This is the third in a three-part series of a conversation with Thomas Blackman, former owner and Director of Art Chicago. You can read the first part here and the second part here. “True Stories” recently sat down over dinner with Blackman to discuss Chicago, the changing international art fair landscape, and more.
BY MICHAEL WORKMAN
This brings me to this most recent shift I’m perceiving with all this stuff, the markets just aren’t floating as strongly, they’re trying to find new market share, everybody’s moving around and grasping after capital. Basel’s going to Hong Kong now, trying to go where there’s a bubble, Frieze is coming to New York.
Your question is really interesting to me for this reason, and it’s that it involves so many different aspects of the art world, right? It involves the survival of individual art fairs, questions of capital, the international outreach of all these other fairs, though I must admit Basel going into Hong Kong and stepping all over Lorenzo’s show, that I thought was a bit…interesting.
Well, they’ve had trouble in some recent years, with UBS getting caught up in all these offshore scandals (there’s also a good historical tracking page on the bank here), shifting money overseas out of Miami, that sort of thing, and making huge interest on it. Basically helping the wealthy shift taxable capital holdings overseas and hide it from the IRS.
What UBS was shelling out to these guys is really…it’s peanuts. But oh yeah, it’s brilliant what UBS has done. I applaud them and I applaud Basel for being able to tap into that and do what they’ve done at the fair. But I think the thing is that when Frieze is moving in on Armory Show, it’s totally…it’s a totally new, and very aggressive thing for them to do. And frankly, I have to say, all you have to do is see that since the buyout, when the Mart bought out Armory that is, they lost a huge group of people. The exodus was huge to the Art Dealer’s Association show.
It does reflect a certain desperate speculation in the market for new shares. So, I want to ask if this, if this fair business thing is all just going to implode at some point? Is the huge capital backing of all this just going to break through the floor because there’s too much top-heaviness to it?
I wish I was smart enough to answer that. But I can tell you, what we’re talking about, what you and I are talking about, this business of art fairs, and whether that will implode? I think it will continue to transform depending on a variety of different market conditions and so whether Hong Kong will become as important as Art Basel, man, that’s going to be a long time coming anyway. You’re talking about a different level of depth of expertise and collecting ability and the cultural foundation that Europe has and America has…it’s not that they don’t have the money there, they certainly have the money there. But will it be as important, and then you’re talking about what judgment scheme you’re talking about for importance. Aesthetic importance? Money importance? The impact of artists’ importance? There’s a lot of different variables in there. So, with again, getting back to our initial conversation getting back to Chicago, and this is the important thing I was saying about how interesting your question was, is that the focus on that was so broad and I think what needs to happen in Chicago and frankly with any of these art fairs, is that you really have to figure out where you’re coming from. And I think with Chicago, we have all these things that are out there involved and so many people here that could actually, if they wanted to shape this thing in the right way, Chicago’s the perfect place to do something still. It is still, to me, the best place to do stuff. No doubt about it. I have to tell you, I feel the greatest respect for people who can get behind a creative idea. They can really understand it and see the impact of it and I think they need to be nurtured and I think the art scene needs to be nurtured to make that happen for them and also it needs to be a thing that is embraced. I mean, this is the thing that New York does, in New York it’s a sport, it’s like fun. It’s not sexy here. It has been but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, I mean it just hasn’t been for awhile. But it’s still a great town for making art, it’s still a great town for showing art and there’s huge opportunities here.
You know what I’ve seen in Chicago, and I can’t even pretend to tell you what the reason for this is, but I’ve seen three or four waves of incredible talent come in in like mini-tsunamis and they do incredible things for this town and leave. Of course, the art schools are a big part of it, the Art Institute and UIC, they’ve got an incredible program. Columbia has been turning out some incredible people in film and video and I think that what happened a long time ago, I think Los Angeles in some ways has leapfrogged Chicago, without overstating what I know, but in some ways as a contemporary art center, they’ve managed to have so many people stay. They’ve got an incredible whole art scene. But going back to the artists, you’ve got so many people who are staying in Los Angeles, they’ve gone to school there and decide it’s a place where they want to make art and this is something for you to ponder. I certainly couldn’t figure this out, but of all places where they’ve got lots of dough, lots of culture and people that really invest in the creative thought, how come they have never had a great contemporary art fair?
It’s as strange as Frieze coming to New York for me, maybe a little less so. I think they’re getting taken to school, which Frieze seems almost certainly will. Because, so, the Mart did just put on this Art Platform thing which, by most all accounts didn’t manage to rank in the pantheon if you will, but traditionally they’re challenged by geographic distance and have a much harder time getting European collectors to travel that extra distance across the continent.
Maybe. There’s such a wealth of talented, smart people there, that it’s just such a mystery to me. Again, that’s not an indictment of Los Angeles, because they do have such a wealth of talented people there, I would love to have done something there. So, with all that said, there are just dynamics where all the things involved just don’t quite add up. What’s really going to be interesting for me is that, when Frieze comes here, Frieze’s biggest advantage from where I sat was that they were in London and it was brilliant that they did what they did and now that they’re coming here, it’s like, “Okay, what are you bringing here? You’re not bringing anybody who hasn’t been here before.” Right? They’ve all been here for the Armory. My point is that, do they think they’re going to replicate what Basel did in Miami? But this is New York. I mean, the one thing that Miami did that was really great, it was Lorenzo that had the idea and it was Sammy that was actually able to pull it off—and actually probably in the long run, Sam had style points that Lorenzo may not have had. Sammy has a sense of fashion and sort of that whole, almost the con factor that he helped develop in Miami, and it really hasn’t been developed in too many other places. So Lorenzo had the initial vision of, “This is a great place to go and this is what we should do,” and he really worked that hard and he put the time in it but then Sam had a really great group of people who came in with him there, some of whom have gone on and are working for Frieze, as a matter of fact. It’s funny, one of the women who is one of the Directors for Frieze used to work for Art Chicago.
So many people who have cut their teeth on Chicago’s situation have gone on to these other places in the fair world and, speaking of which, has the Mart kind of bought themselves out of the game at this point? I mean, I think it seems pretty clear that they’ve come in and not really worked with the art world, and yet they’re still so deeply invested in these ventures like Armory Show.
Well look, they’re going through a lot of major changes recently, you know, with Chris Kennedy leaving the helm. Frankly, I have to say, I’m not sure how much of this I want reported but I’ve actually been shocked by anyone who—the first thing that I do with any one show that’s coming up is I look at the exhibitor list, you just look at the show and what has happened to that show in the past two years has just been ugly. It has been…ugly. It’s like, as unfortunate as it is, and I don’t want to even deal with the fact that the Mart ended up with the show, the advantages would be that just, with all the resources they have, if they would have just taken a little bit of guidance, they could have done some really interesting things. It just didn’t happen. So, again, I think that you may need to redefine exactly what you want this show to do and where you want it to go and I actually think you’ve got to come with a show that’s got to have a different vision. That is the word. If you’re just going to slam in another show at Navy Pier, which to me, it’s like, who really cares? That thing itself is just…
Are you talking about the exposition Chicago, that show Tony Karman is putting on at the Pier now that he’s stopped working for the Mart? It seems intended to have a renewal resonance in its name with Wilson’s exposition.
No. No, or just anyplace, frankly. I had wanted to move to the East Building at McCormick Place before we were finally removed from the Pier. Because, you know, there is so much that’s going on at Navy Pier, all of your space is chewed up by people who want to ride the Ferris wheel and the merry-go-round. And they want to eat their crappy hot dogs and go to McDonald’s and all those things are fine if that’s what you want to do, but if you want to hold a contemporary art fair in Riverview, it’s probably not going to work. And you know, it’s probably good for something like SOFA (the Sculptural Objects and Functional Art show), but that’s not even the same thing. I’m just saying, if you want to do a show like this in Chicago and you want to compete with this other thing, for years we and, luckily I got to be a part of that, at least for awhile, we helped set the standard for fairs. And I think now, that’s not happening anymore. Matter of fact, it’s just like, we’re becoming, unfortunately, a flyover.
And I think this is a good point in the conversation, because people did believe in your ability and talent to make such a great thing happen in Chicago, and you brought so much to this city with the fair, I think to clear the air somewhat, and this is my journalistic sensibility coming out, that I’d get batted around if I didn’t ask this question, but how exactly did that year happen? In 2006, when Art Chicago fell into that crisis state and had to be given over to the Mart to rescue it, with as terrible as I’m sure as it was for you as it was for everyone involved, when this all happened, what was the cause of it?
You know, I think this is so unimportant to this conversation. And I have to tell you, it’s just, you know, now five years later, there were so many factors that came into that and I tried to bear witness to as much of that as I could at the time, especially when it was all more fresh in my head. There were a lot of things that weigh into that, conversations, and promises, from my point of view that weren’t kept, and some partnerships that I had with other organizations, and I would talk about, if it were something that I thought would give a more in-depth point of view to the whole thing. But it’s just not important. But I do think one of the most interesting things about that period, I’ll tell you this, is how all these references I saw in papers like the Sun-Times and the Tribune, who I had just crawled through crap to try and get them to report on the show with any sort of intelligence, and to say how important this show is and how all this is going on, it was just like, “You’ve got to be shitting me.” This is the only time you guys have ever treated this show as important, and it’s when you go and report on it when this has happened…and so, I think, to deal with that is just going to require more. I think that if you really want to talk about what can happen going forward and what is going to happen with fairs and with the city, I think that’s interesting. The rest of it, I don’t even think it’s interesting. Again, the thing I’ve tried to stress throughout our entire conversation is that I did this from…the first time I got involved with the fair was in 1979, I was working with Jack Lemon at Landfall Press and he was helping John Wilson do this, so that’s like twenty-five years I worked on the show. This is a long, long time. And so, this one thing that happened was certainly not what I would like to have seen happen. I actually wish in retrospect that I could have handled it different on many different steps but, the thing is is that this is all stuff that I can’t even recount what happened in the last fifteen days, not to say the fifteen months before that. It’s all too much to remember. It’s just that there was a lot of stuff in there and the point is that from early on, I mean three years ahead of this, I never felt that I was fooled by where I thought Chicago stood in the continuum of the contemporary art fair community as you watch all the shifts. I went to all the fairs, I knew all these guys. As I said, even now when I go look at all the people who are on dealer lists, and you have a sense of the show. You have a sense of where that show is going in one direction or another. The point I’m making is that we had started trying to move the fair in a variety of directions a long time before that. And I felt, in many ways, and believe me, I’m not trying to say in any way that…you know, I was the guy who had skin in the game. All my skin. And I lost all my skin. But we realized—I realized where this was going—and I tried in any number of ways to make shifts that I thought would try and keep us competitive with all these other shows, including Art Basel. And part of it was moving to McCormick and doing any number of things, and also trying to control our costs, which were horrendous. All this stuff has been played out in the headlines with the unions and what’s going on at Navy Pier, McCormick place. Believe me, the wars I had on that were also difficult. But, with all that said, it’s just not possible to say what all happened in fifteen minutes.
Well, it’s about the art, isn’t it? I do think what’s interesting is your engagement with the history of all this, and what you’ve seen change and your informed opinion on those changes. Clearly, you’ve brought a lot of passion to it, and that’s what’s interesting.
I have really been grateful for all the stuff I’ve gotten to do because, man, I have gotten to do a lot of stuff. I mean, I have gotten to play out fantasies like any artist has gotten to. I’ve gotten to do all these shows, the TBA exhibition space, we got to do the Stray Show, I’ve done shows all around the world. I have gotten to do a lot of wonderful things. But with all that said, I just don’t think I’m that big of a deal in all this thing. The thing that’s really important with our conversation is what you’re going to build on going forward and some little hiccup like that in the past is nothing compared to what is really going to happen for Chicago and what is really going to be interesting. I have to tell you something, it is really fucking important and somehow, somebody is going to have to get Mayor Emanuel’s ear and they’re going to have to help him figure out that the arts can really do a lot of transformation in the city. But he’s got to help make it happen. He doesn’t have to make it happen, he’s got to help people make it happen. You know, I think Chicago’s just great and that I’ve been riding a wave as much as anything else. I’m just saying the great thing about this is that a lot like New York—not with the same intensity as New York—but we still have really creative minds that flock here to do things and take advantage of things. I think the shortest brush stroke is that you’ve got to empower them. You’ve got to help them out.
You know, one of the things that shocked me the most in this city is when they let Lounge Ax close, and didn’t somehow move them, basically carry them in a moving van to another place. I mean, I was asking myself, don’t you understand what that club does? I mean, seriously. Look at all the people that came out of there—I mean Wilco, he was married to the owner, Mark Greenberg who worked for me has just done the new video for Wilco and he’s also playing on a lot of their stuff and he also made a Staples album. The point is that those are the natural incubators, those are the things that any other city would just be creaming to have, and you know what, you just can’t make them. It’s like when they say we need to make jobs, you don’t just make jobs. Jobs happen because people make things and creative minds do things, and that is what Lounge Ax was. Lounge Ax was this unbelievable place where people came to play and they let it go away, and I was just like “Are you kidding me?” That actually may have been the time when I called Mike Lash and was like “Mike, isn’t there a way that the city can help make this not happen?” Anyway, that conversation was like, “No.” But anyway, you know what I’m talking about, because you yourself have been part of that, with the boat shows and all the parts involved in the Strays and all the non-commercial galleries, all of this epitomizes what is going to make the resurgence happen. But to me, it’s so obvious it’s like, let’s start helping them a little bit.
And one other thing that I’d like to see happen in this town, and if I were rich it’s something I’d do in a second. It’s that I wish someone would start an artist’s credit union in which—and actually, I thought of this as involved in a Kunsthalle—but actually this would allow artists access to someone—and not to be smarmy about it, but to actually give a solid look at what they need. But, give credibility to the fact that they’re an artist and they can actually deal with money. Help them with their money. Help them with loans when they actually need it for exhibitions. Help them get health insurance which, you know, artists don’t have. If you would do something like that and just help artists live like human beings, that would be one of the biggest things to make people stay here. I have wished I could be a part of this idea for years. I just think if you really want to make artists stay here and take advantage of them, treat them like human beings. I think of artists like scientists. Everyone always talks about The National Endowments For the Arts stuff, and how it always turns out to be crap. Well, how many times are the sciences funded and that stuff turns out to be crap? It’s like, “Well, it was a good try for science.” I think the world doesn’t exist without art and I think the best scientists are truly artists and the best artists are truly scientists. Some of the greatest artists I know didn’t even start to be artists until they’d gone through another career, or they had been a graduate student and they had this epiphany of some kind. Regardless, all of the people I’ve seen who have been really successful have done interesting things in their work, I’m sure they have that same feeling, that same burst of energy as when an artist finishes their work. I don’t see a separation between those two things, they’re other people’s definitions. All I’m saying though, is that artists need some of that same respect. You can’t think of these guys as the thing that happens after something else happens. It’s not. Creativity is the source of everything. It is. And the things that come from visual artists and the humanities, it really is the signature of a society. I just think it would be so great if somebody got together all these banking people and God knows there’s tons of them, many of them are retired now, from institutions that have been taken over, just get them together and say “Let’s start a credit union,” where we will 1) just help artists manage their funds well and recognize that—and this is difficult because it’s very subjective—but recognize in at least a small part by giving them loans and things like that, what they’ve done in the past and 2) again, give them health insurance. Whatever they do, what they need to do out of all the stuff I’ve been discussing with you here tonight, is they just need to pick out something and make it happen. I’ve said this countless times, but I think that the Chicago Cultural Center was one of the best program spaces in the city for years. And granted, some of the stuff I couldn’t believe, completely not up my alley, but it didn’t matter. They took what they thought was their programming ideas and they went for it. I would like to see that mandate change a little bit.
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