Art Letter

April 2011 Archives

ArtChicago is Still Likable . . .
The ArtChicago circus has rolled back into town.  

It's a good, enjoyable, pleasant art fair - until you recall what it used to be.

For the so-called professional, there's still a lot of good art, but almost none of the high end material we used to be overwhelmed by.  None of the major European galleries. None of the major New York galleries and not even enough of the better Chicago galleries that I suppose are more interested in their bottom line than community growth or service.  Sad.

For the causal local art fair attendee the show is very good - if uneven.  There's a lot of very good art by artists we are unfamiliar with in galleries we don't know.  A lot of this is good, honest, strong, yet unproclaimed art.

To an extent, this is emblematic of how the art world is getting more democratized.  The internet has changed how the the art world functions, with more people in touch with one another who we once constrained by the guardians at the gates of information - aka art dealers. Lots of galleries have changed how they operate, to include greater transparency, more commitment and less fluff.  All good - and plenty is on view at ArtChicago.

But the artworld is stratified with an excess of pomposity at the top that works well to serve the same folks who brought us the downturn in our economy - those who are more interested in the game than the rules, the trophies than the content, and financial gain than substantive art. The cultural polluters at the top.

The fat cats used to come to ArtChicago to hunt for trophies.  I don't miss them, but I do miss seeing the trophies they pursued.  

Which leads us to the Mart command who myopically bought the show thinking they could continue to attract the heavy rollers who were heading for snottier climes.  Unequivocally, fair organizers make their money off booth rental.  Sell more booths at higher and higher prices and the fair owners do fine.  Attendance is just gravy, which is why so many tickets get given away.

The economic model is such that mediocrity is the objective. Not art. Not artists. Not even galleries who they pretend to serve.  It's about selling real estate - aka booths.  By including galleries with 'bad' art the quality of the show is diluted and the better galleries drop out, further lowering the level of the pond. It used to be that there were perhaps 4 times as many galleries applying for booth space at ArtChicago as there was booth space for them.  Those were the good and early days for art fairs  So more fairs popped up to satisfy the demand and soon any gallery could participate somewhere.  

L1040605.JPGL1040606.JPGDemand dropped, but for the Mart not the amount of space they wanted to sell.  Fortunately the Chicago art galleries took a stance enmasse that told the Mart to condsense the two shows, ArtChicgo and NEXT from two floors to one or they wouldn't participate.  The Chicago dealers prevailed and the show is markedly smaller.  But even so it's obvious the show should be at least 25% smaller than it is - which means a couple of things.

L1040607.JPGL1040608.JPGIt verifies what the Mart higher-ups have boasted before  - that they don't understand culture, but they do understand money.  And they're doing what they can to maximize their return.  They think they're performing a service to the art community.  Do you think it might be the other way around?

Speaking of service - and because this year, as a VIP, an exhibitor, and a journalist I see more than most - I can clearly tell you that the ArtChicago staff and NEXT staff, as opposed to those they report to, are professional, polite, conscientious and go out of their way to take care of an endless array of minutiae exhibitors want to see happen.  They are doing an exemplary job.  

Why is it that so often those who sit atop the pyramid are clueless?  Why do they not encourage an environment where those who know can be heard instead of muffled?  Why do short-term goals trump long term quality and profitability?  Why won't this show ever get fixed?  It continues to trend downward?  It doesn't have to.  The answers are simple and those who should be asking won't listen.


I still contend that we are better off with ArtChicago and NEXT than without.  The shows are something to rally around, both positively and negatively, and on the whole they are good, but they could be so much better.  Fortunately the artworld is changing and better models are emerging.

Thanks very much,
Paul Klein

The People's Art Fair

Chicago's short-lived art fair season is upon us and the powerful, fledgling, MDW Fair looks to be exciting.  Open only Saturday and Sunday, Easter weekend, this is a wonderful art fair; about art and artists, not big names and big galleries, or even certified, homogenized or xenophobic presentations like we're prone to seeing at the 'dealers' art fair; ArtChicago (where Klein Artist Works and ArtLetter are taking a small booth to promote the artist empowering course I offer.)

At next week's ArtChicago, business trumps art and artists.  At the MDW Fair this weekend the opposite is true.  But that's not the only difference.  At MDW, the viewing experience is quite different.  Instead of encountering name art, art that has a pedigree, art that feels like we're supposed to bring a priori knowledge, where we as viewers feel more like we're being judged than judging, the MDW Fair presents, fresh, course, sometimes great, sometimes horrible, art where all art and galleries are looking to be discovered and appreciated by a broader audience. 


Maybe ArtChicago is about learning, grasping and appreciating a perspective on the more known and certainly snottier artworld.  That's not a bad thing.  It's pretty much the artworld that those in any other artworld, anywhere, wish they were a part of.  That's because of the perception that there's more money there.  And contrived, polished presentations.  

This is a first offering for MDW.  It resonates and reflects a change in the artworld.  Often I am asked to identify trends in art today.  And I resist commenting because folks want to jump on board and by the time they do the trend is flat-out gone. But there's something bigger going on.  More than a trend.  Likely we should call it a movement.  Brought on by the internet, the playing field is getting less skewed.  Artists used to have greater dependency on art galleries, who were the intermediary between artists and collectors.  

Today, the internet is a given.  It allows direct communication between artist and collector, and also artist and artist, artist and curator and so on.  This is a significant democratizing influence.  It makes communication affordable.  It allows the MDW organizers to promote the show through those involved, to reach you and me.  This is different and it is important.  It makes art, artists and us more accessible, and better enables artists to pursue and find success on their own terms.

L1040562.JPGEd Marszewski, who is one of the seminal influences behind MDW is also responsible for Versionfest 11 which opens Friday night at the Co-Prosperity Sphere, also in Bridgeport.  This too was once a seat-of-the-pants operation that continually presents brave, fresh, young, strong art.  Six years ago they featured the New Chicagoans, and predicatbley impressive artists have risen from that to the more main gallery scene.  This year's Version 11 presents the New New Chicagoans, a new generation of artists worth paying attention to.

Continuing this theme of artists and young arts entities taking responsibility for themselves, not relying on the old-school, gallery system, is an impressive exhibit of new paintings by the Best Chicago Artist You Never Heard Of:  Titus O'Brien, who presents an open house / open studio this Sunday afternoon. A teacher at the School of the Art Institute, O'Brien's career path has meandered through Zen Buddhist residences, a stint as an art critic, an MFA from Yale and extended time at Marfa.  It is a profound pleasure to talk art with someone who's art historical knowledge is deep and who is comfortable acknowledging those antecedents in his artwork.  I find O'Brien's work fresh, yet a continuation of art historical issues; beautifully executed, but not anal; decipherable, yet challenging; and muted, yet powerful.



I'll see you out there,
Paul Klein