Art Expo’s Mediocre Year: Is the Management to Blame?

Dick Solomon, owner of Pace Prints in New York, was not a happy camper at the 13th annual Chicago International Art Exposition, which ended a disappointing five-day run last week in a cloud of bad feeling from dealers dissatisfied with fair management. “The larger dealers believe radical changes have to take place in management of the fair,” says Solomon, “and there is a consensus among exhibitors that management is not putting money back into the fair.” Solomon says his feelings reflect those of a significant number of important New York and international dealers who participated in this year’s fair at Donnelley Hall in McCormick Place.

Solomon says he may not return to Chicago next year, or he might opt to participate in David and Lee Ann Lester’s competing exhibition Art Chicago, which ran concurrently with Art Expo this year (at the ExpoCenter in River North) and got high marks from Solomon for some of its promotional efforts. “At this point, the door is wide open,” he says.

Some of the major Chicago dealers at Art Expo, including Lori Kaufman of Hokin-Kaufmann Gallery and Richard Gray of Richard Cray Gallery, declined comment about the success of this year’s Art Expo or their feelings about its management but said they had conveyed their concerns to fair officials.

Even the organizers concede that this year’s expo fell short of expectations. “It was a real mediocre fair,” says Tom Blackman, executive director of the Lakeside Group, which runs Art Expo. Blackman says sales were well below levels reached in 1989 and 1990, and attendance was around 30,000, down from 36,500 last year and 43,000 the year before. Blackman says he doesn’t see signs of a major recovery in the art market anytime soon.

Solomon thinks a number of issues must be addressed, if Art Expo is to remain a viable operation. Chief on his list of grievances is fair management’s lack of promotional effort. This was the first year the expo didnt put up street banners; a spokeswoman said the organizers chose to put money into radio and newspaper advertising instead. Art Chicago, on the other hand, had visible banners on Michigan Avenue and, in Solomon’s opinion, did a better job of distributing free admission tickets to generate traffic through the fair than Art Expo did. Another of Solomon’s concerns was the small out-of-town attendance at the fair. “Some of that has to do with the economy, of course,” he says, “but it’s also a matter of promotion.” He says that in his experience many out-of-town collectors no longer consider the Chicago exposition a must-visit event.

Art Expo increased its admission price this year from $12 to $15, but denied visitors readmittance to the fair if they left the building. “No one can look at art for eight hours without going outside for a breather,” insists Solomon. The Art Expo spokeswoman said the readmittance policy may be changed next year. Solomon also had nothing nice to say about the “abysmal” signage and the confusing floor plan.

The discontent at Art Expo did not go unnoticed by David Lester, who held a breakfast meeting last week with dealers from both Art Expo and his own show to listen to their concerns. He says he was pleased with the response to his third Chicago fair: “You’re only as good as your last show.” But even though Art Chicago scored well for its aggressive promotion and responsive management, Lester says it lost money (as much as $150,000, according to one source). Those dealers familiar with Lester’s MO expect him to keep the pressure on past Art Expo participants to jump to his fair next year.

Of Land, Art, and Parking: A Controversy in Streeterville

Streeterville residents gathered at the Hyatt Regency Suites last week to vent their concerns about architect Josef Klelhues’s proposed design for the new Museum of Contemporary Art, to be built on the site of the Illinois National Guard Armory at 234 E. Chicago. Present to hear their comments were MCA director Kevin Consey and board chairman Allen Turner, as well as city planning and development commissioner Valerie Jarrett and 42nd Ward Alderman Burton Natarus. The MCA cannot start construction on its proposed structure until it is approved by the city’s planning commission. A number of Streeterville residents and civic groups such as the Friends of Downtown protest that the finished design is in violation of the 99-year lease the MCA signed on the state-owned property, which states that the new building’s “footprint” may not occupy more than 50 percent of the total land space.

At issue is the museum’s plan to construct a 16-foot-tall above-ground parking garage for 200 to 250 cars with a sculpture garden on the roof. The museum building itself takes up slightly less than half the total plot, but the proposed garage would mean more than half the land was being used to build on, argue the residents. Turner said lawyers could debate the lease technicalities; the MCA, he argued, simply wants to build the best possible museum for the city, and such a facility needs parking.

Streeterville residents Sydney Pearl, Edward Pearl, and Priscilla Pearl Rocca, the siblings who own and operate a 220-unit rental apartment building at 222 E. Pearson, made a speech in which they particularly objected to the proposed service-vehicle exit on Pearson because it could turn the ritzy neighborhood into what the Pearls termed “a warehouse district.” Sydney Pearl later said he would like to see museum officials go back to the plan they proposed when they signed the property lease in 1987. “We are 100 percent for the museum,” says Pearl, “but we would like them to go back to their original plan with a sculpture garden at ground level, no parking, and no service-vehicle traffic exiting on Pearson Street.” A museum spokesperson said the early conceptual renderings shown to residents weren’t finished plans; they were merely intended to provide an idea of how the building would fit on the property. Natarus predicted some changes would be made in the design before it’s approved by the city. Jarrett said it was too early in the design-review process to know what the outcome would be.

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