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Art transplant: Expo Chicago brings fair back to Navy Pier

Artist TarDonovan's 'Untitled' will be exhibit Expo Chicago by Pace Gallery

Artist Tara Donovan's "Untitled" will be on exhibit at Expo Chicago by Pace Gallery

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When: Thursday through Sept. 23

Where: Festival Hall, Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand

Tickets: $20 one-day pass; $65 four-day pass

Info: (312) 867-9220;

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Updated: October 17, 2012 6:10AM

In the 1980s and ’90s, the now-defunct Art Chicago and its predecessor reigned as the premier contemporary art fair in the country, drawing top dealers, collectors, critics and curators from around the world.

Organizers of Expo Chicago, a new fair that opens Thursday at Navy Pier, hope to reclaim the luster of that event at its peak and again make the city a must-visit destination for art-world movers and shakers.

“The city of Chicago — galleries, institutions, dealers, collectors, civic business leaders — gets a chance again to do it right,” said Expo Chicago president and director Tony Karman. “This is the time to do an international art fair in a way that truly befits our legacy.”

But restoring Chicago’s place in the field will not be easy, because of new competition from several other high-profile fairs, including the now-dominant Art Basel Miami Beach, as well as a host of regional shows in cities such as Dallas, Santa Fe and Aspen.

In addition, some past visitors might be hesitant to return because of lingering memories of gallery defections and other problems surrounding the last years of Art Chicago after it moved to the Merchandise Mart in 2006.

Karman doesn’t deny the challenges facing Expo Chicago, but he points to the success the nascent event already has had in attracting key dealers and generating a buzz in the art world. Organizers have recruited 100 major dealers, including such heavy-hitters as Galerie Buchholz (Cologne), Matthew Marks Gallery (New York and Los Angeles) and Anthony Meier Fine Arts (San Francisco). In addition, 20 up-and-comers like Van Horn (Dusseldorf) and Clifton Benevento (New York) will be represented in the Expo’s Exposure program.

Not needing much persuasion was Nancy Hoffman, whose respected New York gallery took part in every past Chicago art fair before she became disenchanted and skipped last year. She praised Karman and the “really superb roster” of galleries he has assembled.

“He wanted to create a fair that was right for Chicago,” Hoffman said, “that had 100 galleries — a perfect size and not overwhelming for people. He’s doing everything absolutely top-flight.”

The participating dealers will display thousands of works in a wide of range of media from drawings and paintings to video and installation art. Prices are expected to range from $1,000 to several million dollars.

Besides the high-caliber exhibitors, Karman pointed to several other attributes that he believes will attract visitors, perhaps none more important than the venue: Navy Pier’s 170,000-square-foot Festival Hall.

Art Chicago took place there for a decade, he said, and many past visitors fondly recall the space. The hall’s dramatic 55-foot ceiling easily allows for 12-foot walls in the exhibition booths — the industry norm.

To ensure the Expo makes a distinctive design statement, the organizers hired Chicago architect Jeanne Gang, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, to oversee its layout, look and feel.

“That’s the important thing here,” Karman said. “We wanted to make sure that when one walks in it’s not just a trade show, that this is an experience.”

At the same time, the organizers shifted the show from April, when Art Chicago used to take place, to what they hope will be a more attractive time slot in September when no other major fairs are scheduled.

Another plus, Karman and others said, is Chicago itself — a city that many people enjoy visiting and one with important museums and a vibrant art scene. In addition, it is well situated geographically — halfway between both coasts.

“Part of the thing that attracts people from out of town to come to a fair is not only the fair itself, but it is also the context in which it appears. And you couldn’t ask for a better context than this city,” said John Corbett, a co-owner of Corbett vs. Dempsey, a Chicago gallery taking part in Expo.

Karman has high expectations: He predicts 25,000 people will attend the expo. He has no idea how the patronage will break down in terms of Chicago area residents vs. out-of-towners, but he expects a healthy mix of both.

While he acknowledged that the $25 weekend parking costs and touristy atmosphere at Navy Pier could be a turn-off for some local residents, he noted that the lakeside attraction remains one of the city’s top draws.

Certainly, Chicago’s art scene has embraced the new fair. Thirteen of the city’s art galleries are taking part, and more than 40 organizations, including the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Contemporary Art, have signed on as partners, hosting lectures, tours, parties and other events.

“Everyone is enthusiastic,” said veteran Chicago dealer Rhona Hoffman, who served on the fair’s gallery selection committee.

Fairs like Expo Chicago play an increasingly important role, because the international contemporary art scene has significantly grown in size and scope, making it more difficult for collectors to visit key galleries spread around the world.

According to Art + Auction magazine, many major dealers do an average of 60 percent — and some as much as 90 percent — of their total business at art fairs.

But at the same time, fairs can be a big financial risk because of the high costs involved. A booth at a top exposition can cost more than $75,000, including rent and subsidiary fees for lighting and other expenses.

According to Art + Auction, the average price of a booth at Expo Chicago is $30,000. That was too expensive for Shark’s Ink, a nationally recognized publisher of fine arts prints in Lyons, Colo., that took part in Chicago art fairs for more than 20 years.

“We’re selling prints for $3,000, maybe $5,000, and we can’t sell enough prints to cover the cost of a booth in a fair like that,” said owner Bud Shark.

To oversimplify what is a complicated history, the first Chicago International Art Exposition took place in 1979, and was followed in the early 1990s by Art Chicago. After some ups and downs, Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. took it over in 2006. But some galleries and attendees complained about the low ceilings, difficult access and lackluster amenities at the Mart, and it began to lose longtime gallery participants and draw negative press.

After administering the Mart’s version of Art Chicago for four years, Karman left in December 2010. He almost immediately began conceiving what would become Expo Chicago, revealing the initial plans for it in June 2011.

“The temperature that we took immediately in Art Basel [in Switzerland] in that second week of June was nothing but positive,” he said of his visit to one of Europe’s biggest fairs.

After the Mart announced the end of Art Chicago in February, momentum accelerated for this successor event, which Harman said is costing “several million dollars” to mount.

Despite obvious enthusiasm in many quarters and an early vote of confidence from many dealers, two big questions loom: How many people will actually show up? And how much art will be sold?

Exuding confidence about the outcome, Harman is already banking on a second-year follow-up.

“Not only am I hoping, it’s planned for,” he said. “Dates are already announced for 2013, which is Sept. 18-22, so it is the same slot.”

But, like any new venture, there is no guarantee of success — or a repeat.

“The proof will be in the pudding,” Corbett said, “and there is a lot riding on it, because it’s a delicate [artistic] eco-system [in Chicago]. It’s not New York. It really needs the support of an international exposition like this.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer and art critic.

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