Q&A

Expo Chicago's Tony Karman on Why "This Is a Real Chicago Moment"

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Expo Chicago's Tony Karman on Why "This Is a Real Chicago Moment"

Tony Karman, the founder of this month's inaugural Expo Chicago, knows a thing or two about contemporary art fairs in the Windy City—after all, he started out working as a security guard in the early 1980s at the original one, the Chicago International Art Exposition, which for years was second only to Art Basel in Switzerland in art-world stature. With his new fair, occupying a site designed by Studio Gang architect Jeanne Gang on the city's historic Navy Pier, Karman is making a bet that the city can once again play host to a major destination art bazaar. The response so far from the international community of dealers and collectors has been more than encouraging.

We spoke to Karman about what the fair has in store, why the city is primed to become a global art capital, and why the doubters just don't know Chicago.


This year your inaugural fair will debut with an impressive 100 exhibitors from around the world, including blue-chip heavy-hitters like David Zwirner, Luhring Augustine, Pace, Matthew Marks, Yvon Lambert, and Chicago's own Rhona Hoffman. How did you manage to get such a vibrant group of galleries to participate? What did you tell them to get them excited about Chicago?

I think it's a testament to the legacy of Art Chicago and the Chicago art fair, since we're returning to a venue that was in a sense built for it, Navy Pier. It's also a commitment to quality and not quantity, by holding the line and limiting the show to 100 dealers. It said that quality was first and foremost, and I think that resonated throughout the art world. But being able to come back to Chicago in a way that means something, and to a venue that can be designed to elevate the work that's brought into it, is also an important factor to the exhibitors that are participating this year. Everyone is hopeful that this is the start to another long-term run for our city, just like the initial fair, the Chicago International Art Exposition, started in 1979.

Until 2010 you were vice president and director of Art Chicago. Now Merchandise Mart, the owners of Art Chicago, have canceled that fair and declared they'd no longer make Chicago a focus, period, because they don't think the city can support a fair. Obviously you think differently. What did you see in Chicago that they didn't?

When I first launched the fair in June 2011 I said that whatever was behind their [Merchandise Mart's] own business decisions, that doesn't necessarily reflect the hope of the marketplace that's still here. And it's not about Chicago supporting a fair completely. The Chicago collectors, institutions, businesses, and cultural leaders are backing this fair for the all right reasons, but it's more than a Chicago fair done correctly—this is a fair that draws the greater Midwest, which is a major reason why many of the top galleries you mentioned are participating, and the international art world as well. But it all has to be done at the level at which we are presenting this fair. I've always said a regional fair doesn't stir an international audience, but a fair of this quality surely does, one that is done with respect for the work that's brought to it and for the dealers, institutions, and collectors who come to it. That has a chance to go far beyond a Chicago marketplace. So I think quite honestly that if anyone believed those comments that were made by that other company, then there wouldn't be a Matthew Marks, a David Zwirner, a Pace, a Luhring Augustine, or any of those dealers participating in Expo Chicago. They all recognize that Chicago is an important place for them to be not only because of the Chicago marketplace but because of what we represent to the greater Midwest

Merchandise Mart notably stated that it believes only the coasts can support art fairs, but Expo Chicago actually has attracted significantly more galleries than the new Art Platform-Los Angeles fair, despite L.A.'s larger footprint as a contemporary art scene. What is it that a city contributes to creating a destination art fair?

Well, on every level Chicago's institutions and collectors have completely opened their arms to Expo Chicago. We have partnerships with the MCA not only for the opening night for special tours and dealer and collector breakfasts; we also have dealer and collector breakfasts at the Art Institute, where they are aligning two exhibitions to coincide with the fair, one of Allen Ruppersberg and one a retrospective of Jeanne Gang, who happens to be the MacArthur Fellow architect who designed the space for Expo Chicago. Everybody has worked together to make sure that the city is well represented, including the Smart Museum and the Renaissance Society. And it's not just about the Chicago galleries that are in the fair—it's about serving the greater gallery and artist community throughout the city of Chicago. I think if you came into our city right now you'd hear a pretty loud voice saying, "Come to Chicago, see what's going on." And that's really what this fair is about, the broader cultural community of our city.

The fair is bringing international attention to Chicago at a time when many artists associated with the city have been gaining greater and greater attention, including people like Rashid Johnson, Theaster Gates, and Nick Cave. It seems like a fortuitous moment.

Oh, absolutely. I think that this is a real Chicago moment in a lot of ways. In addition to the artists that you mentioned there's a significant crop of emerging artists that are graduating from the Art Institute every year who are looking to stay here and build a community either through our apartment show scene or through established galleries here. You've got a curator core at the MCA and at the Art Institute that is firing on all cylinders with world-class exhibitions. And I've always said September in Chicago is like December in Miami. There is nothing more beautiful than being in Chicago in September, and I think that in itself is another attractor. Then you have the fact that our restaurant scene is on fire, our music scene is on fire, and our theatre scene is legendary. This fair really is a part of that broader ecosystem of what is happening in Chicago.

During the first New York edition of Frieze Art Fair this spring, the range of food on offer from buzzy local restaurants made a big splash. What kind of food amenities are you going to have at Navy Pier?

I think that patrons of an art fair are sophisticated and demand a real taste of a city, and we wanted to make sure they were getting exactly that, so we're having four top chefs, including the noted Chicago chef Michael Kornick, provide food in rotation at one of the cafes. So it's not just a catering company on the Pier, but I've also worked very closely with the catering company and they too are aware of the fact that this is a food town, so we gotta make sure we hit all the notes of what's cooking in our city.

When Rahm Emanuel came in as mayor he made it clear early on that he wanted to make supporting the arts a key part of his administration. What has his involvement been with the fair?

He's been hugely supportive. The mayor is the honorary chairman of our civic committee, which is built of civic business and cultural leaders who have all signed their name to be supporters of the Expo, and I've been working closely with the city department of cultural affairs and special events. I think that there is great hope for this fair to be an anchor for many, many years and to be a driver for international cultural tourism, and we're extremely grateful that the mayor understands where a great international fair in Chicago fits into the broader good of the city.

While you're attracting an international clientele to Chicago for the fair, you're also collaborating with Artspace to bring the fair to a global audience online. How do you feel a Web presence furthers an art fair's goals?

We initiated this alliance because it's about providing value to the exhibitors that are participating in the fair, and in the 21st century e-commerce is part of the broader connection to collectors in art world. It made sense to us to expand our presence past our website and allow exhibitors to also have the chance to work with Artspace and provide greater exposure for their program and their artists. So for us it was an easy decision, to make sure that we're doing right by our exhibitors. It didn't make sense for us to close ranks—it made sense to open up and see what else we could provide.

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