Fair Enough? Dealers Grumble, Organizers Ante Up for ’94

More than 180 dealers exhibiting at three international art expositions vied for attention and sales last weekend. And as they started to dismantle their booths earlier this week their responses to the three-ring art circus varied depending on which fair they were participating in and how much art they sold. However, many agreed that the multiple-fair scenario complicated matters for both dealers and buyers, who had to make the rounds before making decisions–if any were made–about purchases. David Juda of Annely Juda Fine Art in London suggested that Chicago’s reputation as a locale for art fairs would inevitably suffer if the current situation continues. “There aren’t enough top art dealers in the world to support even two fairs at one time,” he says, “and if you have a weak situation, people will not come.”

The big loser last weekend appeared to be John Wilson, whose 14th annual Chicago International Art Exposition, according to several dealers participating in the event, was a ghost town most of the time. Late Sunday afternoon at Donnelley Hall Art Expo’s wide aisles were practically empty, and most dealers were sitting quietly in their booths. More important, exhibitors at Wilson’s event complained of extremely sluggish sales. But Art Expo director Laurie Wilson says contracts are being handed out for next year’s event, which will mark the fair’s 15th anniversary and its return to Navy Pier.

At Cityfront Center Tom Blackman’s Art 1993 Chicago: The New Pier Show won high marks for its festive, funky, cutting-edge ambience and the great natural light provided by its setting, the big canvas and steel tent pitched adjacent to North Pier. Blackman boasted that next year’s tent would be a 75,000-square-footer–almost double this year’s size. Though several dealers complained that too much of the crowd there wasn’t serious about buying art, one well-placed source said that most of the dealers at Blackman’s fair probably would sign up to come back next year. One big problem at the show was high temperatures in the tent caused by the welcome but surprisingly intense spring sun.

In the much cooler environs of the Merchandise Mart ExpoCenter, the dealers who were first-time exhibitors at David and Lee Ann Lester’s Art Chicago International praised the organizers for their impeccable management. Chicago dealers also liked the fact that the ExpoCenter was only a few blocks from many of their River North galleries, so clients could move easily back and forth from gallery to booth.

With art priced higher than that at Wilson’s or Blackman’s event, Art Chicago dealers not surprisingly had to work harder to drum up business. “Cautious” was one word dealers repeatedly used to describe the crowd. Among the more successful at moving their inventory was Chicago’s Zolla/Lieberman Gallery. But Galerie Gerald Piltzer from Paris had a tough time trying to sell some of its extremely pricey pieces, including a Jean Dubuffet painting with a $1.2 million price tag. David Lester said the fair would stay at the ExpoCenter next year, but he was negotiating with Merchandise Mart executives to obtain additional exhibition space.

Duncan Exits Joseph Holmes

The Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre suffered yet another blow last week with the announcement that artistic director Randy Duncan would exit his post in August after seven years at the helm. Duncan’s departure comes in the wake of associate artistic director Harriet Ross’s decision last winter to take a leave of absence. But late last week Ross said Duncan’s action might force her to return to an active role in the company sooner than she had originally planned. She says, “I think we’re going to have to pull back and concentrate on smallness.”

The whole of Duncan’s professional career had been spent with the company, first as a dancer, then as the troupe’s artistic leader and principal choreographer after Holmes’s death. Evidently it was the financial pressures of the business that finally wore him down. “I felt we were moving sideways rather than forward,” he says. “And when I looked at all my options, this was not where I wanted to be.” Ross sees the situation a little differently, saying, “I think Randy felt he had reached a point where he had fought all the fights.” But not everyone in the Chicago dance world believes the company’s administration will necessarily be worse off without Duncan. “All Randy really wanted to do was make pretty dances,” said one long-standing dance executive, “but these days a leader of a dance company has to do a lot more than that.” Whatever his failings as an administrator, Duncan has three times won the Ruth Page award for excellence in choreography and has been a major presence in the dance community.

Among the painful issues the company may have to grapple with in the coming months, says Duncan, is whether to lay off some of its 12 dancers in order to cut costs. As has been the case for a couple of seasons, the troupe also faces a dearth of fall bookings. Duncan said the issue of whether the company would have access to his choreography after he departs has not been resolved. He says it depends on whether the company maintains its present artistic standards: “If the Joseph Holmes company is going to use my dances, it will have to be a company at the level where I am leaving it.”

Tommy Tune Gets Busy

The hand of Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Tommy Tune is very much in evidence at theaters all around Chicago these days. Tune staged the cabaret show that actress-chanteuse Liliane Montevecchi is performing at the Halsted Theatre Centre. On June 1 Tune’s own new song-and-dance revue opens at the Shubert Theatre, where his production of The Will Rogers Follies ended a six-week engagement last month. And behind the scenes Tune is masterminding changes in the touring production of My Fair Lady starring Richard Chamberlain and directed by Howard Davies. Tune saw the show in Detroit before it arrived on April 20 at the Chicago Theatre, where underwhelming box office results during a two-week run disappointed producers Fran and Barry Weissler. Tune has been fine-tuning the musical’s scene transitions and sharpening some of the staging.

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