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Art fairs

Art Chicago comes back from the dead with new ownership and energy

Almost everything about the fair was better—but where were the collectors?

London. Art Chicago was once the US’s premier contemporary art fair, but after major problems with its venue last year, it seemed the event was doomed. It was only saved at the last minute when it was bought by Merchandise Mart Properties Inc (MMPI), and held in the company’s vast building.

While sales were patchy at last month’s edition (from 27 to 30 April) and many major collectors failed to attend, some influential galleries which had defected over the past few years returned to the fair. Several participants canvassed by The Art Newspaper were enthusiastic about the event and optimistic that next year’s show will improve further.

MMPI is run by Chris Kennedy (son of the assasinated attorney general and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy). Its building houses showrooms and hosts a plethora of other commercial fairs.

Mr Kennedy used the organisation’s considerable resources behind rebuilding the fair from scratch (it is rumoured to have spent up to $5m), bringing in the local municipality and creating a multi-faceted arts week branded “Artropolis”, with other art fairs, a VIP programme, a fashion show, ballet performances, conferences and seminars.

While MMPI had little experience running a major art fair, most exhibitors said the organisers were responsive to their needs. “They were incredibly enthusiastic,” says Matthew Flowers, director of the eponymous London gallery. “They are doing all the right things to bring the fair back to its previous position.”

Exhibitors were also buoyed by the announcement, made at the opening of the fair, that MMPI has bought the Armory Show in New York, and the Volta satellite fair, held concurrently with Art Basel (see below).

Attendance, according to MMPI, was 41,500, double last year. “The challenge will be to rebuild the national and international audience of buyers,” says Alex Novak, director of Contemporary Works/Vintage Works. “But I’m convinced this will happen as word spreads about the quality of the show.”

Mr Novak put his finger on the one thing the organisers failed to deliver: major collectors. While the fair was well attended by local collectors, out-of-towners were sparser, and “they still need to get the attendance from further afield, like California”, says Paul Gray, co-owner and director of Richard Gray, the leading Chicago and New York gallery. “The problem was that because the exhibitor list was only finalised in March, they didn’t get any museum groups. But next year they should.”

So how did it do commercially? “It went swimmingly,” says Mr Gray, listing his gallery’s sales: a large Jaume Plensa sculpture, a Magdalena Abakanowicz, three Jennifer Bartletts, a Sam Francis and works by Jim Dine, at prices between $10,000 and $300,000. Half of his sales were to new clients.

Mr Flowers also declares himself happy, with sales of two Patrick Hughes including Brick Door, 2003, at $90,000 and works by Renny Tait (Santa Maria del Fiore, 1997, for $40,000) as well as works by Glenys Barton, John Kirby, Gary Wragg and Jane Edden.

Other dealers found the trade slower. “It wasn’t our best year,” says Joshua Derby of Browse and Derby. “But we felt pretty positive.” He sold “across the board” including a Hayden, an Uglow drawing and a big Andy Pankhurst landscape. “The Midwestern crowd is old money, they are super rich and very ­serious about art,” says London dealer Bernard Jacobson. “At Art Basel/Miami Beach sales are rapid and conversations are inane, at Chicago the conversations are serious but sales are slower.”

Art Chicago focuses principally on modern work rather than cutting-edge contemporary, but London’s David Risley gallery, which shows emerging artists, was very happy with its first attendance there. “We sold work by James Aldridge [Blackened Skull, 2007, for $8,000] and Boo Ritson and we had a really positive reaction from the public,” says director David Risley.

Originalyl appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Art Chicago comes back from the dead'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 181 June 2007