On most occasions, art fairs feel like their own little worlds—festive bubbles cocooned in the thick walls of climate-controlled convention centers, humming on coffee and champagne, impervious to natural light and whatever is happening in the real world.
On Thursday, much of the country was gripped by the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged that Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager, and by his subsequent response. The intensity was such that not even the remote location of Expo Chicago—at the tip of a long pier, surrounded on three sides by Lake Michigan—could shelter art lovers from the political storm. A simple “How are you?” at the opening night of Expo’s seventh edition often launched a conversation about the hearings. Women, in particular, walked the fair looking slightly stricken (hardly surprising, given that one out of sixwomen in the U.S. has been the victim of an assault or attempted assault, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). Many attendees said they’d been streaming the hearings all the way through the cab ride to the fair, and dealers admitted following along on their phones during the day.
“People were pretty distracted,” said Martin Aguilera, sales director at Mendes Wood DM, a Brazilian gallery. “I saw people actually streaming [the hearings] while looking at art.”
“People could not focus,” said Wendi Norris, a San Francisco–based dealer whose booth by the entrance showed three large-scale works by Dorothea Tanning, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, and Ana Teresa Fernández. “I definitely think politics can have an effect on fairs in general,” she added, noting other dealers had compared the mood to the 2016 edition of Art Basel in Miami Beach, which came just weeks after Donald Trump had been elected president.
Chicago-based dealer Monique Meloche said several of her artists had arrived to the Thursday night vernissage late because they needed time to “pull themselves together.”
As unfestive as Thursday’s political events were, the economic backdrop to the fair was conducive to buying, said several bankers in attendance. Evan Beard, national art services executive at U.S. Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management (and an Artsy contributor) said the bank was holding an event with Richard Gray Gallery for 50 collectors later that weekend, and he’d seen important “up-and-comers” from New York, Minneapolis, and Chicago at the opening night.
“We’re in a strong economy; I think the macro story is overwhelming any micro story on tariffs right now for wealthy people,” Beard said. “Chicago’s been a good market for us this year,” both for the art lending division and for engaging with collectors more broadly, “and this fair is an important pillar.”
The region itself is on an upswing, said Mac MacLellan, executive vice president of wealth management at Northern Trust, the presenting sponsor of the fair, with technology companies and seed capital pouring into Chicago, thanks to its concentration of universities. He noted many of the manufacturing-heavy Midwestern states—Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa—had unemployment rates below the already-low national average of 3.9 percent. He said it was too early to feel the effects of tariffs recently announced by the Trump administration; regardless, the benefits of the large corporate tax cut enacted in 2017 will balance out the impact of tariffs for most companies, he said.
“Net-net, they’re probably going get a bigger boost from the tax cuts than they are going to get hurt by the tariffs, at least that’s what we’ve seen so far,” MacLellan said. “Art is considered a luxury asset, and luxury assets tend to do well in a bull market.”
There were some questions as to whether Chicago’s smaller local galleries did not participate in the fair due to costs, as was suggested by a story in The Art Newspaper published Wednesday. But Meloche pointed out how the story failed to note that several of the Chicago galleries that weren’t doing the fair had recently moved to new locations—with all of the energy and expense that entails—and the owners of those galleries could be seen at the vernissage, shepherding their collectors around and showing their own support for the fair. The fair had 135 galleries this year, the same number as last year.
Tony Karman, the president and director of the fair, pointed out that Chicago heavyweights such as Meloche, Rhona Hoffman, Richard Gray, and Kavi Gupta were all present (and have been since the beginning of the fair), and that support for the fair was widespread throughout the city. He acknowledged that fairs are expensive for smaller galleries, though at an average of $50 to $55 per square foot, Expo Chicago is cheaper than many other fairs (booths in the Exposure section, for younger galleries, are around $8,000). He also said his fair has long offered a tiered pricing system with lower per-square-foot costs for smaller booths, which has been recently adopted by larger fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze. And the fair has only had a price increase once in its seven years.
“It’s our job to adjust and be nimble and be respectful, and I’m more than open—and always have been—to make sure that we’re providing the value that they deserve,” Karman said.
If politics had seeped into the fair, not all of it was coming in via C-SPAN. The fair’s IN/SITU section of large-scale and site-specific artworks, curated by Pablo León de la Barra, featured pieces such as [THE RED INSIDE](2018) by Afro-Brazilian artist
and the presciently titled Speak the Truth Even if Your Voice Shakes (2015) by
The commercial offerings at the fair were also noticeably diverse, with works from artists hailing from a range of ages and backgrounds. Meloche, the Chicago–based dealer who has long represented artists of color (including, until March of this year, Michelle Obama’s portraitist
, who then joined Hauser & Wirth), said after she and her staff had finished hanging the booth, they realized they had only one work that was not by a woman or an artist of color.
Three early sales from Meloche’s booth included an untitled 2018 Sanford Biggers birch-plywood sculpture covered in antique quilt and finished with gold leaf, which went for $60,000 to a private collection, and two unusual Cheryl Pope works, described as “needle-punched wool roving on cashmere,” which depicted a reclining nude woman and man using broad loops and stitches. Woman and Man Reclining on Striped Mat (2018) and Woman and Man Reclining with Plants (2018) each sold for $8,500 to private collections.
“I’m personally walking around and seeing a lot more work that I respond to,” Meloche said. “I am experiencing a lot more diversity in the artists people are bringing here, and I don’t think they’re just doing it for Chicago,” but rather that the representation of artists from different backgrounds is finally reaching “a level where it should be.”
She also wasn’t fazed by the recent market talk around the value of “investing” in art by formerly marginalized artists.
“It’s not a surprise that people talk about it,” she said. “And great, more people should be supporting women artists and artists of color, so if this is just another maybe more crass way to motivate some people, I’m like, ‘Jump on board.’”
San Francisco’s Jessica Silverman Gallery had a strong weekend, selling nine works by five artists, including feminist icon and hometown favorite Judy Chicago, whose Study for Pasadena Lifesavers Yellow series (1968) sold at the fair. Two Matthew Angelo Harrison sculptures—the resin sculpture Synthetic Lipiko no. 3 (2018), as well as Dark Silhouettes: Adaptation Between Fixed Points (2018)—sold, as did a handwoven polymer piece by Margo Wolowiec Futurecast (2018). Harrison’s sculptures at Expo were priced between $15,000 to $18,000.“We’re particularly pleased by the attention museum professionals paid to the feminist minimalist work of Judy Chicago,” said Silverman, who is also on Expo’s 11-person selection committee. “Post-war art history is being re-written!”
Brazilian gallery Mendes Wood DM, which also has outposts in Brussels and New York, presented a solo both of politically charged work by Paulo Nazareth. For the series on view, Nazareth retraced the route of the underground railroad that ferried escaped slaves to freedom, beginning in New Orleans and culminating in Toronto. In the center of the booth was a large red 1989 Ford pickup truck filled with both real and concrete watermelons called [THE RED INSIDE]; sales director Aguilera said that he is in continued discussions with two institutions about a possible acquisition. (Nazareth requires the truck to remain above the Mason-Dixon line; a sister work is south of the Mason-Dixon line.)
It was the gallery’s first time at Expo Chicago, which Aguilera said he wanted to do because of the city’s influential institutions, which he thought would be interested in Nazareth’s work.
“We thought Chicago would be very receptive to a very political Afro-Brazilian artist like Paulo Nazareth,” he said, possibly a reference to its history as the home of many prominent African-American artists and collectors, and movements such as AfriCOBRA. He had sold several editions of the photographs that Nazareth made in the course of his journey before the fair; several more sold on opening day, with individual photos priced at $10,000, and a set of 23 photographs at $38,000.
Aguilera characterized Expo Chicago as “a slow burn.” But he said that the slower pace of sales meant he was able to have lengthier conversations with collectors in a new market for the gallery. “It’s important to make these genuine connections as opposed to just selling something and never hearing from that person again,” he said.
Expo Chicago has, in part, built its reputation on being a key hub for institutional curators. Its curatorial exchange program, launched in 2013, now brings over 30 curators from museums around the U.S. and more recently overseas, through partnerships with the embassies of China, Denmark, France, Italy, and the Netherlands.
“I would definitely say it’s one of the best aspects of the fair—the intensity and rigor of the curatorial program,” said Stefano Di Paola of Los Angeles’s Anat Ebgi gallery. “They’re not just bringing them to the fair to see things, but really encouraging this dialogue between different institutions around the work that’s happening here.”
Di Paola selected works by Jason Bailer Losh and Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s for the gallery’s booth. But he said Anat Ebgi’s key sale from the fair was of a work currently installed at Huffman’s museum show at KMAC in Louisville—Untitled (Dancecard 3) (2017), an inkjet work on transparency and canvas currently—which sold to a private Chicago collection.
At Paul Kasmin’s booth, just in front of the entrance, a Robert Indiana “LOVE” sculpture sold the first day for an undisclosed price, followed by Walton Ford’s watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper The Invalid - Cheyne Walk 1869 (2017); an untitled 2018 gesso, kaolin, and ink on board by Elliott Puckette for an asking price of $65,000; and Naama Tsabar’s playful, pluckable Work On Felt (Variation 17) Burgundy (2017), with its piano string attached to a wine-colored split panel of felt, for an asking price of $18,000.
“We think of Expo as the unofficial kick-off of the art fair season, and it set a great tone yet again this year,” said director Eric Gleason, who cited the strong presence of Chicago institutions and their young collector groups at the fair. “The reach of the institutions here—the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Arts Club, they’re just so prominent…and there’s no better way to connect with them than to come to their turf.”
Karman said getting curators to travel to Expo is an integral part of the fair, and funding for that travel is built into the fair’s budget.
“We said, ‘Let’s guarantee at least 30 curators,’” he said. Karman said that group has grown to attract more than 80 curators in all, who come to talk shop with their peers “about what they’re going to do together, outside of what they’re doing at the fair,” find new artists, and work on potential collaborations with Chicago institutions or Expo Chicago itself. “That’s a pretty rich stew,” he said.
They also come with wealthy patrons in tow, ready to buy. For example, New York gallery Lévy Gorvy sold Terry Adkins’s sculpture Untitled (2002) as a promised gift to a major Chicago institution. Now in its second year participating in Expo Chicago, the gallery also sold Adkins’s sculpture Untitled (Bessie Smith Head, Red) (2007) for $90,000, Pat Steir’s painting Ancient Waterfall (1989) with an asking price of $715,000, and Karin Schneider’s canvas H(AR/BP + C) (Marsupial) (2018) for $12,000. Los Angeles gallery Shulamit Nazarian, which last year nearly sold out its booth of works by Genevieve Gaignard, had another triumphant weekend in Chicago, thanks in large part to institutions and their boards. L.A. artist Amir H. Fallah received the Northern Trust Purchase Prize, and his painting, Calling On The Past (2018), priced at $12,500, was acquired by the permanent collection of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago. Shortly thereafter, two supporters of the museum acquired three other works by Fallah, two of which were promised gifts to the Smart Museum.
Naudline Pierre’s oil on canvas Deal Kindly and Gently With Me(2018) also sold for $9,000 to a private collection.
The gallery’s senior director, Seth Curcio, reported that every work in the booth by Fallah and Pierre had sold before the end of the first day and cited additional “wonderful conversations” with curators at other Chicago and Midwest institutions such as the Art Institute of Chicago, MCA Chicago, MOCA Cleveland, and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. Noting this continued strong performance, he said, “We’ll certainly return next year!”