Fair Trade


Left: Dealer Shane Campbell. Right: Theater director Peter Sellars with curator Bruce Ferguson. (All photos: Brian Sholis)

The biggest news at this weekend’s Art Chicago did not involve the fair—or at least that fair. Whispers during the Thursday-night preview spread further on Friday and were confirmed at a press conference on Saturday: Merchandise Mart Properties, which purchased the ailing event last year, had invested heavily in both the Armory Show and Volta (the latter is a three-year-old emerging-art fair held in Basel). Subsequently, nearly every conversation began, “Did you hear that the Mart bought the Armory?” A Monday phone conversation with Armory cofounder Paul Morris clarified things: The deal is a “strategic partnership for now but is on its way to being an outright purchase of the fair by the Merchandise Mart.”

Deliberately or not, the announcement served in part as a useful smoke screen. In an attempt to win back dealers and collectors wary of Art Chicago’s decline, the Merchandise Mart spent a rumored four to six million dollars on this year’s fair. But according to most people with whom I spoke, the outlay—on countless elevator operators, promotional Web videos, and radio commercials, for example, and a flashy symposium held in the Frank Gehry–designed pavilion in Millennium Park—was not entirely effective, and the fair, while efficiently managed, is not yet ready to compete with fairs in New York, London, Basel, or Miami.

This was evidenced in part by the conspicuously low number of out-of-town collectors noted by several dealers from New York, Los Angeles, and Europe, though dutiful Chicagoans shopped with a sense of hometown pride and graciously opened their homes to VIPs. The Merchandise Mart runs hundreds of trade shows and conferences (Art Chicago was held alongside four other art fairs, collectively titled Artropolis), but there’s no more fickle buyer than the art collector. It was fairly clear that for all its efforts the Mart had “neglected its base.” One New York–based artist echoed the sentiment during a Thursday-evening taxi ride: “It’s painful to see so much energy and money spent in the wrong direction.”

Left: Artist Adam Pendleton. Right: Symposium C6 organizers Victoria Burns and Lynne Sowder.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some good art on view: Toronto dealer Susan Hobbs brought photographs by octogenarian Conceptual stalwart Arnaud Maggs, long overdue for Stateside attention; Galerie Karsten Greve had an elegant booth, one side of which was given over to white monochromes by recent Italian masters like Piero Manzoni; and Paul Kasmin brought a cotton-candy-pink Jules Olitski canvas and two small new Frank Stella sculptures. But still, the pickings were slim, a sentiment most easily demonstrated when you measure the booths against those at the fair the Mart just bought: Of the roughly 130 exhibitors at Art Chicago, I’d hazard that no more than a dozen would be accepted if they applied to next year’s Armory.

Much of my weekend was spent at an attendant symposium, titled “C6: The Art World Is Flat: Globalism—Crisis and Opportunity.” Organized by Victoria Burns and Lynne Sowder, two art advisers long active in the city, the discussion kicked off on Thursday with a rousing, gospel-revival-style presentation from theater director Peter Sellars, who advocated the ameliorative power of art in the face of poverty, injustice, disease, rampant incarceration, and the “sad triumphalism of American culture”—a rhetoric whose fever pitch was rivaled only by Sellars’s comically upswept hair.

If Thursday suffered from overlong individual presentations and truncated group discussion, on Friday panelists began breaking the mold: Artist Adam Pendleton’s talk strayed quickly from monotone factual delivery toward a prose-poem scat about the potential of magazines and the laboratory as a working model, and curator Erika Dalya Muhammad led a practical, relevant discussion with designer Stephen Burks and artist Simone Aaberg Kaern. Curator Bruce Ferguson delivered a fascinating afternoon keynote, less showy than but just as wide-ranging as Sellars’s. To the accompaniment of Brian Eno’s ambient music and visuals, Ferguson forecast an imminent “postliterate” age in which facility with images will trump facility with words. (I doubt the irony was lost on him that his well-constructed argument was its own counterargument.)

Left: MCA Chicago curator Dominic Molon with artists Jack Sloss and Siebren Versteeg. Right: Designer Bruce Mau.

On Friday evening, after a brief stop at a private collector’s lakefront home (offering an undifferentiated smorgasbord of recently purchased art), I joined the throngs in the West Loop gallery district, where several exhibitions opened and Kavi Gupta was hosting a well-attended party in his Washington Boulevard gallery building. (It still smelled like beer on Saturday afternoon.) I enjoyed a nearby dinner for forty hosted by Monique Meloche to celebrate artist Carla Arocha and her collaborator Stephane Schraenen. There, between bites of pillowy chocolate baklava, I chatted with Art Institute assistant curator Lisa Dorin and artist Kerry James Marshall, who is nervously expecting the South Side real estate boom sure to accompany Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.

The after-party was at Wicker Park’s Debonair Social Club. Social, perhaps, but not quite debonair. By that point, well after midnight, more rumors of the Merchandise Mart’s plans were in samizdat circulation. Three confidants outlined the possibility of a Volta show in New York and a megascale real estate deal that would give both fairs a permanent space in Manhattan. (“All I want is a stable home . . . two hundred thousand contiguous square feet,” said Morris.) Last year, the New York City Economic Development Corporation put out a call for proposals for piers 92 and 94, suggesting that the space between them be filled and the site turned into a midsize trade-show center. There were three bidders: The current leaseholder for piers 90 and 92, the current leaseholder for pier 94, and the Merchandise Mart. A decision has not yet been made; a call to the EDC went unanswered before press time.

Should the Mart’s proposal be accepted—and owning a marquee property like the Armory Show can be seen as a strategic strengthening of the Mart’s proposal—it will be fascinating to watch how this affects other fairs. If the art world views these events as an aberrant but inescapable exhibition model, what happens when two of the largest are run by a company that sees them, however open-mindedly, as but items in an expanding portfolio of corporate trade shows?

Given rumors of billion-dollar real estate deals, it was a pleasure to spend part of the weekend at galleries that operate on a completely different scale. On Saturday night, Jamisen Ogg opened “Theoretical Nail in Your Art Coffin,” his new exhibition at duchess, a gallery run by Rhona Hoffman directors Katie Rashid and Kat Parker out of Rashid’s apartment. And on Sunday afternoon, I joined a gaggle of artists, dealers, and critics lolling on artist Michelle Grabner’s front lawn in the western suburb of Oak Park, celebrating solo exhibitions by Katharina Grosse (at Grabner’s gallery, The Suburban) and Michael Phelan (at Shane Campbell) with homemade pineapple upside-down cake. After seventy-two hours spent gathering information passed in shadows, it was an immense pleasure to simply revel in the artists’ psychedelic palettes and relax in the sun.

Left: Dealer Monique Meloche. Right: Curator Erika Dalya Muhammad, dealer Kim Light, and Richard Berle.

Left: Artist Katharina Grosse. Right: Dealer Rowley Kennerk and Skestos Gabriele Gallery's Michelle Vondiziano.

Left: Artists Carrie Gundersdorf and Michael Phelan. Right: Artist Zachary Drucker.

Left: Artist Melanie Schiff, artist Tyler Britt, and duchess gallery's Kat Parker. Right: A view of Katharina Grosse's show at the Renaissance Society.

Left: Artist Santiago Cucullu and illustrator Christiane Grauert. Right: Dealer Susan Hobbs, collectors Carol and Morton Rapp, and Susan Hobbs Gallery director Claire Christie.

Left: Filmmaker Wolfgang Lanzenberger. Right: Hyde Park Art Center associate director Kate Lorenz and director of exhibitions Allison Peters.