No one spins the weather like a director of an art fair. I was reminded of this last Thursday when I ran into Tony Karman at Expo Chicago, which ended its five-day run in the Windy City yesterday. “Beautiful weather we’re having,” Karman, the fair’s director, remarked—and he was right: it was in the 70s and sunny. But were it pouring rain into a whiplash wind, I guarantee he would have told me there is no better weather for staying inside—ideally at an art fair.
Weather-spinning is a showmanship part of the job at which Karman excels, but he’s also—and there’s really no other way to put it—nice. He’s a nice guy. He has the best kind of Midwestern affability. If there’s an edge to him, I haven’t experienced it. He is free of pretension, which may not serve him well in the snobbier precincts of the art world but which, elsewhere, is entirely refreshing. There was, however, an edge to his fair this year—a good one.
Before I continue, two disclosures. First: I was flown to Expo and put up in a hotel to participate in a panel discussion about art journalism. (It’s an issue in which Expo, to its credit, seems to take an interest. Not enough people in the art world know that Karman, for instance, serves as publisher of The Seen, a local art journal edited by the tireless Stephanie Cristello, who curates the fair’s Dialogues program.) Second: I grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a half-hour drive from Milwaukee, and I suppose on some level I have a nostalgic investment in a Midwest fair succeeding.
With all that noted, I saw some terrific work at Expo, at booths for galleries like Los Angeles’s Grice Bench and San Francisco’s Jessica Silverman. I saw major Chicago collectors like Larry Fields, and I saw museum honchos like the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s director Madeleine Grynsztejn and curator Omar Kholeif. Two heavy-hitting newcomers to the fair, Gagosian and Lévy Gorvy, put real effort into their booths: Gagosian exhibited a particularly dark and brooding group show (read more about that here), and, at Lévy Gorvy, co-director Brett Gorvy used the word “intellectual” in reference to a booth with challenging works by Adrian Piper and a terrific new painting by Pat Steir. (And at relatively modest price points: Whereas the gallery brought a $30 million Jean-Michel Basquiat to Art Basel in Switzerland, Gorvy said the ceiling at Expo was $2 million to $3 million.)
While you may not suspect it from his British accent, Gorvy is something of an authority on what to bring to Chicago. Born in London, he met his wife in Chicago and lived there for a stint, and the couple still keeps a small apartment in the city. But it wasn’t nostalgia that brought the gallery to Expo. After two Lévy Gorvy directors visited Chicago earlier this year and met with Karman, they returned to New York singing the fair’s praises and convinced Gorvy to participate—despite his view that, at eight fairs a year, the gallery was already doing too many.
At his booth, over bites of Swiss chocolate, Gorvy told me about major local collectors’ hometown pride in Expo and their insistence that the cause for the former Art Chicago having faded away previously was as much mismanagement as it was the ascendancy—as the preeminent American art fair—of Art Basel Miami Beach. (Art Chicago, owned by Merchandise Mart, ended in 2006. Expo Chicago, under Karman’s watch, began in 2012.)
After this year’s Expo wrapped, I asked Chicago stalwart Kavi Gupta for a post-mortem. Gupta’s eponymous gallery is more than a decade old, and he’s a veteran of the fair. Expo, Gupta told me, has been building a collector base in Chicago. The city already had an established set of world-class collections, like those amassed by Ken Griffin and Helen and Sam Zell. Gupta was talking instead about Chicago collectors in their thirties and forties whose money comes from real estate, for example, or private equity. A hometown fair offers value to these up-and-coming collectors for the ways it can strengthen their confidence and lead them to buy more substantial works. Gupta said he saw those people out in force on opening night. (Though one problem, he noted: some were just there for a few hours during the vernissage and did not return.)
But, Gupta emphasized, Expo is not just a Chicago fair. He sold works to collectors from all over: Texas, Florida, and Omaha, Nebraska, among other places. He sold to museums in St. Louis and Milwaukee. And, he said, the art world is newly alert to the fact that there are certain artists and movements whose best work can only be found in the Midwest. Work affiliated with AfriCOBRA, a ‘60s-era collective of African-American artists that Gupta was showing at Expo, has been in the spotlight recently, in exhibitions at Tate Modern and elsewhere. For collectors who want to go to the source, Chicago is the best place to find it.
The fair also has its challenges. While Expo coincided in town with the Chicago Architecture Biennial and a project by Paris’s Palais de Tokyo, it had a lot of competition in terms of other international art events. Happenings in Istanbul, Berlin, Los Angeles, and elsewhere rendered the fair, to a certain extent, a regional affair by default. Gupta said he had New York clients buying from the fair over the phone. And yet, he added, galleries nevertheless brought their “A and B game to the fair this year, rather than the C and D game” of previous years.
The biggest untapped resource, Gupta suggested, is Chicago’s museums. The city has world-class institutions, and coordinating more major exhibition openings to take place during the fair, as Karman has been pushing to do, would bring to the fair the kind of added value that collectors are looking for. The widely praised Paul Gauguin exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, for instance, closed two days before Expo opened to VIPs. That was a real shame, as that exhibition could have been what the Beyeler Foundation’s shows are to Art Basel: must-sees that add gravitas to the proceedings.
Unlike Art Chicago before it, Expo exists in a crowded field—there are more art fairs on the international calendar than ever—and, making matters more complicated, galleries in emerging and mid-market art are struggling. Many are cutting down on fairs and taking care to be more selective. If Expo can build on the energy of this edition, it will likely make the cut.