Art Expo Loses Its Front Man, Chicago Gains Another Art Fair

The foundering Chicago International Art Exposition suffered a potentially catastrophic blow last week with the abrupt departure of Thomas Blackman, executive director of Art Expo’s parent company, the Lakeside Group. Asked about his reasons for leaving, Blackman said, “I was no longer comfortable with John Wilson’s strategy for Art Expo.”

The situation was complicated by news that Blackman, considered by many art dealers to have been the glue holding Art Expo together over the past several years, plans to start yet another Chicago-based international art exposition next spring. Blackman’s fair would directly compete against Art Expo and David and Lee Ann Lester’s three-year-old Art Chicago. Earlier this week Blackman confirmed he was getting the name “Art 1993 Chicago” trademarked for his art exposition and lining up investors. The fair will take place in a temporary structure on a 60,000-square-foot space just south of North Pier. He said, “When you look at all the variables, I think you’ll see we will have the best show.”

When word of Blackman’s sudden exit from Lakeside hit the River North gallery district, some prominent local dealers indicated that his departure from Wilson’s increasingly troubled organization was long overdue. Roberta Lieberman, co-owner of Zolla/Lieberman Gallery, said, “I sort of wondered why he had not done it before now, but Tom was an intensely loyal person.”

The well-liked Blackman had been Art Expo’s key front man for most of the fair’s 13-year history, serving as a liaison between exhibitors and Wilson, who in the eyes of many art dealers grew increasingly aloof and difficult as time passed. “John Wilson had everything in the palm of his hand,” says Lieberman, “and he has systematically gone about destroying it with his bullheadedness.” Other dealers suggested that Blackman’s departure might prove to be the final nail in Art Expo’s coffin. Carl Hammer, president of the Chicago Art Dealers Association, said, “I do not see John Wilson’s fair any longer in the picture.” Wilson did not return phone calls to his office, but an Art Expo spokeswoman said he had begun interviewing candidates to replace Blackman and that plans for next year’s fair were proceeding.

Blackman’s departure from the Lakeside Group did not come as a complete surprise to the Lesters of Art Chicago. Lee Ann Lester says, “We had been told that Blackman was going to leave the Lakeside Group unless he was given unilateral control of next year’s fair.” Apparently the Lesters offered Blackman a job last June, but Blackman rejected it, indicating at the time that he was happy at Lakeside.

But the Lesters’ failure to nab Blackman did not stop them from taking advantage of strong dealer dissatisfaction with last May’s disappointing Art Expo. In July the Lesters announced the formation of an advisory committee for next year’s fair that includes a number of prominent art dealers previously aligned with Art Expo. Some or all of those committee members could choose to exhibit at next spring’s Art Chicago, which takes place. the week before Art Expo and Blackman’s new fair. But few dealers have yet committed to any of the three possible fairs. Lee Ann Lester said, “We are watching to see where they put their faith.”

Meanwhile, Blackman must race against time to organize his fair, which he says will run May 12 to 17. Last week some local art dealers and competitors questioned whether Blackman, even with his considerable experience organizing art fairs, could pull off a major exposition on such short notice. “I don’t think it is viable at this point,” notes Hammer, “but two months ago he could have commanded the whole thing.” Lee Ann Lester said it normally takes 18 to 24 months to organize a first-time major exposition.

Blackman has already put together a staff of former Lakeside operatives, including Ilana Vardy, director of last year’s Art Expo, and Margaret Drewyer, who ran Lakeside’s antiques exposition for five years. Blackman would not name his investors, but auctioneer Leslie Hindman indicated she might become a financial backer, saying, “I would love to invest.” In the months ahead Blackman says he will visit most of the major international art capitals to personally recruit dealers who had turned their backs on Art Expo in recent months. He adds, “We hope to give the dealers all the best elements of Art Expo without the negatives.”

Film Fest to Fete Lemmon

Chicago International Film Festival founder and director Michael Kutza still hasn’t succeeded in wooing film diva Barbra Streisand to his annual cinematic feast. Instead the 28th festival will open on October 9 with a tribute to Oscar-winning actor Jack Lemmon. Among those invited to appear at the Lemmon love-in at the Chicago Hilton & Towers are Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, Ann Blyth, and Liv Ullmann, director of the Danish film Sofie, which is in competition at this year’s festival.

Kutza has selected a tight list of slightly more than 100 films to be screened during the festival, down from about 130 last year. Highlights include a tribute to Kathleen Turner on October 16, a collection of works by young Mexican filmmakers, and the films of Indian director and festival juror Shyam Benegal. Also on the lineup is Strictly Ballroom, an Australian picture about the cutthroat world of competitive ballroom dancing that reportedly received a 15-minute standing ovation at this year’s Cannes festival. Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky may head the six-member panel of jurors. All films will be screened at least twice, at Loews Pipers Alley and the Music Box.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.