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Paul Klein Headshot

ArtChicago Is Still Likable

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The ArtChicago circus has rolled back into town. It's a good, enjoyable, pleasant art fair -- until you recall what it used to be.

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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.

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For the casual 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.

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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 were 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 four 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.

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Demand dropped, but for the Mart not the amount of space they wanted to sell. Fortunately the Chicago art galleries took a stance en masse that told the Mart to condense the two shows, ArtChicago 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.

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It 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?

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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.

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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.

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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