BY MICHAEL WORKMAN
Chicago is in a somewhat public mode of self-examination at the moment. Does the city want a biennial or doesn’t it? Can it reclaim its status as home to a uniquely high-quality international art fair? Can sheer curatorial inventiveness save the day? I have to level with the city on the first point: there has been discussion about a Chicago biennial for as long as I can remember. In over twenty years, there’s hasn’t been a single individual or institution that has stepped up to pull together the necessary support for anything beyond resembling a local or regional event, nor any kind of meaningful background discussion happening about what such an effort would realistically mean. It’s not hard to see why not, it’s such a thankless task. Too much money is needed that simply doesn’t exist, with too many unbearably entitled art-world personalities involved. There’s also the inevitable profit motive of nostalgia for the fair model standing in the way, which those who keep trying to organize them here have simply had more success organizing public will around. Frankly, I just don’t see a biennial happening at the moment.
As for the second point about the attempt to rebirth the city as an art fair destination, the clarion call of “you’re not doing it right” leveled by those putting on the new Chicago Expo was the response to claims by the Merchandise Mart, previously the organizers of Art Chicago, that “there just aren’t enough buyers.” Both claims were, of course, true. But they both also, I’d argue, ignore the larger background issues. I’ve already discussed a lot of these points in this space, but they’re worth briefly reiterating for the sake of my larger point. First, Chicago long ago lost its original dominance as a high-gravity fair destination in the face of fiercely ascendant competition from New York (Armory) and Miami (Basel). Those who know my work will be aware that I’m not making any reactionary claims about the market itself—I’ve been in the business for years as organizer of the Verge fair in Miami and this year, a film and video art festival called Light Assembly (it’s also worth noting that I don’t have a dog in the Chicago fight). But this market shift and its effects on Chicago’s stake in it hasn’t changed much since the early-aughts, except to become more and more solidly the case.
This shift, however, only signaled the beginning of the much, much larger “art fair age” we all now live in, where fairs are the art world equivalent of a chicken in every pot. What started with Armory and Basel and Chicago went viral. These days, every small town, literally around the globe, has its own fair. Moreover, big-money corporate players have gotten into the game to conglomeratize fairs at the “investment art” end of the spectrum, locking up blue-chip and price-fixed “contemporary” market segments. These entities usually have some larger financing interests behind them: real estate, for instance, or banking (usually, specifically, “wealth management”). This new type of player in the market has, I’d argue, been directly responsible for the resultant collapse of the value of contemporary art into its market value. None of which is surprising, actually. It’s the same “big box” scenario that has played out across the markets as a whole: Starbucks drove out smaller neighborhood coffee shops, Borders drove out neighborhood bookstores; Netflix drove out Blockbuster. That’s how it works. Satellite and independently-owned operations were purposefully pushed out by the likes of the Merchandise Mart, who still operate Armory show, Platform LA, and others, as standard defense of market territory. Market territory which, of course, they expanded to absorb as much of the available market share as possible—which resulted in a degradation of overall quality of shows like Armory. So, this whole “doing it right” factor, i.e., a smaller, higher-quality event, was a big question mark for the new Expo in Chicago. Could it magically summon up the success of yore by being more selective? Part of the narrative was that the return to Navy Pier would help do the trick—except that when the old fair was at the Pier, everyone derided the venue as a tourist trap, filled with middle-wage parents from the suburbs and their screaming, sticky-fingered kids. So it seemed to come down to a “show me the money” moment. As a local observer, given all these factors, and looking at the top-market prices on their booths—prices comparable to those charged for New York or Basel—it was hard to imagine more than a few who had managed to rig the game in their favor wrangling anything resembling top-market returns. And post-Expo, it does seem as though a lot of people bite their lips on the point of sales when talking about how great the fair was.
All of this brings me to my point: the longest-running “art fair” event focused on contemporary art in Chicago at present is now the MDW fair (full disclosure: I participated in last year’s event under my curatorial umbrella, Antidote Projects). In a way, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call MDW an art fair. Yes, it has exhibitors organized in their own discreet spaces, and yes, there are some minor sales in the hundreds-of-dollars range that happen and, in a few instances, probably a little more. But profit doesn’t seem much of a driving motivation for those participating in MDW. It’s more a Maypole kind of event, a celebration of creative artistic vitality on a decidedly communitarian level. It’s located on the city’s south side among rows of dormant, and often repurposed industrial factories and warehouses. What’s smart about MDW is how it takes advantage of what is arguably the city’s longest-lasting, tried and true art cultural strength, its student and post-graduate populations, and the DIY population of those who stay on after, and pairs them up with all that massive space.
In this, MDW is reaching to break the mold a little, to try different recipes with those strengths as ingredients. That seems to me the right way to approach whatever future the city is attempting to forge: through trying new things with art. It’s a step in the right direction toward new ideas, not the infinite rehash of old ones. Chicago has everything any other major city has except the volume of money and the superiorly art-nurturing culture that supposedly goes with it. Chicago is only ever really going to reclaim its former glory as an art center in the nation or beyond by coming up with new ideas, new approaches. Art starts with inquiry. Actually, is a form of inquiry. And a significant amount of the great art that fuels the rest of the world first gets breathed into life here, a place where experimentation is not only allowed, but encouraged. If that means Chicago needs to remove itself from supply-and demand concerns of the larger market, so be it. It’s a welcome change to have a conversation focused on the art for once, rather than just its economic value. The following photo essay is my salvo at an attempt to further spark that conversation.
All images copyright 2012 Michael Workman. May not be reproduced without permission. MDW Fair November 9-11th, 2012 at the Mana Contemporary Chicago 2233 South Throop Street Chicago, IL 60608.
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