The speech Christopher Kennedy delivered last week at the City Club of Chicago was stirring enough to launch a political campaign. Exhibiting the energy and vision (and voice and curls) of his father, Bobby, and famous uncles, he got a standing ovation from the crowd, which included Bill Daley, Burt Natarus, and Natarus’s nemesis, Brendan Reilly, who recently unseated the alderman. But Kennedy, who worked his way up at the then-family-owned Merchandise Mart and has headed Merchandise Mart Properties (which runs the Mart and a lot more) for seven years, is attempting something harder than, say, a mere run for president. He thinks he can get Art Chicago’s groove back. It’s a noble undertaking but risky, and some Chicago gallery owners say they’ve already been chewed up in the process.

Art Chicago, which runs April 27-30 at the Mart, was hip once, then it wasn’t. The crowd moved on. Kennedy thinks this great “meritocracy” of a city can make them care again. He traced the history of the fair from John Wilson’s pioneering Art Expo at Navy Pier–which grew into “the most important art show in the world,” he said–to the art wars that erupted when Wilson’s lieutenants Mark Lyman and Tom Blackman split and launched their own shows. When “interlopers” from Palm Beach and Cleveland entered the fray, “costs were driven higher, prices were driven lower,” Kennedy said, “and eventually everyone withdrew.” Meanwhile competition grew in other cities: Art Chicago imitators like London’s Frieze fair, Paris’s FIAC, New York’s expanded Armory Show, and–most galling–Art Basel, which not only stole our heat and took it to Switzerland but threw it back in our face by setting up shop in Miami Beach.

Last year Blackman sent the Mart an SOS when he found himself in a financial bind and going down three days before Art Chicago was to open. In his talk Kennedy described the rescue that transformed Blackman’s disaster in the park to art in the Mart in little more than 24 hours and the “rebranding, rebuilding” effort undertaken for this year. Slow decline capped by spectacular near destruction had both dealers and collectors running, as one gallery owner put it, “like rats from a sinking ship.” For 2007, “we didn’t have the chicken and we didn’t have the egg,” Kennedy said. “But we did have a rooster, and that rooster’s name is Chicago.” Over the last year the Mart has worked to expand the fair to a citywide celebration, dubbed Artropolis, while its market makers roamed the globe, courting the elusive art-world aristocracy.

The new Art Chicago will be on the seventh floor of the Mart, sandwiched between the concurrent tenth annual International Antiques Fair on the eighth floor and the Mart’s year-round showrooms for custom upholstery and designer plumbing. Its VIP collectors will work out at the East Bank Club, tour the Chicago River by boat with Jahn and Tigerman, and be treated to on-site performances by the Joffrey and other groups. They’ll also participate in Symposium C6 (“Conversations, Creativity, Collaboration, Culture, Community, and Chicago”), invitation-only programs at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. Art Chicago alone will feature 132 galleries, 33 from outside the United States and a hefty 42 from New York. Three satellite shows will also be held on the Mart’s “campus”: the Bridge show (with some 60 dealers), the Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art (42 dealers and exhibitors), and–a new wrinkle that ought to get dealers’ attention–the Artist Project, with 50 participants not affiliated with galleries. One $15 ticket will be good for all four art shows and the antiques fair.

Kennedy said the first thing the Mart did to get this year’s show off the ground was solicit the support of the Art Dealers Association of Chicago (CADA). CADA members recall that Mart representatives held a series of enthusiastic meetings with them last fall, turning on the PowerPoint charm and enlisting them as ambassadors to recruit dealers nationally and internationally. A few remember a warning voiced by one of their own: “They might mount a show we can’t get into.” But at least some felt the Mart was focused on creating a fair with a distinctive Chicago identity. “We were very excited,” says Flatfile’s Susan Aurinko. “I was the biggest cheerleader in the city for what they were doing. We were calling people and saying, ‘You have to apply.'”

Art Chicago appointed a ten-member gallery-selection committee that included three Chicago representatives: CADA president Roy Boyd, photography dealer Stephen Daiter, and–in a coup–the queen of the city’s tiny A-list, Rhona Hoffman. All three will have booths at the show, and even A-lister Richard Gray was lured back. But only 20 Chicago galleries made the list, which was released last month. Flatfile was out, as was Jean Albano (which would have been showing Karl Wirsum and Gladys Nilsson). Thomas Masters, whose gallery was also turned down, says CADA members realized they’d been “spun off the wheel” in an event striving to be elite rather than inclusive. “Without the Art Dealers Association of Chicago, I’m not sure Art Chicago could have happened this year,” Masters says. “The fair was floundering. They came to us and said, ‘What should we do? We cannot get this fair off the ground without you.'”

Masters says the Mart abandoned a core group of half a dozen dealers who gave their time and support to the fair with the tacit understanding that they were “forging their way into it.” He says “the selection committee was not made aware of their contribution. The Mart did not step in and say, ‘By the way, these are the key people who must be included.'” And when dealers complained about the oversight, the Mart did nothing to “right that injustice,” Masters says. “They refused to go to the committee and impose their ownership prerogative. They basically dumped us and said, ‘Thanks, we don’t need you anymore, now that we’ve got this high-profile fair that we wanted.'” Some of the left-out galleries, including a few with 15-year (and longer) track records, are participating in the Bridge event, previously known as a showcase for “emerging” galleries. Flatfile’s Aurinko, among those who will be at Bridge, says she feels “really betrayed, kind of the way we felt when Bush won and we knew he didn’t.”

Hoffman, who was in Telluride the day the selection committee met (when it reportedly reviewed 300 applications in about ten hours), says she participated by FedEx and phone. “The goal was to be an international fair,” she says. “Sour grapes” notwithstanding, “not everyone should be in it.” CADA vice president Ken Saunders, whose Marx-Saunders Gallery failed to make the cut, maintains it was clear early on that the Mart needed a “quality show” and is determinedly upbeat about the outcome. “Dealers should remember that in the days when the fair was strongest we did well whether we were in the show or not,” he says. “I think the jurors did what they thought best for Art Chicago. Too many dealers took it personally.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea (Aurinko).