The stories of American art fairs as seen through the lens of Chicago, with some excerpts from this year’s EXPO Chicago, and Miami. Main image by Mildred Mead.
Chicago has certain mainstay names that reappear time and again for the past 7-8 decades.
*According to the Art Basel website
In the Spring of 2004, the New York Times published “Faltering Art Fair Chills Chicago,” a brief article detailing the failing marks of the city’s preeminent international fair and signaling a deeper trend of demise. At that point in time, the fair had been running for 25 years but losing quality collectors and galleries year on year since the new millennium.
The 2004 numbers and critical reception were recognized as a failure, internally and externally. For a city with such a public and private art focus, it was a difficult time.
What led to the decline of Art Chicago?
Competitor fairs in New York, London, and Miami took increasingly bigger shares of notoriety and quality visitors while Chicago failed to innovate and attract the type of people who guarantee commercial success.
But Art Chicago was more than just disappointing, it was financially-troubled. In June, following the rough fair, the owners of Navy Pier, the venue, sued the the fair owners for “$375,000 in back rent and fees.” Due to this, Navy Pier decided to end its business relationship with Art Chicago. Even though the lawsuit was settled in November, the fair was left to find a new home and it would never quite recover.
Let’s talk about some good times. What was it like before the end?
For those who don’t know about Art Chicago, and are only familiar with the young EXPO, Art Chicago was the unofficial American Basel counterpart during the 80s and 90s. It was founded in 1979, garnering 56 dealers and 10,000 visitors. Other conflicting sources claim 80 dealers the first year. It was founded by John Wilson and initially called Chicago International Art Exposition. The first two years were a net loss for the owners. And by the third year, things took off and the fair was profitable and well-received by the international art community.
In 1989, Art Chicago was in full swing. It was the fair’s 10th anniversary, and effectively “one of the best and biggest art fairs in the world, according to New York Times reporter Grace Gluecks. Gluecks calls the fair well-managed and Richard Gray, remember him from the top of this brief history, called the fair “electric.” This is when the fair was compared to the most famous one of them all, Basel, “the role model for fairs everywhere.”
The early 90s was a tough economic time for everyone.
In 1998, Crain’s Chicago Business published a positive outlook on Art Chicago and its financial prospects. The fair reported a doubling in its applications and was garnering appeal to a very wide range of collectors. Richard Gray, yes the same Richard Gray, said, “We're quite confident that we're in a very strong market that's expanding.” Besides the market, there was a general satisfaction about the curatorial care put into the art displayed.
Back to more recent history, how did Art Chicago come to an end?
In 2005, three fairs went to war. After the disastrous Art Chicago 2004, two competitor fairs saw their opportunity to compete for the best galleries and collectors. Art Chicago was up against the Chicago Contemporary & Classic and NOVA. CC&C took the coveted Navy Pier location. And this year, Art Chicago took place in a giant tent in Grant Park.
But 2006 was the real turning point. Last minute bounced checks caused the contractors to stop work on the year’s Grant Park tent, turning away dealers as they attempted to set up their booths. The fair was suddenly scheduled in the Merchandise Mart building and subsequently sold to the owners of the building. 2007 and 2008 were noted as surprisingly great years for the fair under the Merchandise Mart owners, but by 2012 - the fair was cancelled.
That same year, 2012, was the first edition of EXPO Chicago at Navy Pier.
Where are we now?
The dust has settled after all the tumultuous years, and Chicago is back on track to becoming a highly-competitive, high-caliber art city. In many ways, it is. But competition is at an all-time high and the market in Chicago is still a bit slower than in places like Miami.
This year, various galleries reported the fair to have been very successful - which points to a healthy amount of sales. EXPO organizers can breathe a little easier after a well-received year as they fast approach the decade marker. However, they might need to find innovative ways to garner the international cache of sexy fairs like Art Basel Miami if they want even happier dealers.
Much has been pondered about the future of art fairs, but the questions might be better framed as “how will art fairs continue to change art?” The game is all about efficiency. Galleries travel to art fairs to give collectors and art lovers an event to attend. Art fairs are social and grandiose. Not even the hottest NYC September openings can compare in scope. EXPO may become one of these can’t miss events with the right amount of high-quality art and branding. For Miami, cultivating a certain fun and commercial personality for the fair as a whole has proved to be successful. Art Week Miami is now one of the most satellite-heavy fairs.
Glucks, Grace. (1989, May 13). A burst of buying opens the chicago art fair. New York Times (1923-Current File).
Moore, Anne. (1998, May 11). Picture looks rosy for Art Chicago fair. Crain's Chicago Business. Business Insights: Essentials, 20.
Snodgrass, S. (2005). Chicago Art Fair Wars. Art in America, 93(4), 41–43.