Exposition Chicago: Vision and Conversation with Tony Karman

I spent an hour on the phone with Tony Karman, talking about the new types of art on the rise, Chicago’s DIY distinction, and his vision for the Exposition Chicago Art Fair, which will debut in September of 2012.

But let’s start at the beginning for those not familiar with the situation. Tony Karman rose to the level of Vice President within the Merchandise Mart, which owns and runs Art Chicago (and other major art fairs).  He quietly stepped down before the 2011 show, and will launch his own endeavor in 15 months. As many of the galleries that left Art Chicago are indicating that they’ll come on board with this fair, it leaves the future of Art Chicago unknown.

Although a new art fair draws an obvious line in the sand, it’s not the topic of this post for the simple reason that no one wants to talk about it. MMPI is staying quiet and Tony Karman is looking avoid not just dwelling on Art Chicago, but all the muck, controversy, bickering and nostalgia that we both agreed can be fairly unproductive. I also give kudos to the fact that he never once said, “a rising tide raises all boats”, a phrase that makes my ears bleed.

"Glitch" ("Tech Art" by Jon Satrom and Ben Syverson)

That said, what is worth paraphrasing from our conversation is the vision of art fair that could actually be organically cool, edgy and contain new forms of art not often seen in the fairs. Tony barely got the word “Tech Art” out before we both started jamming about the intersection between art and technology and the artistic and cultural implications of hacking a Kinect.

Then we started talking about the inclusion of installations, large public works, performance art, design, and other “blends” of things and ideas that are swirling around in contemporary culture. The goal seems almost to invoke the Oz-like wonder of the World’s Fair, where completely new technologies, ideas and foods were all launched simultaneously and it gave a terrific sense that the world was moving forward.

But here’s a fact worth noting: in an exhibition hall room big enough to comfortably house a handful of football fields, there are only going to be 80-100 galleries. This gives the show a radical amount of space to be design-centric and create an experience beyond the usual rows of booths.

Trade show stock footage

Although the space will be a huge asset, this doesn’t exempt them from huge curatorial challenges. It’s not just the Marxist hand-wringing art critics who will automatically hit the ceiling upon seeing a fancy faucet in an art show (as opposed to a urinal, which would be fine, yuk yuk), it’s the challenge of the coveted European art gallery which could find itself in uncomfortable thematic proximity to a circuit-bending artist who’s turned a Tickle-Me-Elmo into a screaming Noise Jazz machine, or ephemeral eco art that feels as awkward as a hippie in a tuxedo next to a coffee table boutique.


But handling the design and experience of the show is something that’s being carefully orchestrated, as one of the next expected announcements will reveal the choices for the chief architect and head designer of the show, to achieve Karman’s goal of “a truly beautiful art fair.”

So those are the facts as I understand them. Now for the commentary.

#1 –  The company’s typography will not trump basic grammar. There will be no “exposition CHICAGO” battles with my spell checker. I’m not going to rearrange sentences so I’m not starting a sentence with a lower case “e”, nor hitting the caps lock when I spell my hometown. I have enough problems to deal with. There is great consensus among the press that intentional mis-capitalization is a graphical, logo issue, only.

Sabrina Raaf, Curtain Wall

#2 – I’m not suggesting this is the intention, I only say this as a preventative before budgets are solidified. On behalf on the indie, grassroots, local art community, which can have an amazing power to give this show a great deal of authenticity, street cred and local flavor – I beseech you all not to view us as free labor. We are happy to contribute our art, time and energy into the show, but please don’t ask us to do this for the thrill of “exposure”. And I say this not just as advocacy for artists, but the basic reality that when you look only to pro bono artists, you immediately lose the top, seasoned talent. In addition, the donated work often looks “phoned in”. If you want a model of the right way, the McCormick Place West series, although that is a permanent collection, it was an example of great talent being recruited, the theme remaining as tight as a drum, and curatorial and quality control being maintained due to the fact that artists were hired as professionals to create site-specific work, and the desired environment was achieved.

#3 – The show sounds good to me. I’m not a one-horse town kind of girl, so I hope Art Chicago trudges on, even if it remains as the safer and tamer of the two. There’s room for two art fairs and competition is healthy.  However, this show certainly looks promising

Land of Oz Mental Model

and exciting, as most art fairs won’t give much space to non-sellable art, and this seems determined to resist being the type of art trade show that happens to be selling art rather than microwaves.
The show is designed to create an atmosphere that reflects the art of our times, and there is an understanding that this can only be achieved with the inclusion of art from popular culture, experimental work, technological innovation, and non-commercial work.

So if they end up “Going Full Oz” and it’s really experiential, performative and wild, they could pull it off thematically, and the designer lamps may just appear … bizarre and unreal … when juxtaposed against a parade of Steampunk Burning Man vehicles rolling down the aisles.