Bidding War

Art 1997 Chicago, the international contemporary art fair at Navy Pier, will be a slightly smaller affair than the one producer Thomas Blackman envisioned. Two European galleries have withdrawn in protest over the fair selection committee’s decision to allow the Andre Emmerich Gallery in New York to participate. More defections could follow.

Sotheby’s, the giant London-based auction house, owns the Emmerich gallery. The European galleries– Galerie Marwan Hoss in Paris and Art & Public in Geneva–maintain that auction houses offer unfair competition and have no business butting into art fairs. “The art market is focused on two highways–one is auction houses and one is art fairs,” explains art dealer Marwan Hoss, who believes that “both can exist and have to exist, but not in the same boat.” He argues that auction houses and galleries serve distinctly different purposes. “Galleries put up exhibitions and work to develop relationships between collectors and artists, while auction houses serve as the stock market of the art world and are interested primarily in moving merchandise.” Pierre Huber of Art & Public echoes Hoss’s sentiments: “I have no fear of auction houses acting like auctioneers, but I don’t want them interfering where they don’t belong.” Huber maintains that “auction houses are interested only in what will sell,” while galleries undertake the difficult job of introducing artists to the marketplace.

When Sotheby’s acquired the Andre Emmerich Gallery last summer, it was the first time the auction house had bought a gallery outright. But Sotheby’s was following in the footsteps of its archrival Christie’s, which over the last couple of years has bought out two London galleries. Dealers say it is unclear whether this trend will continue. Andre Emmerich says he approached Sotheby’s with a proposal to buy his gallery because he was concerned about its long-term survival. “None of my sons wanted to go into the art gallery business, and I wanted to ensure the continuity of what I had built up,” he explains, adding that he has no intention of retiring and allowing Sotheby’s to bring in a new manager. He’s irritated by the objections of some European dealers to the gallery’s participation in Art 1997 Chicago. “I think it is sheer, unmitigated paranoia. It all totally baffles me.”

Members of the Art 1997 Chicago selection committee tend to side with Emmerich. Committee member Paul Gray of the Richard Gray Gallery says, “I think this all stems from the feeling among some European dealers that auction houses are unfair competition, while we in America treat business as business and view auction houses as an integral part of the art market.” Gray says his gallery has “relationships” with several auction houses, and he argues that such ties may help increase a gallery’s all-important contacts with collectors. “In the end it’s the personal relationships you make with collectors and artists that make the business work.”

Blackman, president of Thomas Blackman Associates, chose to honor the wishes of his selection committee and allow Andre Emmerich into the show. But the decision forced him to sever ties with the International Contemporary Art Fairs Association (ICAFA), an organization of major art fairs that he helped found about a year ago. Blackman says the issue of auction house ownership of galleries arose when ICAFA drew up its bylaws, and in fact the association’s charter bans any galleries owned by auction houses from participating in ICAFA art fairs.

When Blackman brought the Andre Emmerich issue before ICAFA, the association decided it had no choice but to accept Blackman’s resignation. Explains Marwan Hoss: “The charter is very precise about this–in no way can auction houses be associated with art fairs.” Blackman says it is too early to say if there will be any more defections from his 1997 fair. “I certainly hope this is the extent of it.” The loss of Art & Public, one of the most respected galleries in Europe, is particularly painful to Blackman, as this was to have been the gallery’s Art Chicago debut.

Commercial Appeal

Television watchers are likely to take a close look at the unusual commercial being aired locally to hawk tickets for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, beginning March 28 at the Civic Opera House. Called “With One Look” (a Sunset Boulevard song title), the TV spot, created by high-powered advertising director Bob Giraldi, is shot entirely from the perspective of the principal character–discarded silent picture star Norma Desmond. While conspicuously showing off the musical’s lavish settings, the camera follows Desmond into different scenes of the show without ever focusing on her. The viewer sees the reactions and hears the lines of other characters Desmond is passing among. The spot is underscored with music from the show.

“Chicago is a much more sophisticated theater market than many cities, and we didn’t feel Chicagoans needed to be beat over the head in a commercial,” says Sunset spokesman John Barlow, who conceded that the spot allows for a change in the actress playing Norma Desmond if the producers ever think a change is required. A TV commercial called “Linda Sings” has been used in other markets since the show went on tour last summer. That spot features former Chicago-based actress Linda Balgord, the star of the touring Sunset Boulevard, singing parts of major numbers from the show.

The “With One Look” commercial and other marketing initiatives apparently have helped boost ticket sales in Chicago. Weekend performances reportedly are sold out. Overall, however, Sunset Boulevard has been a disappointment. Sales were notably weak in other cities, and sources say the national tour may end after its Chicago engagement. Productions in New York and London are set to close in just a few weeks, meaning Sunset Boulevard will not come close to matching the success of Lloyd Webber’s monster hit The Phantom of the Opera.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Paul Gray photo by Eugene Zakusilo.