "art" fairs. Thomas Blackman Associates is no longer welcome at Navy Pier, for good reasons, and he says he will be putting a show on in tents, but I don't know a single one of his former exhibitors who wants to leap his burnt bridge. And Ilana Vardy's Pfingsten Publishing Group, which does have Navy Pier's endorsement for next May, has a history of a financially viable (for the organizers) show that is neither cutting edge nor innovative, just lucratively bland.

... and in the wake of Art Chicago '05:

Art Chicago has moved from Navy Pier where the quality of the show, number of exhibitors and audience have been atrophying for years. Now located at Butler Field (home of the Petrillo Bandshell) this is a decent fair, despite Thomas Blackman Associates’ best efforts to further ruin what was once the best art fair in the land.

I exhibited in fairs organized by Thomas Blackman for over 20 years. Not only do I know most of the galleries and dealers who have stood by him as he implodes his Titanic; and I also know the carpenters, painters and electricians who install his shows. The trades people are complaining about the workload and having to finish their work with the exhibitors already present. They segue smoothly into discussions about Blackman’s bounced checks, being kicked out of Navy Pier for nonpayment and about the many trade companies who won’t work for him because he still owes them money.

Inside the tent yesterday, less than 24 hours before the public gets in, there is 3 days of work to do.

There are two types of exhibitors setting up their booths. They are all True Believers. A positive attitude abounds. There are either newbies who’ve wanted in this show for years and now that Blackman has essentially begged exhibitors to come many are thrilled to be in what was once a really good show. They believe in their art. They love their art and they want to talk to you about it. They are decidedly not commercial. For them it is love, not commerce. And for me that is a wonderful breath of fresh air. (Art fairs have gotten to be a soulless conglomerate of oozing, hustling purveyors pretending to care about snake oil.) The naive newbies’ positive attitude make these show very worth attending.

And then there are the loyalists, the ones somnambulating in their booths, standing by their “captain” as the ship sinks.

But, back to the Trib for more detail on Blackman's "frantic attempts... to retain a grip on the show and reach for a financial lifeline":

Mark Lyman, founder and chief of Expressions of Culture Inc., a producer of sculptural art expositions in Chicago and New York, said he learned last Friday that Blackman seemed to be in need of quick financing. Lyman had been told from officials of his parent company, London-based DMG World Media, that Blackman had contacted them the day before and proposed selling DMG his firm, Thomas Blackman Associates.

According to Lyman, DMG officials were not interested.

"You can't be rushed into doing that kind of a deal," said Lyman, speaking of such transactions in general. "The end result is that you end up buying someone's misery and now it's yours."

Howard Tullman, president of Chicago's Kendall College and a contemporary art collector, said Blackman called him Friday, but the two didn't speak at length until Saturday. Tullman said that he was asked for a short-term loan of $250,000 and that Blackman offered art works he owned as collateral.

"I said I would look at it, but was it feasible?" Tullman said, given the work stoppage at Butler Field. He said that Blackman tried to resolve the labor problems but that "by Monday, it was too late."

Also last weekend, Lyman said some local art dealers discussed with him salvaging the fair, possibly by moving it to the pier under Lyman's direction. Lyman said he broached the idea with the pier and found some interest, but he didn't want to proceed without assurances he wouldn't be accused later of interfering with Blackman's business.

Lyman said he set up a meeting for 9 a.m. Monday in his lawyer's office at which Blackman was expected to attend.

"Tom didn't show up for the meeting," said Lyman.

He added that Blackman called and reset the meeting for later. Lyman said Blackman arrived at 2 p.m., but without legal representation, so proceeding seemed futile to Lyman's side.

"Had we been able to conclude something Monday morning, I could have gotten something built [at the pier] Thursday night," Lyman said.

This Mark Lyman/DMG World Media connection is intriguing.

Last year saw the team of Lyman's Expressions of Culture Inc. (who produce the successful Chicago and New York SOFA expos) and DMG (which has since bought EoC out) losing out on their bid to take over Art Chicago's old spot at Navy Pier, the spot going to the International Art and Framing Group's ill-fated Chicago Contemporary & Classic fair.

Lyman was determined at the time that EoC and DMG would nonetheless establish a 'high class' contemporary art fair of their own in Chicago, but nothing seemed to come of that. Perhaps there remains an opportunity, though, for them to step into this breach.

Meanwhile, we still have NOVA (who've also recently announced plans for a Miami edition at the Catalina Hoten & Beach Club in South Beach this coming December). If the main Chicago fair tanks, though, can the 'satellite' survive?

"Defining 'Debacle' Up"
Posted by Dan at 06:07 PM


When I saw Edward's post on this earlier today, I thought that if the story didn't lure you out, it was time to file a missing persons report. That said, as to the question

If the main Chicago fair tanks, though, can the 'satellite' survive?

I don't have an answer, though obviously it would be tougher. I would say that the quote above from Natalie van Straaten seem absolutely to the point and true to what I've observed as someone far away from it all.

Posted by: JL on April 26, 2006 at 07:52 PM

> When I saw Edward's post on this earlier today, I thought that if the story didn't lure you out, it was time to file a missing persons report.

I would've actually emerged sooner had I not been distracted by a shiny new toy with a 15" screen for the past couple of days. Expect the uptick in activity to continue.

Posted by: Dan on April 26, 2006 at 08:05 PM

I was hoping you'd come out to play. Likely to be some fun chaos this weekend. And let's not forget the 300,000 plus marchers for the anti-immigration march and rally expected come Monday.

I can now go back to resting my feet in anticipation of having to wear attractive shoes for the next few days.

Posted by: Cynthia on April 26, 2006 at 10:45 PM

It's good youre back. I was wondering, what with Nova's website listing you as the official blogger. Thanks for the credit.

Guess where I first heard it? Art Chicago's press agent. I called up on the whim of getting press access and they said, you might have heard, but there may be a last minute change of venue."

Hmm, so I posted that question and then felt dumb. "There's no way they could possibly mean that. They must have meant the location to check in or something..." But low and behold.

Posted by: Erik Wenzel on April 27, 2006 at 12:16 PM

Glad you're back to posting Dan.

Posted by: J@simpleposie on April 28, 2006 at 11:29 AM

Like the end of the Tribune article said, it's the organizer, not the idea that has failed. I have dealt with people like Blackman before, flying by the seat of their pants with allot of talk, but a day late and a dollar short. He's the worst kind of business man. People can see his type coming a mile a way and run for the hills. Unfortunately the artists and the buyer suffers. This looks like the death nail for this particular shows future. Maybe the Miami group can come in and erase the bad taste next year? Wishful thinking. Maybe a vacation to Miami is a better idea.

Posted by: Joe T. on April 28, 2006 at 12:04 PM

Referenced in this post:

ADAA: Art Show
Armory Show
Art Chicago
Art Letter (04/28/05)
Art Letter (12/06/04)
Art New York
Art or Idiocy: Breaking News
Art or Idiocy: Hit the Change of Venue Button
Art or Idiocy: Nice
Artnet News Feb. 2, 2006
Bad at Sports Podcast: The Art Fair 2006
Catalina Hoten & Beach Club
Chicago Sun-Times: Big Chicago art fair up in the air—Andrew Herrmann and Misha Davenport
Chicago Sun-Times: Exhibition will go on at Merchandise Mart (AP)
Chicago Sun-Times: Unions, McPier agree to changes—Robert Herguth
Chicago Tribune: Art Chicago exposition opening in doubt—Alan Artner and Charles Storch
DMG World Media
Edward Winkleman: Chicago Chaos Clearing?
Fresh Paint: Art Chicago—Breaking News
Fresh Paint: Holy Shit—Breaking Art News
Gapers Block: Mart Chicago
Gapers Block: No Art in Chicago?
Iconoduel: Art Fair Fallout
Iconoduel: Maybe it's the unwieldy acronym
Iconoduel: Three Fairs for Chicago
International Art and Framing Group
Metroblogging Chicago: Art Chicago Update - Now at the Merchandise Mart—Caryn Coleman
Metroblogging Chicago: Art Chicago cancelled!—Jason Mojica
Metroblogging Chicago: The Fate of Art Chicago—Caryn Coleman
NOVA Art Fair
NewYorkBusiness.com: Cancelled art fair a sign of saturated market—Miriam Kreinin Souccar
Notifbutwhen #2: Art Chicago Cluster
Sculpture Objects & Functional Art Expositions: Chicago and New York
Sharkforum: The News is All Over Town
Sharkforum: Who Killed The Fat Lady?
Thomas Blackman Associates
WGN Weather Blog: A Lingering Storm System
Wikipedia: Merchandise Mart