New Art Fair Forms

John Wilson’s annual New Art Forms Exposition, focusing on 20th-century decorative and applied arts, is one of the most popular events the local art magnate has produced. But despite the fair’s success Wilson is calling it quits–at least temporarily. This fall his Lakeside Group will present in its place the Chicago Latin American-Iberian Exposition of the Arts, scheduled for October 6 through 9 at Navy Pier. According to Wilson the new expo grew out of discussions with Spanish and Latin American art dealers who participated last spring in Wilson’s 15th Chicago International Art Exposition.

As for New Art Forms, Wilson says he’s rescheduling for next spring. He says it will be held in conjunction with another major event he would not name, and he refuses to elaborate further, indicating that details are still being finalized. Nine years ago Wilson founded New Art Forms alongside the crown jewel in his collection of expos–the Chicago International Art Exposition. According to former New Art Forms director Mark Lyman, as Art Expo waned in stature in recent years, with the mass emigration of angry art dealers to competing local fairs–including the New Pier Show, founded by Lakeside Group defector Tom Blackman–New Art Forms had remained a viable fair for Wilson. But the fallout from Wilson’s Art Expo now may have caught up with New Art Forms as well.

One factor that undoubtedly contributed to Wilson’s decision to at least postpone the New Art Forms fair is the debut of what amounts to a competing event. SOFA 1994–the name’s an acronym for “sculpture, objects, and functional art”–is being produced October 20 through 23 at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers by a new group called Expressions of Culture Inc.

In a move that may have foreshadowed recent developments in relation to New Art Forms, Mark Lyman left Wilson’s producing organization Lakeside Group last October and wound up executive director of the competing event. Lyman, who helped Wilson develop the New Art Forms concept, says “I asked for a contract [at Lakeside], and I was not given one and was not retained.” According to Lyman, among the 59 dealers participating in his first SOFA fair are many who previously exhibited at New Art Forms, including Chicago’s Perimeter and Betsy Rosenfield galleries and New York’s Peter Joseph Gallery and Leo Kaplan Modern. Wilson says he’s considering filing a lawsuit against Lyman. He has a suit pending against Blackman that charges among other things that he misappropriated trade secrets learned during his years as director of Art Expo. Wilson predicts that the outcome of that litigation could result in the demise of Blackman’s New Pier Show next spring.

News of New Art Forms’ uncertain future did not inspire much sympathy in certain local observers who have watched Wilson’s once impressive and lucrative art fair empire shrink in recent years. They say that Wilson showed little concern for the needs of the dealers who supported his ventures through the years and helped turn Art Expo and New Art Forms into two of the world’s premiere art fairs. They say Wilson ignored their complaints about the way Art Expo was managed and continued to charge high fees to participate despite the setbacks many dealers suffered as the art market declined in the early 1990s.

Wilson says the strict rules and regulations dealers objected to were what enabled his art fairs to maintain their preeminence through the years. As perhaps another indication of his hard times, Wilson’s residence in Lakeside, Michigan, has a For Sale sign planted in the front yard. Explains Wilson, “We need the capital for the litigation; it’s expensive.”

Dancing Toward Stability

The River North Dance Company begins its sixth year with a modest operating budget of approximately $150,000, but for the first time in the company’s brief history 11 dancers will actually be paid a small salary. “Most of our funds go into developing new repertoire,” I explains artistic director Sherry Zunker Dow. Last month the company presented two performances at the Athenaeum, and they will return there for more performances this fall. Dow says her troupe aims to be “theatrical, accessible, and entertaining,” terms that might also apply to another successful local troupe that RNDC resembles–Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

RNDC was founded by Dow’s husband, Mark Dow, a successful dancer and choreographer who has worked extensively in industrial films and commercials. A year after form forming the company with money out of his own pocket, Dow became too busy to manage the troupe and turned it over to his wife, a dancer and choreographer. With the help of former Hubbard Street dancers and current RNDC board members Karen Frankel Jones and Julie Burman Kaplan, RNDC slowly started to establish a presence on the modern dance scene, though there was little money to pay dancers for their rehearsal or performance time.

Early on RNDC teamed up with Urban Gateways, which provided a chance for the company to perform for schoolchildren and earn some much-needed income. In the early years Dow says she saved a few dollars from each fee the company received and used the accumulated funds to present a public dance performance at the end of the year. Recognizing that she did not want to be the sole source of repertoire for the emerging company, Dow also invited other local choreographers to help build a body of work. So far RNDC’s collection of 22 dances includes work by ten local choreographers, among them Tony Savino, Ginger Farley, Harrison McEldowney, and RNDC assistant artistic director Frank Chaves.

Many of the dances in the RNDC repertoire are short, running well under ten minutes, their brevity the result of conscious choice on the part of Dow and her choreographers, who are hoping to enhance the company’s appeal to members of the MTV generation. Adds Dow: “I find myself that after watching for five or six minutes many of the dances I see I would have liked more if they were shorter.” Dow, also has discovered the power of television to expand the company’s audience. A documentary about RNDC, produced on a shoestring by Evanston-based HMS Media, showed on WTTW last fall and has been picked up by the Public Broadcasting System for a national airing. After the Channel 11 broadcast, Dow says, she had to turn away hundreds of customers at sold-out RNDC performances at the Harold Washington Library Auditorium.

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