Sales appeared promising during the first day of Expo Chicago, the US Midwest’s largest art fair, as dealers said the city’s art scene is undergoing a renaissance while the city’s artists and institutions gain attention both nationally and internationally.
VIPs began streaming into Navy Pier’s vast festival hall at noon Thursday (13 April), passing by a massive neon light installation by Italian artist Andrea Galvani and hanging sculptures by Julien Creuzet, who will represent France at next year’s Venice Biennale. Chicago mayor-elect Brandon Johnson formally kicked off the fair with a champagne toast and Chicago native Chance the Rapper perused the stands, enthusiastically chatting with dealers before speaking with artist Hank Willis Thomas on the fair’s Dialogue stage.
By the end of the fair’s VIP preview on Thursday evening, New York’s Kasmin gallery had sold a bronze sculpture by Max Ernst for $225,000 and Chicago’s Monique Meloche Gallery placed a major Ebony G. Patterson tapestry for $130,000 with a prominent Chicago collector. Los Angeles-based Kohn Gallery reported selling a large Ilana Savdie painting to an East Coast institution for $110,000 and two Siji Krishnan paintings—one to an East Coast collector for $58,000 and another to a US private museum for $70,000. Local dealer Kavi Gupta placed a work by Marie Watt with a public collection and a work by Roger Brown, a member of the Chicago Imagists, with a major private collector.
New York gallery Ryan Lee sold a painting of a glacier by Anne-Karin Furunes to a private collector for $40,000, and Brazilian gallery Nara Roesler sold three works by André Griffo ranging from $30,000 to $50,000. Miami Beach-based Jupiter Contemporary sold two works by Yirui Jia for $25,000 each. New York-based Half Gallery reported selling out its stand of works by Yoora Lee—with prices ranging from $5,500 to $24,000—to collectors that include trustees of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Claire Oliver Gallery of New York sold out its stand of works by Stan Squirewell, BK Adams and Gio Swaby, whose work is the subject of an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago until 3 July. Sean Horton Presents, also based in New York, sold out its solo stand of works by Lauren dela Roche. The fair’s first-day sales appear to be stronger than last year; sales reported after the VIP preview day in 2022 topped out around $100,000.
This week’s Expo Chicago (until 16 April) marks the tenth iteration of the fair and the largest yet, with more than 170 galleries (up from more than 140 in 2022). Fair director Tony Karman says the growth this year was not entirely intentional, citing the space available at Chicago’s Navy Pier, which has hosted the city's art fairs for decades. “We’re bound by our size,” Karman says. “It’s never been our intention to necessarily grow into a 200- or 250-gallery fair because in practice, we can’t.” (Art Chicago, a previous version of the fair under different operators, peaked at around 200 stands.)
Expo’s growth this year was largely driven by the fair allowing more galleries to take part in the Exposure section, reserved for galleries that have been around for ten years or fewer and curated by Aimé Iglesias Lukin, the director and chief curator of visual arts at the Americas Society in New York. This year, 41 galleries are taking part in Exposure. Lukin said the original plan was to pick 30, but after receiving around 80 applications, many from international galleries, the fair organisers allowed more to take part.
Expo’s growth over the past decade reflects the upward trajectory of the city’s cultural scene as a whole, according to dealers at the fair. Evan Boris, a partner at Monique Meloche, one of the city’s top galleries, says social media has helped people from all over the world “experience art in a different way than they used to be able to, which breaks down the geographical barriers that have historically existed”, allowing people from outside of Chicago see what the city has to offer.
Dealers say the strength of the Chicago art scene derives in part from the city’s institutions. Chicago is home to some of the country’s top MFA programs and world-class museums, like the Art Institute of Chicago. Those structures, paired with more affordable costs of living compared to some other large US cities, make Chicago an attractive place for artists to live and work and allows them the freedom to experiment.
“Chicago enables us to be away from the hubbub and the craziness of other art centres. It gives you room to breathe and think about how you can break new ground,” says Phillip Barcio, associate director of interpretation at Kavi Gupta, who adds that Chicago’s art ecosystem can support a “gallery crazy enough to just throw money and resources and time at an artist”.
Chicago has been “a great incubator for creativity for a really long time”, says Claire Warner, a co-founder of local space Volume Gallery. “And now people are kind of looking here to be like, ‘Oh, my gosh, there's all of this really great stuff going on,’ whereas I don't think that people used to do that before.”
Karman says Expo has helped grow Chicago’s reputation around the world by inviting collectors and curators to explore the city’s art scene. Visitors during the VIP preview included New York collectors Susan and Michael Hort, Florida-based Beth Rudin DeWoody and influential Cleveland collector Nancy Lerner, as well as Chicagoan collectors Richard and Ellen Sandor, Jack and Sandy Guthman, and Helyn Goldenberg.
Boris says Expo attracts a “critical mass” of Midwestern collectors to Chicago looking to buy art at the fair, and some dealers said a majority of buyers visiting their stands on Thursday were from out of town. Barcio says Kavi Gupta’s stand was visited by multiple collectors from Los Angeles, and the gallery sold a piece to a collector in Wisconsin.
"We’re only one week out of the calendar, but this week I think we show our collaborative nature well and it also gives one a perspective on what’s happening year-round,” Karman says.
- Expo Chicago, until 16 April, Navy Pier, Chicago