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  • Top US art fair now run by Chicago wholesale showroom company
    10.05.2006 Chicago.
    By Victor Cassidy

    The show must go on: among furniture and clothing shops

    Art Chicago was rescued by sale to local property management firm.

    Once it was America’s top contemporary art fair. Now Art Chicago has been bought by the company which runs the Merchandise Mart, a vast wholesale showroom for furniture, apparel and other companies which also runs a plethora of trade shows.

    The fair was bought by Merchandise Mart in April after a last-minute deal saved the fair from being cancelled.

    The problems arose after the organiser, Thomas Blackman Associates (TBA), had failed to resolve a labour dispute and ran out of money.

    In a frantic scramble to rescue the fair days before it was due to open, TBA tried to relocate it to Navy Pier; offered to sell his firm to DMG Expositions, which runs the Sculptural Objects and Functional Art (SOFA) fair; to obtain a $250,000 loan from a local art collector; and even to get money from the Mayor of Chicago.

    When all this failed, Mr Blackman sold Art Chicago to Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. (MMPI). He has been retained by MMPI, which has no expertise in the art field, as a consultant.

    MMPI assumed management of Art Chicago and moved it to the Merchandise Mart; the fair opened on time. There were 101 exhibitors, with only three last-minute withdrawals. Attendance was given as 21,000, included visitors to an antiques fair held at the same time. However with the lost-minute uncertainty over the fair, many out-of-town buyers did not attend and dealers reported weak sales.

    The sale wrote the final chapter in the decline of the contemporary art fair. It has slipped steadily over the past five years as the commercial landscape changed. "There was a time," says one Chicago dealer, "When art fairs were a big deal. Now there's one every three weeks." Also, some Chicago dealers find their clientele at Miami or New York fairs-and spend their marketing dollars accordingly. Art Chicago's exhibitor list shrank from 206 in 2002, to 192 in 2003, 159 in 2004 and 94 in 2005. The 2006 Exhibitors List does not include some key Chicago dealers.

    Some of the exhibitors had been promised free booths at Art Chicago, after TBA cancelled its San Francisco International Art Exposition a month before the scheduled opening. Exhibitors who had paid advances for that fair were promised booths instead of refunds. Even so, TBA was said to have collected $1m in reservation fees.

    According to the sale contract (financial terms were not disclosed), MMPI acquired Art Chicago, but not TBA; it is not assuming TBA's debts. MMPI expects to form a fair advisory panel with representatives from Chicago's art community.

    Dealers were relieved that Art Chicago went ahead, but noted limitations in the Mart's exposition space. Ceilings are only eight feet high, compared to the 12-foot high ones at Navy Pier and walls must be slid into special troughs in the floors and ceilings, which constricts booth design. There was no gallery lighting in some parts of the exposition hall. "I'm happy to be here," said one dealer, "but this space has many disadvantages as a long-term solution.”

    Mr Blackman is now out of the picture, but someone will probably attempt to organise a competitive fair at Navy Pier in spring 2007. One possible candidate is SOFA's Mark Lyman who is well financed by Toronto's DMG Group and locally popular. Another possibility is Art Miami, which produced Chicago Contemporary & Classic in spring of 2005, a show that lasted only one year.