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Tony Karman’s New Fair: Expo Chicago Preview

Expo Chicago's President and Director Tony Karman, speaking at the Preview Event

(Note: You can also find our interview with Karman when the show was announced)

Jeriah Hildwine

Overhead, steel struts crisscross the arched ceiling of the massive structure.  I am surrounded by suits and slinky dresses, painted faces and ikebana hairdos. This is the press preview event for Expo Chicago, a new art fair coming to Chicago’s Navy Pier in fall of 2012.  This is the latest project by Tony Karman, who served as vice president and director of Art Chicago from 2006 until November of 2010.  Expo Chicago isn’t the first art fair on Navy Pier with which Karman has been involved.  Back in 1980, John Wilson started The Chicago International Art Exposition, also on Navy Pier.

Tony Karman started as a security guard for Art Expo in 1983, and worked his way up.  In the 1980s and 90s, Art Expo was one of the few major art fairs in the world, until 1993’s “Art Fair Wars.”  Three art fairs took place in Chicago on the same weekend:  one run by John Wilson, one run by Tom Blackman, and a third fair as well.  The endgame was that Tom Blackman took over the Navy Pier space and named his fair “Art Chicago.” Art Chicago ran at Navy Pier until 2004, and then in 2005 the fair was held in Grant Park, right outside the Art Institute.  It went over pretty well that year, but the following year ran into some logistical problems with the location in the park.  That’s when Christopher Kennedy and Merchandise Mart Properties stepped in, “rescuing” the fair, and Karman was brought back into the fold to develop and market the relocated fair.  It’s been held at Merchandise Mart ever since.  Karman served as vice president and director until last year, when he left the fair to start Expo Chicago.

At the November 14th Expo Chicago press preview, I run into Meredith Weber from Happy Collaborationists and Paul Germanos of Chicago Critical, and we chat for a bit. We get the announcement that the presentation is about to begin, so I grab a seat front-and-center, right next to a gentleman whom I think might have been William Lieberman. There are the usual opening remarks, a few words from Studio Gang Architects (who are designing the interior space of the hall for the Expo), and then Karman comes on.

Karman talked about the history of art fairs in Chicago, and about his own history with them, waxing nostalgically about the leaking roof that plagued the fair’s first incarnation on Navy Pier.  He named and thanked those galleries that have already confirmed their participation, including New York’s David Zwirner and Chicago’s Rhona Hoffman, and emphasized the Expo Chicago’s subtitle:  “The International Exhibition of Contemporary/Modern Art & Design.”  In this emphasis he gave a clue to the question that many of us in the Chicago art scene must be asking ourselves (the press event did not include a Q&A session), namely, “How will Expo Chicago fit in with the art fairs that we already have, namely SOFA, Art Chicago, and the new Midway/MDW Fair?”

Tony Karman, being interviewed for Chicago Ideas Week

In terms of the calendar year, art fairs in Chicago find themselves sandwiched between the “summer vacation” in which nobody does anything because all the collectors are in the Hamptons or wherever, and the winter when nobody in their right mind would choose to come to Chicago.  They bunch up, then, in the late spring and early fall:  Art Chicago in May, and SOFA in November.  Midway is the new kid on the block but so far has been on a twice-a-year schedule in April and then again in October.  Expo Chicago is placing itself to align with the opening of the fall gallery season in September, much as Art Chicago lines up with the “season finale” in May, and the spacing is adequate to avoid overlap with the other fairs.

Avoiding overlap in timing is one thing, defining the unique identity of another fair’s programming is another.  Art Chicago did this to some extent with the introduction of NEXT, with more emerging artists exhibiting in NEXT, and more established artists in Art Chicago itself.  SOFA’s role is defined pretty clearly as mostly including works of fine craft, including glass, ceramic, metal, and wood, although they’re branching out with the Intuit Show of Outsider and Folk Art.  There is some overlap, with some galleries exhibiting in SOFA as well as Art Chicago and/or NEXT, but in general their roles seem pretty well defined.  MDW has positioned itself as an alternative, less commercial, more experimental endeavor.

Expo Chicago appears poised to take a position somewhere in between:  limiting its scope to “no more than 100 top tier dealers,” presumably all showing contemporary or modern artists.  The exact character of the fair will have to be seen, but will probably tend towards artists and galleries who are more established than those at MDW or NEXT, but more experimental than Art Chicago.  It will invariably draw criticism as being elitist and commercial.  On the other hand, it will certainly bring to Chicago a selection of contemporary art from around the world, some of which, it is to be hoped, may be very good indeed.  It also stands a good chance of bringing in a new group of adventuresome collectors, who—and this may be overly optimistic—might actually consider collecting Chicago artists.