Underlying tensions and rivalries which had grown among the competing organisers of the three contemporary art fairs being held simultaneously at the beginning of last month (see The Art Newspaper, No. 27, April 1993, p.25) came perilously close to destroying Chicago's reputation as host city to one of the leading annual events in the international arts calendar. Reports of internal conflict had spread widely through the art market with the result that certain dealers long associated with a fair in Chicago did not participate and many collectors and other interested observers did not pay a visit. Not surprisingly, few sales of any significance were reported under these circumstances.
The key to understanding the anomaly of Chicago's apparent extravagance at a time when other fairs are contracting or closing lies with the irreconcilable personalities of their organisers: John Wilson, who had built the original Chicago International Art Exposition (CIAE) into a major attraction at Navy Pier before being forced to relocate to Donnelley Hall, a trade centre several miles south of the city's centre, in 1991, when Navy Pier closed for renovations; Thomas Blackman, who was director of CIAE until he resigned last September in order to create his own fair, Art 1993 Chicago: The New Pier Show; and David Lester, who had opened a rather conservative fair focusing upon traditional and representational art and intended to compliment CIAE in 1990. That fair, Art Chicago International, had been launched in Donnelley Hall, but moved to swisher and more convenient quarters in the Merchandise Mart in 1991.
Profound disenchantment with Wilson's behaviour during last year's CIAE resulted in a massive defection to Lester, whose reputation had been enhanced by pioneering fairs in Miami and Hong Kong, and now picked up the valuable business of such prestigious galleries as Waddington, Annely Juda, Andre Emmeric, Pace Prints and Tyler Graphics, as well as receiving important local support from Richard Gray, one of the city's leading dealers. In return, he delivered a superior service, large if expensive booths, a good lighting system and the crucial benefit night for Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art upon which the defectors had been insisting.
Lester's fair (6-10 May) comprised seventy dealers and had the familiar mixture of quality and vulgarity usually discerned at such events. Works of particular interest included three painted bronze sculptures by Louise Bourgeois and Philip Guston's "Studio Landscape" (1975) at Karsten Greve; three new canvases of "The Scarlet Letter" by Tim Rollins + KOS; and a "Monument" by Christian Boltanski with local dealer, Rhona Hoffman; several video sculptures by Nam June Paik which spilled out of Carl Solway's booth into the fair's central hall; and Frank Stella's "Fountain", a new print of vast dimensions created with Kenneth Tyler. For a more consistent treatment of younger or innovative art, Blackman's fair (5-10 May), held in a handsome tent on land beside Ogden Slip and facing the North Pier complex of shops and restaurants, offered an intriguing picture. He had convened an exemplary advisory committee which included Josh Baer, Glenn McMillan, Anthony Meier, Ghislaine Husenot and Peter Pakesch, and they, in turn, had persuaded their colleagues to join them in Blackman's venture. Charges were pitched at an affordable level and, although Blackman is estimated to have lost as much as $500,000 from the fair, he created an unusually logical and intellectually coherent exhibition. He was well supported by local dealers, including Rhona Hoffman, who showed a more experimental brand of art than she had chosen for Lester's fair. He attracted several major American names, including Marisa del Re, Daniel Varenne, Donald Young, whose booth included photographic work by Sophie Calle and a major video sculpture by Gary Hill, and Laura Carpenter, who stole the fair with a superlatively shaped canvas by Ellsworth Kelly. He also made a strong impression with younger galleries including Angles, which showed new work by Greg Colson; CRG which boasted a fine knitwear composition by Rosemarie Trockel and a suite of forty drawings by Hamish Fulton; Fawbush, with work by Kiki Smith, Rachel Lachowicz and Adam Rolston; and Miami's Jason Rubell, who had hung paintings by Julian Schnabel and Suzanne McClelland. The lesson of Blackman's fair was simple and effective. Limit the fair's size, define its character, pick an appropriate advisory team and reject any applicant which does not fit into the scheme.
How did John Wilson and CIAE fare? His event was a deeply depressing occasion (6-10 May). In the cavernous and unsympathetic space of Donnelley Hall, he had assembled fifty galleries from such distant cities as Louisville, Saskatchewan, Lodz, Warsaw, Seoul and Sydney. None had exhibited with him in the past and only two were local businesses. It was a disgrace to its reputation, its tone set by a herd of wooden sheep coated in fairy lights and grazing on an astroturf lawn which had been laid near the entrance. The customary benefit night, dedicated to AIDS now that Lester had won the patronage of the Museum of Contemporary Art, was woefully attended and dealers voiced disappointment that they had travelled long distances without being warned that the former glamour of the fair had migrated to its competition. But although sources in Chicago believe that Wilson's credibility has been irreparably damaged by this year's fiasco and that he may retire, he continues to hold one trump card: the option on Navy Pier, that magical location which is scheduled to reopen in time for next year's fairs. If Lester can win control and consolidate his list of exhibitors, and if Blackman can afford to amount another fair of more innovative art, Chicago will have a complimentary pair of events with which to restore its image.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Too many fairs spoil the market'