The Big Empty Tent

Last Friday, six days before Art Chicago was due to open at Butler Field, director Thomas Blackman placed an urgent call to local business phenom and Kendall College president Howard Tullman. The fair was set to host more than 100 galleries, two-thirds of them from out of town, with dealers from Europe, South America, and Asia starting to arrive over the weekend. Local gallerists, yearning for Chicago to reestablish itself as the art-market hot spot it was 15 or 20 years ago, were touting the event, committing themselves to it, crossing their fingers and praying it would be a turning point. But now, with the empty shell of a 125,000-square-foot tent erected in the park just east of the Art Institute, preparations for the fair had come to a halt. Blackman was out of money, unable to pay union laborers to install the floor, electricity, plumbing, and walls in the tent’s interior, and the union, testy because nonunion labor had been used to get the tent up, had walked off the job. Blackman told Tullman a loan he’d been counting on had failed to come through, and he needed $250,000 to bridge the gap.

Tullman says he met with Blackman Saturday and agreed to loan him the money, but was later told Blackman’s calls to the union and contractors hadn’t been returned. (A union spokesman says representatives met with Blackman Saturday night and “he didn’t want to come to an agreement.”) “By Monday it was pretty clear time had run out,” Tullman says. “He wasn’t going to be able to get it done.”

At that point SOFA producer Mark Lyman, who’d been a contender to do the Pier fair last year, and his employer, UK-based DMG World Media, began talking about moving the show to Navy Pier. DMG executive vice president Mark Carr says Blackman had approached them on Thursday and asked for a loan: “It was clear he needed it to open the fair. We said we’d look into it and try to do it for him. We then got lawyers to do their due diligence. After they did, we decided we couldn’t go ahead.” Carr says they informed Blackman there’d be no loan on Friday afternoon.

By Monday, however, DMG was considering stepping up if Blackman, along with his contracts and liabilities, was out of the picture. DMG didn’t want to take over, Carr says, “but if Tom canceled his show, we would try to put something up at Navy Pier for the dealers that would be left stranded.” Tullman says Blackman stalled at this point, and later on Monday DMG concluded there wasn’t enough time–even if they delayed the show’s opening by a day–to move it to the Pier. Monday evening DMG issued a statement that they’d determined not to become involved in any capacity.

Meanwhile galleries exhibiting at the fair were kept in the dark. At 1 AM last Sunday, Blackman sent them an e-mail announcing “difficulties with the set-up” due to “problems with the new floor and some labor issues due to the same.” The e-mail said the fair would still open on Thursday, but dealers wouldn’t be able to install their art until Wednesday morning. Alarmed, a core group of local dealers and members of the Chicago Art Dealers Association who’d been promoting the fair called a hurried series of meetings. “We’ve been trying to see if we can come up with the money or another person who might put the show up,” dealer Carl Hammer said Monday, adding that he’d be out $20,000 if the show were canceled. “The whole city of Chicago takes it on the chin for this.” Blackman had a frenzied series of meetings that extended late into the day on Tuesday, including one in which he implored the park district to help keep the show in the tent. On Wednesday he announced that Art Chicago would be held in the Merchandise Mart and open on time–with an invitation-only party Thursday night and public opening at 11 AM Friday.

Nova Heads for the Beach

Nova Art Fair, which was counting on luring some of Art Chicago’s audience to the far reaches of the City Suites Hotel at 933 W. Belmont, is one of the first groups to make use of the city’s new indoor special event license, designated for short-term gigs hosted by nonprofits in venues that don’t have a public place of amusement license. (The license costs $100 per day and triggers five city inspections, but may keep your warehouse party from getting shut down.) It’s showcasing 35 galleries, each in its own room and each, according to director Michael Workman, paying $2,500 to $3,500 for the privilege. Workman says the total Nova Chicago budget is about $140,000; festivities include a fashion show on the el and artists’ project spaces in neighboring businesses. In December Nova will also catch a ride on the coattails of Art Basel in Miami Beach, where Workman expects to host 60 exhibitors at $5,500 each at the Catalina Hotel and Beach Club.

Making Do

Navy Pier Walk, the annual sculpture show that traditionally kicked off on art-fair weekend, will be late this year and a shadow of its former self. (The target date is Memorial Day.) In its glory days the show dotted the Pier with impressively scaled work by two or three dozen sculptors, but for the past couple years it’s been relegated to Gateway Park, the grassy area in front of the main entrance. Director Joe Tabet says it’ll be there again this year, but construction plans at the Pier have forced him and his group to reinvent the exhibit. For the next three years they’ll mount a series of overlapping solo shows consisting of a half-dozen pieces by a total of about 20 artists, curated by west-coast critics Dave Hickey and David Pagel. The upside is the work will be displayed year-round, not just in the summer. Tabet says they’re still accepting submissions.

Going Mobile

Pritzker Park was the buzz at a party for artists thrown by the Chicago Art Project (formerly the Chicago Art Foundation) earlier this month. Executive director Paul Klein said the little park is the favorite among a half-dozen South Loop sites for CAP’s newest potential incarnation: a “long-term temporary” museum for Chicago art, made up of a dozen or more 8-by-40-foot shipping containers. One of the containers is envisioned as a mobile unit that would debut at Daley Plaza and then be dispatched to the neighborhoods, where it would function as a learning center staffed by volunteer artists with teaching certificates. Board president Heiji Choy Black said the group aims to raise $2 million over the next three years and needs $300,000 to deliver the container museum. CAP is showing 40 local artists at Nova.

What It Costs to Look

It’s not about the money, the Art Institute says of the recent announcement that its $12 suggested admission fee will be mandatory beginning in June. “It’s not a revenue builder,” spokesperson Erin Hogan says, adding that it’ll affect just 10 percent of the museum’s 1.5 million attendees. Hogan says AI is “one of the last Chicago museums” to have a discretionary fee and is trying to bring itself “in line with the other museums in the city.” Free times are also being moved, from all-day Tuesday to 5 to 9 PM Thursdays and Fridays in the summer, 5 to 8 PM Thursdays during the rest of the year, and three weeks in the dregs of February. In the only clear nod to public benefit, the maximum age for free kids’ admission is going from 5 to 12; entrance for students and seniors remains at $7 and will also be mandatory.

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