Written by Anna Louie Sussman
Twenty years ago, when Kavi Gupta opened his eponymous gallery in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, the art scene in Chicago was “completely dead,” he said. Chicago’s own artists tended to flee to New York as soon as their work was deemed significant, but rent was cheap, and he was able to eventually buy two large exhibition spaces as well as an 11,000-square-foot warehouse that includes a workshop to help artists fabricate large-scale works and vast amounts of storage space.
“We can do so much with our artists here,” he said, from fabrication to inventory management, thanks to the availability of large, inexpensive space in a city that stretches out across 237 square miles. “That’s being in Chicago, you can’t do that in any other city.”
Today, Gupta’s gallery represents some of the world’s most sought-after artists, including Mickalene Thomas, Irena Haiduk, who showed at Documenta 14, and McArthur Binion, who showed at the Venice Biennalethis summer. His booth at EXPO Chicago, which opened Wednesday, was bustling with visitors and had seen brisk sales. And the West Loop has become a trendy neighborhood with new condo buildings and several of the city’s best restaurants, including avec, where many exhibitors and collectors had dinner post-fair.
Gupta credited Tony Karman, EXPO Chicago’s director since 2011, with helping revitalize the city’s art scene. Chicago has, for decades, had some of the world’s most prestigious art institutions and a sophisticated group of collectors, but Karman, Gupta noted, has brought everyone together in support of the city’s cultural scene—from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose photo and personal note appear in the fair’s promotional materials, to the institutions, collectors, universities, and even non-profit organizations from the U.S. and abroad.
“He’s using [the fair] as this thing that’s beyond a trade show,” Gupta said. “He’s using it as a catalytic moment to shift the cultural makeup of the city.”
By Thursday afternoon, Gupta had placed Chicago-based artist Nick Cave’s Hustle Coat (2017), two 2016 paintings by James Krone, Onappol-Lechard and Onish-Th’Apaar, as well as works by Manish Nai for a range of $18,000 to $75,000. Nai was also featured in the In/Situ program of large-scale works placed around the fair, and curated by Florence Derieux. Tony Tasset’s Untitled (Snowman) (2017) sold for between $120,000 and $150,000.
Karman had a lot to work with when he came to the fair. As many dealers noted, the city’s support for the arts extends back at least a century, when local families such as the Palmers and the Bartletts went to Europe and bought the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings that now form the core of the Art Institute of Chicago’s famed collection. In 1978, Chicago became one of the first cities to pass a Percentage For Art Ordinance, requiring public art as part of the development or renovation of municipal buildings. Most visitors get a taste of it at Millennium Park, home to Anish Kapoor’s famous reflective silver Cloud Gate (2006; also known as the “Bean”), but public art is visible all around the city, on the many open plazas in front of office and municipal buildings. It’s a reminder of how much space the city has to spare, and provides a sharp contrast to New York, where, despite having its own percent-for-art ordinance in place, space constraints make it hard to imagine a real estate developer leaving a single square inch unmonetized.
Chicago is the country’s third-largest by population, after New York and Los Angeles, and has a diverse economy spanning healthcare, insurance, financial services, technology, agriculture, manufacturing, and the arts. The city and its surrounding metro areas are home to 32 Fortune 500 companies, and Mayor Emanuel is hoping to add Amazon to that list (Google’s Midwest headquarters are in Chicago, too).
With its high-skilled labor pool, “Chicago as a business destination continues to attract marquee companies,” said Mac MacLellan, Central Region President of Northern Trust Wealth Management, citing Boeing, McDonald’s, and agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland Company.
It’s that professional class that Karman is hoping to cultivate into a new generation of collectors. He’s doing so by working alongside the city’s institutions, many of which have vibrant young collectors committees, and by bringing the world’s top galleries to their backyard. In its sixth edition as EXPO Chicago, the fair featured 135 galleries from 25 countries, many of them—Gagosian, Tina Kim Gallery, Lévy Gorvy, Galerie Frank Elbaz, and Standard (Oslo) included—appearing for the first time. Karman has gone out of his way to court them; many of those interviewed said their reason for coming was, simply, “Tony convinced me.”
“There is no question that in the very short time of this fair, individuals that had both the means and the potential want now are beginning collections that I guarantee will begin to rival many in the future,” said Karman. “And it’s because the international art world came to them.”
Karman also credited the mayor for “getting it,” by recognizing how important culture is to a city’s vitality and economy. He said the city made producing the fair and its ancillary activities effortless, and even partnered with EXPO to present public works such as a digital billboard series, “OVERRIDE,” of works by 12 international artists currently on view around the city.
Karman has also brought major curatorial depth to the fair, thanks in large part to the Curatorial Forum (now in its third iteration) he launched, which sponsors roughly two dozen curators to spend time in and around Chicago’s museums, artists, and dealers, visiting studios and galleries, and also in dialogue with one another, during the fair.
Matthew Witkovsky, curator and chair of the Art Institute of Chicago’s photography department, said that gave the fair a less commercial tone than others he has attended.
“The things that come out of a fair like this are different,” he said on opening night. “They have more to do with exhibitions, with site-specific projects, or making connections that will help sustain an artist’s career. That could come a bit at the expense of selling that one work on that wall, but it’s a tradeoff.”
Despite the fact that EXPO claims the mantle of an international fair, there’s no getting around Chicago’s hometown boosterism, and many booths played to that local pride in hopes of seeing their works join the city’s great collections. Prominent Chicago collectors spotted at the fair included the dancer Jay Franke, Marilyn and Larry Fields, and David and Nancy Frej.
Mathias Rastorfer, a partner at Switzerland’s Galerie Gmurzynska, paid homage to the city’s strong tradition of public sculpture in his booth, which greeted fairgoers at the entrance with a bronze sculpture by Joan Miró in front of a black-and-white photo of the 39-foot-high concrete statue of the same form that sits in Chicago’s Brunswick Building Plaza.
Inside the booth were four fantastical curtained-off “rooms” made from colorful vintage textiles and sewn by Fendi’s seamstresses in Rome and Milan, intended to evoke the private viewing rooms of Renaissancenobility. Much as the aristocracy would use them to withdraw from the chaos of daily life to spend meditative time with their artworks, today’s collectors can take a breather from the fair in one of these little solitary oases. The works inside, and on the walls, all had a Chicago connection. Gallery staff had spent months researching its artists’ links to the city, such as Christo’s wrapping of the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1969, or Robert Indiana’s studies at the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1950s. As of Wednesday night, Gmurzynska had placed an untitled work by Kurt Schwitters for around $400,000 and an untitled Louise Nevelson from 1959 for around $160,000, both to private Chicago collectors.
Rastorfer and other dealers described Chicago collectors in general as “sophisticated,” “serious,” and “thoughtful.” Nearly everyone contrasted EXPO’s slow and steady pace to, say, the rush of Art Basel in Miami Beach, but most seemed confident they’d have a successful fair.
New York’s David Nolan Gallery was also capitalizing on Chicago’s famous hometown boosterism. Nolan, who sits on the fair’s selection committee, brought several of his Chicago-born or -based artists, including David Hartt and Julia Fish. By the start of the weekend the gallery had sold a mahogany sculpture by Mel Kendrick for $70,000, Wardell Milan’s much-discussed The new sun will warm our proud and naked bodies (2016), and an untitled 2016 graphite drawing by Chicago artist Jim Nutt. Sale prices ranged from $15,000 to around $80,000, said George Newall, associate director at the gallery.
“There’s a huge dedication to local artists, real pride and support,” said Newall, “but also a great taste for the international scene. It goes both ways.” He said the gallery has established strong relationships with collectors who come back year after year for “repeat purchases,” and described the community as “very warm and engaged.”
Local gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey started in 2004 and has become a champion for Chicago artists, even as it expanded its roster to include national and international artists. One early step, said partner John Corbett, was bringing those Chicago artists to international fairs such as Art Cologne and Frieze Masters. Seeing their work hanging alongside other world-class artists in an international context bolstered the confidence of local collectors in the strength of the artists’ work, and the gallery’s program more broadly.
“It’s a way for people back home to understand the viability of the work,” Corbett said, adding that he has since stopped doing both of those fairs due to the exhaustion and expense. And with a great fair in his own backyard, he and his small staff (they are six in all) can reduce their fair travel.
At EXPO, he had sold a Karl Wirsum drawing, as well as works by Chicago artist Morris Barazani, including Solid Sky; a textile work by LA-based Christina Forrer; and pieces by Magalie Guérin, Lui Shtini, and Bryan Calvin, only one of which was pre-sold. He described Chicago’s art market as somewhere between New York’s and Dallas’s—not quite as small and tightly knit as in Dallas, where the overlap between collectors and museum trustees is almost 100%, but not as diffuse as New York’s. He said that there was nonetheless still “a long way to go” in cultivating the next generation of collectors.
“What we’re seeing right now is the potential for a real transformative thing happening in Chicago in terms of arts patronage in the broadest sense,” Corbett said. “How that actually plays out is still to be seen, but I think a fair like this is extremely important in that ecosystem.”
Frank Elbaz, owner of the Paris- and Dallas-based Galerie Frank Elbaz, was one of Karman’s new recruits. Participating in EXPO Chicago made sense as part of his strategy to cultivate a deep U.S. collector base (setting up shop in Dallas was another component of this strategy), but he said Karman’s aggressive courtship was decisive. Karman invited the gallery to visit Chicago and set up a jam-packed schedule of meetings with collectors and museum curators over the course of two days for gallery director Danielle Cardoso Maia.
“Like that, you can smell the city,” said Elbaz. He and Maia concluded it was fragrant.
“For most European people, Chicago, it’s like the Sleeping Beauty” of the U.S. market, Elbaz said. “We knew the Chicago art fair was big 30 years ago, but now maybe there is a kind of revival, thanks to Tony Karman and the fair.”
Elbaz said he and his team had put in a lot of work ahead of the fair connecting with the curators and collectors who would be in attendance (their names were provided by the fair). He sold a work by Mangelos to a trustee of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a piece by Julije Knifer to another collector. Neither work sold right out of the booth to someone walking in, but both were peripheral sales that wouldn’t have resulted without his presence at the fair, he said. That left him a little time on Thursday to watch on his laptop as his football team, Nice, beat Zulte Waregem in the Europa League, 5-1.
Lévy Gorvy was another international gallery with a first-time presence at EXPO Chicago, lured, again, by Karman’s enthusiasm and efforts. Emilio Steinberger, the gallery’s senior director, said Karman had done a great job bringing curators and museums from not just Chicago but the surrounding area. The gallery decided to bring only artists it represents on a primary market basis, to give its program and some of its less well-known artists exposure to the region’s collectors.
“It wasn’t rushing in like Basel, or Frieze; it was a really nice steady flow” on opening night, Steinberger said. The gallery sold several works off the bat, ones that Steinberger said he’s “wanted to place in the area.” Those included a large untitled 2004 painting by Pat Steir for an asking price of $550,000, an untitled 1968 work by Carol Rama for an asking price of $350,000, and The Underground Rises Again (2015), a large white canvas with metal studs by Dan Colen, who joined the gallery this year, for an asking price of $250,000.
Amsterdam- and New York-based Grimm Gallery, which was returning for the second year, took two booths, one in the main gallery section, and a project booth for a solo presentation by U.K. artist Charles Avery. Grimm sold American artist Matthew Day Jackson's Destroyed by Fire (Painter on His Way to Work) (2017) for $60,000, and several paintings by Caroline Walker for between £2,850 and £3,100. Gallery owner Jorg Grimm said he was very pleased with the booth’s prominent placement near the entrance to the fair, and noted he had made connections with prominent curators, including Steven Bridges from The Broad, where one of his artists, the Chicago-based artist Daniel G. Baird, is currently being exhibited. He also met Jean de Loisy and Jean-Baptiste de Beauvais from Palais de Tokyo; the French museum is one of EXPO Chicago’s partners for a group show at the DuSable Museum of African American History.
Also returning to EXPO Chicago was New York’s Bortolami. The gallery’s Emma Fernberger said the gallery had been doing the fair for at least four years, brought back year-in, year-out by the city’s sophisticated, serious collectors. The institutions, she said emphatically, are “fantastic.”
“It’s slow, but it always winds up being successful,” Fernberger said. “We have great relationships with the institutions here and the collectors, and they’ve always been very supportive of us, so it always feels nice to come back here.”
As of Thursday, the gallery had placed a large blue-and-white striped work by Daniel Buren, On Ash – 2 25 elements, November, 1989, situated work(2017), for around $160,000. Fernberger explained that the works were double-dated because the originals had burned down in a storage fire, so he revisited the series in 2017.
Younger galleries also did well at the fair. Los Angeles’s Shulamit Nazariansold a number of works by Genevieve Gaignard, currently in a show at New York’s Studio Museum of Harlem, by Thursday. They included the final prints of Basic Cable & Chill and of Kathleen, both within an edition of three photographs, for around $3,000 and $4,000, respectively, and Ain’t I a Woman, for around $6,000, as well as two sculptures for $4,250 to $6,000, and photographs from each of the works that debuted at EXPO. Senior director Seth Curcio said the works had all gone to private collectors, about half of whom were based in cities outside of Chicago, the other half local.
Los Angeles gallery Anat Ebgi returned for a second year, after winning the Northern Trust Purchase Prize last year, through which Emerald Waters(New Beverly) (2016) by Neil Raitt was acquired for the DePaul Art Museum. Director Stefano di Paola said the attention from last year’s prize helped the gallery’s sales this year; he’d already placed five out of six works by Alec Egan for between $6,500 and $20,000, with a few of them coming from pre-sales.
“Chicago is very relationship-based and the clientele is very thoughtful,” di Paola said. “I find that they’re very into political work, work by artists of color, these non-normative narratives,” he said, calling these themes “an important facet” of some of the private collections he had been able to see, and from his discussions with collectors about their interests. That makes sense for a fair that drew the likes of Martin (Marty) Nesbitt, one of former President Barack Obama’s closest friends and the chair of Obama’s foundation, who is also a prominent local collector.
Wendi Norris, a San Francisco gallerist, was returning for her fourth time, with a selection of works by three artists, all in the $15,000 to $20,000 range, which Norris said was her “sweet spot” for EXPO. As of Thursday, she had sold five works by Firelei Báez, two to the J.P. Morgan Chase Collection, two to major museum trustees, and one to a private collection. Several of the works that sold were not at the booth, but were sold at the fair. All of the works carried a notable political, social or environmental message, and Norris agreed with di Paola that the appetite is strong for political works among Chicago collectors.
This year’s edition of EXPO Chicago featured not just political art, but also political causes. Human Rights Watch had a booth with a work called Tea Project, 780 cast porcelain cups, one for each of the 780 Muslim men detained, almost all without any charges, in the U.S. detention site at Guantanamo Bay. The cups are modeled after Styrofoam teacups, engraved with flowers from the detainees’ countries, and are displayed alongside tea recipes from each of those countries. The Natural Resources Defense Council had a stunning sculpture by Chicago-based art collective Luftwerk, White Wanderer, inspired by the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica, which broke off into the sea this summer. Both non-profits were given their booths free of charge, thanks to Rhona Hoffman, a grande dame of the Chicago art scene who founded her eponymous Chicago gallery 41 years ago. Hoffman sits on the Midwest board of both organizations, and had asked Karman to invite them in and use the fair as a site to bring those causes to fairgoers’ attention using art.
She put it another way, though.
“I’m giving away Tony’s real estate!” she said, laughing.
Luckily, it’s Chicago, where there’s plenty of space for everyone.