Expo Chicago’s sophomore outing

Chicago’s international art fair expands but keeps focus on quality.

September 19, 2013

Musicians often face the pressure of the so-called “sophomore curse” with their follow-up albums, i.e., will the critics or fans adore it as much as the first record?

But if Expo Chicago’s director Tony Karman is feeling a similar pressure around the second outing of his international art fair, he’s not saying.

As dealers and workmen were hustling to install the final fixtures and artworks at Navy Pier’s Festival Hall, Karman seemed calm.

He says his focus this year is the same as last year’s: the quality of the work.

Quality was definitely the headline of last year’s festival, and it appears to be back with this year’s outing: The beautiful open layout, punctuated by Jeanne Gang’s massive airborne sculptural objects. The high-caliber art work from international and local artists.

Karman has put more emphasis on newer art, partnered with satellite fairs, and wrapped everything in a week-long celebration of Chicago’s art scene.

But, for the moment, Karman says he’s trying to sustain what he started.

“My interest is not to make this a mega-fair,” Karman said. “My interest is to make sure that the scale of this fair fits what this marketplace can sustain.”

What kind of marketplace exists for a Midwestern art fair continues to be the question.

Last year, lots of dealers did well, selling a lot or even everything they brought.

That was the case for dealer David Juda, the director of Annely Juda Fine Arts in London. 

He’s back for a second year, but he’s been coming to Chicago since the days of the first international art fair, which was also held on Navy Pier.

He says the quality and organization has definitely improved - in those days they had to wrap the paintings in plastic because the Pier was still open to the elements.

Jura has brought lots of historic pieces to Chicago, including early 20th century works by artists like Moholy-Nage. He says local collectors have a “sophisticated” palate influenced by European traditions, unlike the more “Americanized” patrons at Art Basel Miami.

But unlike their Miami counterparts, Jura thinks the Midwestern crowd didn’t quite get on the buying board at last year’s Expo.

“At Art Basel, the collectors are already thinking how much money they’ve got to spend, what they want to buy, they’re already sort of primed,” said Jura. “Hopefully last year was the priming and this year’s the success.”

Success eluded dealer Wendy Olsoff last year, who comes from P-P-O-W Gallery in New York. Though she said it’s “not all about the money you make,” Osloff said her gallery made only one significant sale.

Olsoff is back for a second time because she’s already invested time and money in Chicago. And last year proved good for networking. But if her bottom line doesn’t improve by year three, Olsoff says she’d reconsider.

“People hope that it will work, they like Chicago, there’s a history of art here,” Osloff said. “But whether that will happen, who knows.”

Expo Chicago runs September 19-22 at Navy Pier.

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter and co-hosts the WBEZ podcasts Changing Channels and Strange Brews. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram