Art Theft

In the early 90s Art Chicago, the international exhibition staged by Thomas Blackman Associates, Inc., edged out all its major competitors to become the city’s biggest contemporary art fair. David and Lee Ann Lester’s fair, also called Art Chicago, was one of the casualties; citing too much competition, they threw in the towel after 1993. But now Art Miami, a ten-year-old fair founded by the Lesters, has poached two of Blackman’s most valued lieutenants–Ilana Vardy, director of Art Chicago, resigned in late November to become director of the Miami fair, and Joanne Leopold, director of Blackman’s fledgling San Francisco International Art Exposition, will join Vardy as director of marketing. Blackman admits the departures took him by surprise, but he’s moved quickly to add new recruits Jacqueline Henderson, Cynthia Quick, and Charlotte Webb. “I was already thinking about adding a new layer of man-agement to bring in some new energy to our organization,” he says. “But at the same time it’s not easy to lose people like Ilana who knew the business so well.”

Blackman hired Vardy in 1992, when he was working for art entrepreneur John Wilson, and took her along when he left Wilson to launch Art 1993 Chicago. Within five years Blackman, Vardy, and Margaret Stone (formerly Margaret Drewyer) had elevated their fair to international prominence. “We were a real triumvirate in the way we worked to develop Art Chicago,” says Blackman. Yet Stone resigned in late 1998 after TBA managed to launch the San Francisco fair, and in mid-1999 she was hired as a consultant to assemble a new management team for Art Miami. David and Lee Ann Lester had just sold the fair to Advanstar Communications, Inc., a giant Cleveland-based company that publishes over 100 trade magazines and produces over 100 international trade expositions. According to sources familiar with the sale to Advanstar, the Lesters agreed to help the company find new management for the fair. Blackman says the Lesters approached his company to manage Art Miami, but that deal fell through, and apparently the raiding began.

Vardy and her associates admit they’ll have their hands full reviving Art Miami. More than 200 dealers exhibited at Art 1999 Chicago, but the roster for the tenth annual Miami fair, scheduled for January 21 through 25, numbers only 75, none of them Chicagoans. “It was dead there last year,” says local art dealer Roberta Lieberman, who attended the fair but has never exhibited there. Vardy believes Art Miami has to become more daring to attract new dealers and major collectors. She and her staff have added several special exhibits to this year’s event, one dedicated to cutting-edge galleries and artists and another featuring 11 installation and video artists. (The latter was curated by Amada Cruz, a former staffer at the Museum of Contemporary Art who’s now director of the museum at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies.) For 2001, Vardy plans to woo new dealers and launch a marketing campaign aimed at collectors, and she says Advanstar, which has no track record in the business of high-end art fairs, has promised her the financial backing to make the necessary changes. “I sure hope they intend to give her a long leash,” says Blackman, “because that is what she will need.”

Happy New Year–See You in Court

You think your holidays are depressing? In December 1998 entrepreneur Marc Curtis was planning to open the Black Orchid Showroom and Lounge, a throwback to the glamorous supper clubs of the 40s, with New Year’s shows by Joe Piscopo. But Curtis was unable to procure a liquor license for his club at Piper’s Alley in time for Piscopo’s December 31 opening; at the last minute the shows were moved to the Old Town School of Folk Music near Lincoln Square, and the January 1, 1999, show was canceled after the blizzard hit. The Black Orchid finally opened last August, and now Curtis is celebrating the new year with a lawsuit alleging that he failed to pay more than $10,000 in fees and expenses to the Lee Solters Company, an entertainment public relations firm in Beverly Hills. According to Solters’s attorney, Joseph Morris, the suit was filed December 20 in Cook County Circuit Court after Solters decided that Curtis and his legal counsel were “stalling.” Curtis did not return calls seeking comment, but his attorney, Cory Aronovitz, insisted that Curtis and the club were in “good financial shape.” Morris says that Curtis must respond to the suit by January 24.

Solters says he knew nothing about Curtis or his track record when he was introduced to the club owner through a mutual contact. He says Curtis retained him in fall 1998 to help create a national profile for the Black Orchid, hoping such a move would attract topflight headliners. The suit alleges that Curtis never paid Solters fees and expenses incurred in January and August 1999. Local agent Carol Fox says Curtis also retained her PR firm, Carol Fox & Associates, from July through October to handle local PR for the club’s debut, but she declined to comment on whether she’d been fully compensated. At first the Black Orchid was open three nights a week, but that schedule has been cut back to Friday and Saturday only, presumably to book more private parties. A spokesperson for the club says, “Everybody who comes is having a good time, and the club is doing great.”

Gilmore Getting Into Film

Dulcie Gilmore is back. The former executive director of the Auditorium Theatre and general manager of the Ford Center for the Performing Arts/Oriental Theater found herself out of a job last fall after the Oriental was bought by SFX Entertainment, Inc. But late last month Gilmore resurfaced as managing director of the Chicago International Film Festival, filling the void left by executive director Judy Gaynor. According to Dan Coffey, president of the festival’s board, one of Gilmore’s first projects will be raising between $3 and $4 million to establish a permanent venue for the festival. Coffey envisions a north Loop theater with three screens, a cafe, and a store; the venue would save the CIFF the substantial expense of renting theaters every fall and could be leased to other local film festivals the rest of the year.

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