ARTnewsletter Archive

After a Buyout, Art Chicago Is Poised for a Comeback

After serious setbacks last April that nearly resulted in its cancellation, the venerable Art Chicago fair is set to make a comeback this year, from April 27-30, following substantial investment and upgrade efforts by its new owner, the Merchandise Mart, Chicago’s high-profile trade-show center.

CHICAGO—After serious setbacks last April that nearly resulted in its cancellation, the venerable Art Chicago fair is set to make a comeback this year, from April 27-30, following substantial investment and upgrade efforts by its new owner, the Merchandise Mart, Chicago’s high-profile trade-show center.

“We did not want to let the fair go from the city,” the Mart’s senior vice president Mark Falanga told ARTnewsletter. “We also recognized that there was no way any single entrepreneur could take the fair and turn it around. We invested vast financial resources, and we’ve got a small army of people working on it.”

The Mart is wooing deep-pocketed collectors and museum curators. It hired top Democratic party fundraiser David Rosen to organize a VIP program that will feature car service, tickets to theater and dance performances, special lounges and catering, invitation-only seminars and other exclusive events. At the same time, it is courting casual collectors by packaging Art Chicago under the umbrella title of Artropolis, which encompasses several concurrent shows such as NewInSight, featuring a dozen of the nation’s top graduate art programs.

“They’re doing everything right,” says Natalie van Straaten, executive director of the Art Dealers Association of Chicago (ADAC). “We had a lot of questions early on, but the Mart keeps coming up with all the right answers.”

Last April the fair—once one of the world’s most important art events but in serious decline in recent years—appeared near its end. It had moved into a tent in a city park near Lake Michigan; then, four days before the 2006 edition was to open, it was almost canceled because of labor and money problems. Exhibitors who had already arrived—in some cases, from Europe—were left in limbo.

Fair owner Thomas Blackman put in a call to the Mart, which, on two days’ notice, agreed to take in the fair, despite a commitment to host its annual antiques expo that same weekend. A few days later the Mart announced that it had bought the fair from Blackman.

Falanga’s team then engineered a major overhaul of the upcoming 2007 fair. The first task: to enlist the support of the ADAC, which the Mart did by presenting a plan to strengthen the exhibitor base, which had suffered substantial defections in recent years.

“We had many people tell us initially, ‘There’s no way I’d ever do Art Chicago because it has fallen to a point where I don’t want to participate,’” says Falanga, “but we didn’t quit with those people. We kept on going back to them.” Now, he says, many have agreed to return as exhibitors.

From about 250 applicants, the selection committee chose 131 galleries, including several well-known names who had dropped out of the fair in recent years, among them James Corcoran, Los Angeles; Rhona Hoffman, Chicago; and Paul Kasmin, New York.

KEVIN NANCE

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