Everything Must Go public installation "in the third precinct" by Confluence Studio, Minneapolis, May 2021 Credit: Courtesy MdW Fair

If art fairs like EXPO and Frieze are about making a splash with Instagrammable booths and recouping onerous exhibition fees, what are smaller-scale alternative ones for? MdW, an alternative art fair first held in Chicago in 2011 and now back after a decade-long hiatus, proposes a simple yet radical purpose: for the art community to convene in person and support one another’s work.

Public Media Institute (PMI) decided to bring the fair back in 2019, during a meeting of artist-run spaces organized by Hyde Park Art Center, ahead of their 2020 blockbuster exhibition, “Artists Run Chicago 2.0.” The pandemic delayed their initial plan to hold the fair in 2020, though the extra time allowed them to slow down and bring in additional planning partners. 

The first three iterations of MdW (pronounced Midway) were organized by a slate of artist-run Chicago spaces: Threewalls, Roots & Culture, Document, and PMI. For this year’s version, PMI worked with seven organizing partners from throughout the midwest to plan the three-day event, which runs from September 9-11 at Mana Contemporary. In addition to the fair, titled MdW Assembly, the partners also put together two new companion programs: MdW Drifts (road trips to midwestern art hubs) and MdW Atlas (a daily online publication).

MdW Drifts interactive map screen shot Credit: Courtesy Public Media Institute

“The model has been more anarchic than it was before,” says PMI managing director Nick Wylie. “The Assembly at the MdW fairs in the past was like: people sitting on a panel, presenting slides, and people watching and listening. There was a big consensus from the organizing partners that it’s been so long since people have really seen each other, or interacted, that they didn’t want people just sitting watching a screen, which we’ve done all pandemic.”

MdW Assembly
Opening reception Fri 9/9, 5-8 PM. Open hours Sat 9/10, noon-9 PM, and Sun 9/11, 1-5 PM, with evening programming Saturday (6-9 PM), Mana Contemporary Chicago, 2233 S. Throop, and Co-Prosperity Sphere (Saturday night), 3219 S. Morgan, mdwfair.com 

Instead of a formal programming schedule, there will be five open program areas that fair participants can tap into as they see fit: the Agora, a seating area meant for informal conversations; a printing area, complete with a Risograph, that will function like a “live analog Twitter;” a screening room; a cafe; and an unraised “stage” area where performances will take place. 

The programming will take place on Mana’s second floor, which will also house pavilions designed by each organizing partner, showcasing projects from their states. Public Space One, an organizing partner from Iowa City, will unveil an off-the-grid stand-alone WiFi network, the Iowa Itinerant Internet (iii), “which will be loaded with digital art and artifacts from Iowa artists for sharing with anyone in range of the base station.” 

Over 50 artist-run projects will take over Mana’s fourth floor, not with traditional fair booths, but with presentations on walls, tables, and other makeshift arrangements.  About half of the participants are Chicago-based, with the other half from the greater midwest. Rogers Park gallery Roman Susan will be announcing their nonprofit transition through a spoof on a trade show booth, with live screen printing on recycled or reclaimed tote bags. Art collaborative Red Line Service will be serving food to people with lived experiences of homelessness.

It’s a fitting time for MdW to return. Several like-minded events have come to a close in recent years. Open Engagement, a conference on socially-engaged art founded by Jen Delos Reyes, ended in 2018. Earlier in 2022, Common Field, which has held convenings for independent art organizations since 2013, announced that it would be closing this year. The last Creative Time Summit was in 2019. 

While PMI has long championed community-based art, the lessons learned the past few years have made the new MdW even more focused on the importance of cooperation and the power of artist-run projects. Early on in the pandemic, PMI launched The Quarantine Times, a publication that commissioned work from the Chicago creative community, helping to redirect funds at a crucial period. They also started Community Kitchen, an ongoing project that provides jobs for food service workers by offering free meals to the community. 

WQRT Indianapolis community radio station manager Oreo Jones teaching sound principles to youth as part of the station’s Big Car Collaborative project. Credit: Courtesy MdW Fair

“It feels important to be able to share strategies and ways that we have all worked to shift towards mutual aid models or ways that our networks have been aiding in emergency response networks, if that’s cultural emergency or pandemic emergency,” Wylie says. “These are conversations I think people are wanting to have and have been having in Zoom conferences and stuff.”

This is part of the power of artist-run organizations: they are often not beholden to boards or corporate sponsors. At a time when the art world, like many other fields, is rightly critiquing problematic, and often unjust, structures—from pay disparity to censorship to exploitative labor practices, among other issues—smaller, more independent projects are free to reimagine their world. Not only can they show art that may not have obvious market value;they can work in different communities, not just downtown or in centralized art hubs, they can hand over programming to the community, they can raise funds or provide services to those in need, they can use their expertise to build housing, organize against state surveillance, grow food. The possibilities for transformation are endless.

So while Wylie notes that the pandemic is certainly not over—they are taking COVID precautions and masks are recommended inside Mana—they are looking forward to cautiously gathering and connecting in ways that can be hard to do online. “In the past MdWs a lot of people went and saw all these projects and platforms and opportunities to have a thriving practice that’s not local to one city,” he says. “You can drive your work to Milwaukee and show with these people that you met at the fair. Enduring relationships were sort of forged in these last MdW iterations. I think that that’s just having space and time for people to gather and make those connections, as simple as that sounds. But if that’s the only goal that we achieve, that’s core to what we want to do.”