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Special shows and artists on site made Chicago the capital of the craft market

Prevailing gloom did not deter buying

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Chicago

This autumn, fair organiser Mark Lyman received a Visionary Award from New York's Museum of Contemporary Arts and Design for his contributions to the field. No wonder. His ninth annual SOFA (International Exposition of Sculpture, Objects and Functional Art), held from 25 to 27 October, boasted a host of international galleries, lectures by pivotal figures, special exhibits by landmark figures and book signings.

The fair has done much to banish craft’s “lower tier” rating and elevate it to a new high. It is held in the Navy Piers, in a soaring 170,000 square foot hall, almost five times the exhibition space of New York's Seventh Regiment Armory. With 30-feet-wide aisles and enormous stands, the space was just right for exhibiting the cutting edge glass, ceramics and fibre pieces in the show.

The crowds were enormous as well. On opening day, attendance was up 35% compared to the previous year; by the end of the weekend, more than 33,000 had cruised the fair. Even on the Friday the aisles were buzzing, showing that Mr Lyman has made Chicago the capital of this fast-moving specialist market.

He has also been a pioneer in attracting contemporary arts groups from abroad. This year, more than a third of the 90 galleries were from outside the US. Ten UK dealers were on the floor and a group of French ceramicists were touring the fair with plans to sign up for next year. “The Danish are also interested,” said Mr Lyman.

This year, he added to the mix a working furnace where glass is made, from the prestigious Corning Museum of Glass. It was in a massive tractor-trailer unit, where 15 glass artists were blowing, spinning, twirling and moulding creations. The audience was not the paltry few who usually take in demonstrations at other fairs: some 400 onlookers were captivated by the ongoing performance.

A total of over 125 artists, from furniture designer Wendell Castle to wood artist William Hunter, were featured, and even with the nervous mood of the country, sales seemed to be numerous, so $60,000 objects were moving, such as a Karen La Monte cast glass dress at Heller as well as four sinuous glass vessels by Lino Tagliapietra, for up to $44,000 at Thomas R. Riley Galleries. A Ginny Ruffner figure in metal and glass, over five feet high, sold at R. Duane Reed of St Louis for $90,000. By Saturday, 10 Giles Bettison glass creations priced up to $24,000 sold at the Oregon State Bullseye Connection. Holsten Galleries of Stockbridge, Massachusetts sold several Dale Chihuly creations, even if his rowboat filled with tendril-like figures had yet to find a safe harbour at $350,000. “The number of glass collectors has doubled in the past five years,” said dealer Ken Holsten. “This part of the art world is healthy because it is understandable and uplifting.”

The Italian Galleria Caterina Tognon returned for her third year. She sold five cast and carved glass sculptures by the Czech Gizela Sabokova, a student of the late Stanislav Libensky, for $38,000 each, as well as a number of smaller items. “Close to 50% of my clients are Americans, but since 9/11, that figure has slipped to 20%, which explains why I am here,” said Ms Tognon. She virtually sold out her stand.

Practically every medium was drawing attention. The Los Angeles Del Mano, considered the largest gallery specialising in wood, racked up 50 sales, some to new clients. The gallery reported that sales were up 35%.

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