Gearing Up for Art Fair Frenzy

Next week, for better or for worse, the art world’s attention turns to Chicago, where amid much uncertainty three international art fairs will operate concurrently. Running May 6 through 10 at McCormick Place’s Donnelley Hall, John Wilson’s 14th annual Chicago International Art Exposition is a pale reflection of its former glory, with a rather skimpy roster of just over 50 galleries, down sharply from well over 140 in its heyday in the mid-80s. Thomas Blackman, Wilson’s longtime right-hand man before he bailed out late last summer, unveils his first effort, Art 1993 Chicago: The New Pier Show, in a 47,500-square-foot temporary structure at Cityfront Center adjacent to North Pier from May 5 through 10. Racing against time, Blackman managed to round up 87 exhibitors by offering incentives like reduced booth fees, thereby increasing the chance that he could lose substantial sums in his debut as an art-fair impresario. He insists, “I never expected to make money this year.” Meanwhile, at the Merchandise Mart ExpoCenter from May 6 through 10, David and Lee Ann Lester’s Art Chicago International ’93 will welcome many of the top dealers once aligned with Wilson’s Art Expo. After three years of playing the underdog to Wilson’s fair, the Lesters now find themselves in a position of power they couldn’t have imagined before many of the world’s top art dealers suddenly turned on Wilson and his fair with a vengeance.

With so much art for sale at so many fairs, one question is uppermost in the minds of fair organizers, gallery owners, and other observers: can Chicago support all three? At this juncture the answer from almost everyone is a resounding no. Most sources believe at least one of the existing fairs and perhaps two won’t be around a year from now. Who falls by the wayside and what kind of image Chicago retains on the international art-fair circuit will in large measure depend on how this year’s exhibitors fare. “The key factors,” says Art Chicago’s David Lester, “are whether the important collectors will show up in Chicago this year and whether they will buy art.” Local art dealers with a vested interest in sustaining an art fair in Chicago certainly do not want to see three fairs or even two survive for very long. They argue that the situation has created a huge amount of confusion, discouraging some galleries from participating at all and, more importantly, keeping major collectors from attending.

Ever the optimist, newcomer Blackman may have the most to gain or lose in the battle. Assuming bad weather doesn’t do it in, his giant and costly canvas and steel structure–never before used to house a major art fair in Chicago–should attract the curious. But whether the art inside the tent will sell is, of course, another matter. Wilson, for his part, seems unwilling to give up on Art Expo at the moment, though he has lost both the respect and support of Chicago’s most influential dealers. Without them it is doubtful that he can sustain much of an event, even if he returns to his old quarters at Navy Pier next year, as he has said he will. As for the aggressive Lesters, who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to compete against Wilson in years past, they have reaped the rewards of their quick action last summer when they first noted a defection of dealers from Art Expo. The Lesters promised the disgruntled dealers what they wanted, and now many of the blue-chip galleries are exhibiting at their fair, which also snared the chance to host an opening-night benefit for the Museum of Contemporary Art. If the dealers participating in Art Chicago sell art and make money next week, they should be eager to do business with the Lesters again next year. Last week David Lester was already talking about his 1994 event and how he can build on his good fortune.

Candy Workers: We Got It! Nestle: You Keep It.

For one week last February a dozen workers from a local Nestle candy factory, all members of Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco (BCT) Local 552, were given a chance to put their creative heads together to name and design the wrapper for a new chocolate and almond candy bar. The result of their efforts, to be distributed in mid-May, is a bar called “We Got It!” The experiment was a Sculpture Chicago project initiated by artists Christopher Sperandio and Simon Grennan. “We delivered them a platform to express their creativity, and they utilized it,” notes Sperandio, who says he was surprised at how quickly and effectively the workers went about the project. The wrapper features a group shot of the candy bar’s creators holding up a banner bearing the candy’s name in bold script flanked on one side by an American flag and on the other by the BCT union seal. Details of a local distribution deal for the candy bar are being finalized, and Gannett Outdoor has donated the use of 40 billboards for advertising. Though the candy factory workers enjoyed their moment in the creative arena, not all went exactly as planned when Nestle management bailed out just before the work got under way. “At the last minute they jumped off the boat like rats,” notes Local 552 president Jethro Head. The workers weren’t allowed to take on the project inside the factory, and the actual production of around 25,000 candy bars and wrappers is being done far away at a small union plant in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

Bailiwick Expands Pride Performances

Look for a substantially expanded lineup of events in Bailiwick Repertory’s Pride Performance Series 93, the gay- and lesbian-oriented theater festival set to begin May 24. Under new producer Matt Callahan, the series will feature 18 different theatrical and special events, up markedly from 10 last year. In selecting this year’s offerings, Callahan says he looked for shows that would make the series “more inclusive” than it has been. He notes, “I was interested in doing shows that feature gays and lesbians and straights together.” To help defray the $100,000 cost of the festival, Callahan has worked hard at lining up sponsors, including Ann Sather, Hemingway Travel, and Stubbs Australian rum.

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