Next Art Chicago canceled by Merchandise Mart
Next Art Chicago, the art fair scheduled for the Merchandise Mart April 27–29, 2012, has been canceled. If you've trudged through its poorly lit, low-ceilinged aisles at any time during the past five years, you probably aren't surprised.
Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. took over the Art Chicago fair in 2006, and Chicagoans had high hopes for it at first. In 2007, TOC reported on the fair's splashy rebranding as Artropolis. In 2008, MMPI added NEXT, a hipper fair cofounded by local dealer Kavi Gupta, to the mix. The energy level has seemed lower each year since. MMPI president Mark Falanga tells the Chicago Sun-Times that visitor attendance "rose from around 22,000 to more than 53,000" in 2011. The number and caliber of exhibiting galleries declined, however, leading to the consolidation of NEXT and Art Chicago into one fair. And the throng of visitors, which exceeded even Art Basel Miami Beach's record 2011 attendance, didn't translate into sales. Falanga tells the Chicago Tribune that collectors "are going to the coasts to purchase art, and they're not buying enough in Chicago to justify a fair here."
Tony Karman, who served as Art Chicago's director from 2006–10, clearly disagrees. He's launching a fair, Expo Chicago, Sept 20–23, at Navy Pier, where Art Chicago's original incarnation—the Chicago International Art Exposition—began in 1980. Expo Chicago hasn't released its list of vendors yet. (Karman tells WBEZ the list will be released "in early spring.") But gallerists and arts administrators I've spoken with seem more optimistic about this fair than Art Chicago, perhaps because Karman's experience with local art fairs is extensive, architect Jeanne Gang is designing Expo Chicago's exhibition space, and powerful dealers including Rhona Hoffman Gallery have agreed to participate.
Expo Chicago hasn't yet revealed which programs will accompany the fair, except for Vernissage, a preview party benefiting the Museum of Contemporary Art. I hope it offers exhibits similar to Art Chicago's "New Insight," a showcase for M.F.A. students from across the U.S., and a lecture series as strong as NEXT's Converge curators' forum. It's unfortunate that Staci Boris, the former MCA and Spertus curator whom MMPI hired as Art Chicago's new director in 2011, won't get to implement her vision for the fair, because she probably would have restored some of its credibility.
"Credibility" isn't the word that comes to mind when Falanga assures the Sun-Times that Next Art Chicago was "never really competing" with Expo Chicago, and that the rival fair did not influence MMPI's decision to shut its own down. (The Merchandise Mart International Antiques Fair will still take place April 27–30, though.) MMPI also runs the Armory Show in New York and launched a Los Angeles fair, Art Platform, in 2011, which it reports attracted almost 12,500 visitors.
When WBEZ's Alison Cuddy asks Karman how he will retain Expo Chicago's exhibitors, his response sounds a little too much like Martspeak for my comfort. "Every day I ask myself that," he admits, then cites Expo Chicago's communication with museums and institutions "around the world," and suggests that Chicago's many cultural attractions will keep collectors coming back. I hope that, as Karman predicts, changing the fair's date to September makes a concrete difference. "All of our galleries are opening with their A-list shows," he says.