The History of Art Chicago: An Interview with Tony Karman
During the past three decades, Art Chicago has redefined its role in the city and in the international art fair circuit, an evolution that has spanned the fair’s lucrative days as the Chicago International Art Exposition, the 2006 crisis that resulted in its acquisition by Merchandise Mart and its subsequent re-emergence in the past two years. Francesca Wilmott was granted a special glimpse into the history of the fair through the eyes of Tony Karman. Karman, who worked as a fair security guard in 1983, has since risen to the position of vice president of Art Chicago and is the reigning authority on the fair’s history.
Francesca Wilmott: Everybody says that you’re an expert on Art Chicago due to your early involvement with the Chicago International Art Exposition. I was hoping you could shed light on how the fair has evolved over the years, and how you became its vice president.
Tony Karman: John Wilson started The Chicago International Art Exposition in 1980, and by 1983 he had hired Thomas Blackman to be executive director. That was also the year when I moved to Chicago, with a degree in Fine Arts and Literature. I had always been a painter and an artist, but was not looking to practice as an artist. In college, I was into arts administration and I worked briefly in an art gallery. I saw that there was a position available to be a security guard for what I knew then as the Chicago International Art Exposition. As a security guard, I worked until all of the trucks had come in, and then I made myself indispensable during the fair. I had a production background putting together events and concerts in college, so I ended up being hired to work on Art Expo. Back then, John Wilson was doing a lot of events at Navy Pier, and my job was to produce the water sailboat show, which was really fun. Also, there was a whole crew that would work on Art Expo every year. At that point it was held in mid-May at Navy Pier.
Today, we all know about Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach. However, the important thing for everyone to remember is that in the 1980s and most of the 1990s, there were basically three art fairs in the world and only two that were really important. One was Art Basel in Switzerland, and the other one was in Chicago. All the collectors in the contemporary and modern world descended on Chicago every year, so there was a deep tradition and historical love for our city from the top contemporary art dealers in the world, who had started as young dealers in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Many of the collectors who were buying at Chicago International Art Expo bought seminal works that are now in the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art and other important collections.
All the way until 1993 the Chicago International Art Exposition was owned and run by John Wilson. In 1993 there was a shift known now as the Art Fair Wars. Tom Blackman spun off his own fair, John Wilson held a fair, and another out-of-town individual did a fair. In 1993 there were three events that took place on the same weekend. The winner, in a sense, because all three couldn’t prevail, was Tom Blackman. He secured the exposition hall at Navy Pier after its renovation. John Wilson was out of the picture and Tom Blackman’s fair took the name Art Chicago.
Until 2004 Art Chicago was at Navy Pier. Then in 2005, Tom Blackman moved the fair to a tent outside the Art Institute, to Butler Field, right where the Blues Fest goes on in Grant Park, and it was a pretty successful move. Strangely enough, there was yet another fair that tried to come in and take Navy Pier, but they didn’t make it. So Tom again appeared to prevail with Art Chicago. In 2006, right before the fair was to open – galleries were already traveling to Chicago and their artwork was being shipped to the city – the site in the park was insuffiently prepared. There was no chance for the fair to take place. At that point, the Merchandise Mart stepped in and literally saved the fair. In 36 hours the Merchandise Mart mobilized to acquire the fair, to assume the responsibility to produce it, move all of the materials here, re-tag all of the ads that were already out, get all of the artwork in, build the show and then launch it, and it saved the day.
I had stopped working for the fair in the mid-80s. After that, I worked for several institutions as well as for the city government. I started to work for the Merchandise Mart on May 30, 2006 to sell and build the show. My responsibilities then were obviously to get the galleries back, working with the whole team to develop the fair again, now in the Merchandise Mart building. I should note that the Merchandise Mart stepped in to save the fair in 2006, but the credit really goes to the president of our company, Christopher Kennedy, who from a civic standpoint really stepped up to ensure that Chicago’s visual arts community and cultural community didn’t receive a black eye. I think that should be noted. Chris saw the need and saw an opportunity to save a lot of galleries that would have lost everything. Chicago’s international reputation would have been forever tarnished. Though the fair has gone through several incarnations, it’s important to note that in its 29-year history it has always taken place.
FW: That leads into my next question: how has Art Chicago’s context changed since 1980?
TK: I think that for a good deal of its history there were very few art fairs in the world. There was Art Basel, as I said; there was Art Cologne, which is 43 years old now; and there was Chicago, but the world was really split between Basel and Chicago. Then more fairs grew. The Armory Show, that we now own, really came into its own as a contemporary fair in 1999-2000. When Art Basel Miami Beach took off in 2002, it shifted the landscape, along with the gallery lists and the participation of individuals in Art Chicago. In 2007 and 2008 we were able to get many of those dealers. This is a wonderful place for us to be.
FW: How would you say that your definition of success has evolved over time?
TK: Our success in 2007 was to get many of the galleries that hadn’t been here for many years. Our success was not only in the galleries that participated but also the kind of partnerships that we created through Artropolis, the kind of collector draw, the kind of alliances that we’ve created with great cultural partners like the MCA, the Art Institute, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smart, and the Ren [The Renaissance Society]. So success in the year 2007 and 2008 I would gage on gallery lists, renewed institutional partnerships, the re-engaged host committee of civic leaders and the increased number of collectors opening up their homes. I think we had an extraordinary show in 2008 with 52,000–54,000 individuals coming through the building. What I was going to say about changing times is that we’re all going to need to adjust to a new paradigm, a new economy. We have planned to reduce the size of the show; it will be smaller this year. So our successes this year still fall under the category of great partnerships. We’ve aligned the fair with the MCA’s opening of Olafur Eliasson. I think in the history of the fair there has never been an alignment with a major exhibition opening in Chicago, and that’s an extraordinary achievement for this year. The other thing that we were able to achieve is a renewed relationship with the Women’s Board of the MCA to have a First Focus benefit for the museum this year. That hasn’t happened for probably seven to eight years. In hard times, we are still going to present dealers from around the world: from Germany to China, India, England, France. So we’ve kept the international scope.
We spent the summer doing regional dinners with two of our sponsors, AXA Art Insurance and Chicago Conservation Center. We traveled to Detroit, Kansas City and Saint Louis. We met with the leaders of the cultural institutions and curators from those institutions, as well as some of the top collectors and galleries in those cities. We want to find new ways that Art Chicago will serve our greater region in the future. There’s an extraordinary amount of work that’s being done, you see it at your school, but there’s also an extraordinary amount of work being done outside of Chicago, at Cranbrook, and other art schools. Sometimes it’s hard for some of those institutions [outside of Chicago] to make noise. Art Chicago can foster greater opportunities for them to showcase works.
FW: What do you think makes Art Chicago a uniquely Chicago art fair?
TK: I think that deep tradition of many of the dealers who are still participating in the fair — Perimeter Gallery, Catherine Edelman, Roy Boyd, Rhona Hoffman. I can go on and on and on. Those dealers have been with this fair through its wonderful arc, and they’re seminal to what Chicago is to the outside world. To see the kind of commitment that these dealers have made to the fair here, for the greater good of the city, for the greater good of the artists, and for the greater good of the institutions that will benefit from this activity is unique to Chicago. It’s really an extraordinary thing that should not be overlooked. That commitment and passion for a city, that commitment for a presentation and a celebration of contemporary and modern art, the commitment to partner, these are roll-up-your sleeves Chicago ethics.
FW: My last question: Can you offer any advice to emerging arts administrators who are coming into this rapidly changing cultural landscape?
TK: I think that these are different times than when I started my career. The economy is different. These are times when the more active you are to volunteer or to commit yourself, the more opportunities will arise. Put yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to either volunteer or take on available internships. Present yourself as open to going down a road that you may not have envisioned. I think one has to be able to adjust to that wonderful river, and be open professionally to lots of different roads that might come into sight, and don’t be afraid to take them.
I have never missed an Art Chicago, from 1983 until today. I have always been very active with the galleries, I was always involved with the producer of the fair, Tom Blackman. I had my own marketing and sponsorship company and I assisted with the fair. I have always been deeply connected to Art Chicago or the Chicago International Art Exposition. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to work for Chris Kennedy in the Merchandise Mart and be a part of this fair again. It’s extraordinary, and I didn’t plan when I started in Chicago in 1983 that 26 years later I would come all the way, full circle, to be in the lovely position of actually having a management role at this great institution. No one should run away from experience in life. The collective experience of my past — production, marketing, civic involvement, volunteering for arts organizations — all of that is a great foundation for any job.
Francesca Wilmott is currently enrolled in the dual-M.A. in Arts Administration and Policy and Modern Art History, Criticism, and Theory at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (Dual ‘10). Her research explores the dynamics of community art initiatives, with a particular focus on regional organizations that serve both local and global audiences. She will serve as the Interim Director of Exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center from July to October, 2009 and is curating an exhibition that will open at the Center in October.