Some Thoughts on NEXT and Art Chicago, 2009 by William Dolan

The Merchandise Mart

I love the idea of the Chicago art fairs being housed at the Merchandise Mart. It’s an impressive building. It’s massive and elegant. It is an important historical landmark. It’s very accessible by whatever means of transportation you choose. When I was involved with The Artist Project, I found the Mart People to be professional, courteous, helpful and friendly at all levels; from the dock workers, to the office, to Chris Kennedy. They run a smooth operation and they are generous with the free passes. I want it to be a big deal.

However, I felt that something was lacking this year. The last two years had more fanfare. There was more excitement in the air. At the opening parties there were long lines at the elevators.

This year it seemed that it might have been easy to miss. There wasn’t a lot of media attention. There were no big tent functions outside. Big white tents, with their fancy plastic windows, always indicate that Something Important is going on. There was no excitement. It just felt like an ordinary industrial trade fair. Getting a ride in an elevator wasn’t a problem.

As far as the art goes, the stuff at Art Chicago was like any other year. There was everything from boring to good, a little bit of everything for everybody. It’s always too much and you have to find what you like. You’re more likely to become bored from too much work than exhausted from sensory overload from really exciting and engaging work.

The strongest work was from Asia. The figurative work was raw and dealt with important sociological and political issues. The abstract work was emotional, either in a calming meditive way or in a primal scream sort of way.

I got the feeling that I wasn’t welcomed in many (but not all) of the booths. The people manning these booths looked like they weren’t having any fun and were possibly miserable. It was like the old days in River North when I would visit the galleries and felt like I was interrupting something, as the person behind the desk glared at me. The same thing happened here. Was it because they weren’t doing well? Was it because there wasn’t much traffic and they were bored to tears, or was it because my crappy (but comfortable) shoes indicated I wasn’t there to buy anything? I was wearing my Kenneth Cole glasses and nice leather to compensate, though.

NEXT on the other hand, was a little more exciting. The gallerists were more engaging and friendly. Most seemed proud of the work they were showing and happy to talk about it. It took up half the area that it did last year, but there seemed to be more packed into what was left. As a painter, I was happy to see more of an emphasis on objects than conceptual installations this year, but that’s just me. Like last year there was plenty of free Grolsch to be had, if you had the hook-up.

There was a Curbmaster van that was converted into a heavily armed ice cream truck. The artists were giving out free ice cream during the opening party, which was nice. Since it had no drive train and was relatively light, I had a strong urge to push it around the fair.

I don’t know how successful the show was, but I hope it did well for the exhibitors. Others are calling for a different model than the art fair, but in lieu of anything better, I want the art fairs to succeed. When the fairs are successful, at least there is some excitement about art in Chicago, if only for a couple of weeks. Hoping for its demise is counterproductive. However, I would trade the art fairs for an ongoing vibrant art scene. For that to happen, maybe we do need something else. But first, can we drop the Artropolis name please?