By Carlo Zinelli, from the Intuit Show
By Carlo Zinelli, from the Intuit Show

Shoppers and gawkers checking out the 17th annual SOFA Chicago decorative arts show on Navy Pier this weekend will find a pair of new attractions: the Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art and the inaugural Cowan’s and Clark & Del Vecchio auction of 20th-century ceramics. Featuring 16 dealers from across the country, the Intuit show is being produced this year for the first time by the Art Fair Company, which owns SOFA and hopes for audience crossover between the two. The auction is a merely concurrent event, according to SOFA co-owner Mark Lyman—but it’s controversial, seen by some dealers as a potential threat to their retail business.

What visitors won’t be seeing are the booths featuring the work of local, mentally disabled artists that have been part of previous Intuit shows. Frozen out this year by higher fees and stricter definitions, the disabled artists are the real outsiders.

Touted as “Chicago’s longest continually running art fair,” the Sculptural Objects and Functional Art show was launched by Lyman in 1994, after he left the Lakeside Group, which ran the now-defunct Chicago International Art Exposition. In 2005 Lyman sold SOFA to Britain’s DMG World Media and joined its staff. Then the economy tanked, and in 2009 he and partner Michael Franks—a former chief operating officer for DMG—bought it back at a price Lyman says was “significantly below” what he’d sold it for.

In addition to the Navy Pier event, the Art Fair Company mounts a spring SOFA in New York and a summer SOFA in Santa Fe. It also maintains a side business providing equipment and expertise to other show producers, which is how it hooked up with Intuit.

Since 1997, Intuit—a nonprofit center for intuitive and outsider art that counts former Reader co-owner Robert Roth among its board members—has put on its own annual show, which quickly grew to include dealers from across the country. In 2007 and 2008 it was held at the Merchandise Mart in conjunction with Art Chicago. That worked out pretty well, according to executive director Cleo Wilson. But Intuit wasn’t invited back for 2009: “The Mart said the Art Chicago dealers thought it was unfair competition,” Wilson says, because of its lower prices. Instead, the Mart offered it a more expensive slot concurrent with the fall antiques show. But “our dealers didn’t think it was a good fit,” says Wilson.

Intuit ended up forgoing a 2009 show, which took about 20 percent off its bottom line, and—along with declines in donations and grants—caused the organization to finish the year in the red. By last winter, with both the economy and its budget still tight, Intuit was in talks with Lyman about renting equipment to mount a 2010 show on its own. Those talks morphed into the current arrangement. As producer, the Art Fair Company has set Intuit show booth fees—at an “introductory” rate significantly lower than SOFA dealers pay—and taken care of all the arrangements with dealers. Intuit will get $5 for each of its own tickets collected at the door.

Thanks to the continuing effect of the recession, both SOFA and the Intuit show have fewer dealers than they did a few years ago. SOFA—which, Lyman says, topped 100 before the economy tanked—will have 68 this time around; Intuit had 25 (plus the disability booths) when it was at the Mart. But Lyman expects 30,000 people to attend this weekend—about the same number as last year—and that sounds promising to Wilson. SOFA participants I contacted are OK with it.

The ceramics auction is another matter. In July, when partners Garth Clark and Mark Del Vecchio—who combined operations with Wes Cowan of Cowan’s Auctions last winter—set up a booth soliciting consignments for it at Santa Fe SOFA, there was talk of establishing a dealer’s association to fight it. In an interview with the Maine Antique Digest, Palm Beach-based dealer Donna Schneier said she thought it “unethical for a show to sponsor an auction where the prices objects fetch might be a third of the retail prices.” The Digest claimed it’s “without precedent that a show manager would invite an auction on the premises. . . . Dealers feel betrayed.”

Last week, Bill Stein of Chicago’s Floating World Gallery didn’t seem too concerned: “The more the merrier,” he said. But Leslie Ferrin of Ferrin Gallery in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, told me an onsite auction is “competition that we don’t need. . . .” And Schneier still maintains that it’s improper to affiliate an auction with the fair. “I’m not bringing any ceramics to SOFA this year,” Schneier added, “and many other galleries are not bringing ceramics either.”

Lyman says Cowan, Clark, and Del Vecchio came to him with their plan, and he decided “it was better to work together than not.” He’s put a link to the auction on the SOFA website and included it as a SOFA activity but says “there’s no financial arrangement” and it’ll happen in a separate space. He argues that fairs and auctions have a symbiotic history; important fairs were created in New York because of the auction houses there. “I think we’ll receive more traffic from people seriously interested in ceramic art because the auction is located at Navy Pier,” he says.

Meanwhile, the handful of local nonprofits that have shown work by disabled artists at the Intuit show—including Project Onward, Little City, and El Valor—are MIA this year. In the past those groups paid a reduced booth rental rate, but they got no break on the $3,000 Intuit dealer fee for 2010. That’s only part of the reason none of them will be exhibiting, though. Frank Tumino, studio arts manager at Little City’s Center for the Arts in Palatine, says that when he heard what the fee was going to be he scrambled to raise the $3,000 and did. The Intuit show is that important to the artists in his organization, he says, adding that “about ten” of the many people who make art in the center’s open studios are “world-class artists, as good as anybody in the category.” But the Art Fair Company sent his money back. “We were refused,” Tumino says. “The explanation we were given is that they were being pressured by the other exhibitors not to include any studio that isn’t primarily a year-round gallery. My question is, why?”

There could be an economic explanation, he allows. “Maybe the dealers don’t want competition at the lower price point.” But he suspects that “distinctions that are being drawn around who is and is not an outsider.”

These days, Tumino says, there’s an idea afloat that because organizations like his “are encouraging people to make art—providing studio space and supplies—they’re ruining or invalidating that art.” A studio run by a foundation isn’t consistent with the romantic idea that outsider artists create not only without mentors and teachers but in spite of an antagonistic environment. Yet, Tumino asks, “If we’re not outsiders— the people in studios like this—who is?”

“It’s not a rejection of the institution in any way,” Lyman replies. “I offered them space to provide information about their programs. But they’re not the appropriate business model. Our focus is to work with full-time, noninstitutional galleries and art dealers representing and building individual artists’ careers over the long term.”

Tumino’s question will be under discussion when he and representatives from other absent organizations appear on a panel titled “Is It Outside?” at the Intuit show, Saturday, November 6, at 2 PM.