All’s Fair at the Art Fair

This weekend 214 art dealers from around the world will descend on Navy Pier for Art 1999 Chicago, the seventh edition of Thomas Blackman’s annual extravaganza. But as the fair grows, some locals are being edged out: Charles Belloc Lowndes and Peter Miller, two Chicago dealers who’ve exhibited in years past, were rejected this year, while Chicago Project Room, a younger Wicker Park gallery that’s generating a buzz with its cutting-edge work, was among the handful added to the fair. Rhona Hoffman, who served on the selection committee, attributed the changing roster to the fair’s international ambitions: “You can’t have an international art fair with all Chicago galleries.” But the number of Chicago exhibitors has remained the same. Perhaps only the politics have changed.

“This is a big party for the Chicago art world every year,” says Miller, who’s participated in five of the past six fairs. “It’s a huge disappointment for the art-ists in a gallery when you’re suddenly not invited.” Last December both Miller and Belloc Lowndes received form letters from Ilana Vardy, director of Art 1999 Chicago, telling them they’d been put on a waiting list. Belloc Lowndes had got the same notice the previous year but then ended up in the show, so he assumed the same thing would happen again. But in late March both men learned by fax that their galleries were out of luck. “I’m a bit ticked,” says Belloc Lowndes, “be-cause we’d already made a lot of preparations when we found out just four weeks ago that we weren’t actually going to get into the fair.” Miller fired back a fax to Vardy and Blackman: “Being absent from the show will reduce the gallery’s ability to attract quality artists, and/or keep good artists. . . . If there is any cancellation, consolidation, or a broom closet which was overlooked we would be most grateful if we were allowed in the show.” He got no response.

A spokesperson for Blackman said he would be unavailable for comment, but Paul Gray, a Chicago art dealer who’s served on the selection committee for the past five years, says that 15 committee members from around the world reviewed about 350 applications, and 15 to 20 percent of those were accepted during the first round. “There was a lot of discussion when it came down to deciding the rest,” he says. Of the 24 local deal-ers in the show, new additions also included Donald Young, a fair veteran who left town for Seattle in 1991 but reopened his gallery here last weekend, and Worthington Gallery, a Michigan Avenue dealer that handles mostly German expressionist work. Approximately 15 dealers were put on the waiting list in December. Gray says Blackman himself decided who would be invited if any space opened up before the fair: “Because this was being done last minute, it would have been impractical for Tom to poll the entire selection committee about whom to accept from the waiting list.”

After reviewing the names of dealers given last-minute entry, Miller noted that several of them had trekked out to San Francisco for Blackman’s first west-coast fair, a considerable gamble that stretched Thomas Blackman Associates to its limits. “Perhaps Tom was inclined a little more toward choosing them,” speculates Miller. Gray denies this, calling Art Chicago “the least political art fair I’ve ever participated in, and I’ve been in quite a few of them.” Yet Ingrid Fassbender, who followed TBA to San Francisco last year, was told in March that she could have three of the five booths she requested, then a few weeks later she was given two more booths. She agrees that TBA is trying to curry fav-or with overseas dealers: “They’re not as picky about the quality of the work in some of the European galleries. They want that European representation.” And the shifting local lineup does show some desire to increase the fair’s international cachet. Mil-ler and Belloc Lowndes both favor paintings, often considered a less adventurous medium than sculpture or instal-lation, while the Chicago Project Room handles several European conceptual artists. Concludes Miller, “I guess we just weren’t hip enough to make the cut this year.”

New Direction

Following a lengthy na-tionwide search, DePaul University has hired one of its own, director and associate professor Michael Maggio, as dean of its acclaimed theater school. Maggio, who assumes his duties July 1, will be the first working artist to head the school since the Art Institute founded it in 1925 as the Goodman School of Drama (DePaul acquired it in 1978). Since 1987 Maggio has served as associate artistic director of the Goodman Theatre; he says he always aspired to a teaching career, and after narrowly losing his bid to become artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre a few years ago, he decided to try teaching at the university level, first at Columbia College and then at DePaul. “I loved being a professional director,” he says, “but I really didn’t want to continue living out of a suitcase as a freelance director.”

Maggio hopes to increase the students’ interaction with the local theater community and the school’s interaction with other departments. He also wants to heighten the visibility of the school’s five-play “Showcase” series by bringing in more notable guest directors. “I think many of the shows we’ve produced in recent years are as good as anything you’d see in most of the non-Equity theaters around Chicago,” he boasts. Maggio has noticed one disturbing trend since he arrived at DePaul: “A lot of our students now head for Los Angeles as soon as they graduate.” More DePaul graduates may be chasing big bucks in film and television, but Maggio believes a solid grounding in the theater benefits all young actors and directors. “Whether they work in film or television or decide to do theater, they’ll be better at what they do because of the intense training they can get here.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.