Art in the Civic Sphere: An Interview with Chris Kennedy
Perhaps no figure is as significant as Chris Kennedy in Art Chicago’s long and winding story. In an act that has become a veritable piece of Chicago lore, Kennedy swept in and saved the day when Art Chicago was about to crumble in 2006. As president of the Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc., Kennedy negotiated the purchase of the fair, moved it from its former site at Butler Field to its present-day home at Merchandise Mart and had the show operational within two days of being informed of its imminent demise.
This year’s Art Chicago will be the third installment of the fair as completely planned and managed by Merchandise Mart Properties, which has since substantially branched out into the art fair business. Each year, anticipation of the fair is high as the public at large waits to see how Art Chicago will evolve. Although Kennedy has been much lauded as a civic hero who helped save a local cultural institution, critics of the Mart’s involvement are just as vocal in their claims of a disengagement with local galleries, and a lack of sincere interest in art by the fair’s planners. In 2009, the Mart has the added challenge of organizing a fair in the midst of severe economic downturn, which has seen many art fairs fold as galleries can no longer foot the bill to participate.
Kennedy shared his thoughts via e-mail with editors of e-merge, Dorota Biczel Nelson and Ania Szremski, on the importance of art fairs, the current economy and his own personal interest in the visual arts.
Dorota Biczel Nelson/Ania Szremski: Has the involvement with the arts through art fair venues changed how you view the role(s) of art in U.S. society?
Chris Kennedy: I would say that MMPI’s involvement with the arts has underscored my belief in the importance of a civic commitment to the arts.
My family and I have always been heavily involved in art and culture (there’s the Kennedy Center for performing arts; my sister Rory is a documentary film maker; I have seen artists as catalysts for change with their participation in political campaigns, including my Uncle Ted Kennedy’s run for U.S. President), etc.
But it’s important to recognize that the arts bring commerce to Chicago, which benefits everyone from the wait staff at restaurants to the local hotels, cab drivers, shops and more — not just the art galleries and cultural institutions. The cultural attractions of Chicago are an economic engine. The vibrancy of our cultural community generates not just income, but an advantage in attracting bright, creative professionals to Chicago’s work force. When we embrace the arts, we set the stage for entrepreneurs who feed off of originality and innovation. They create jobs, expand the tax base and stimulate the economy.
Receptivity to new ideas is what has propelled and will continue to propel Chicago forward.
DBN/AS: Merchandise Mart Properties now owns a number of large fairs. How does Art Chicago stand out from them, if at all? Do the audiences for those fairs overlap, and how do they differ?
CK: Since I call Chicago home, maybe I have a little bias, but I truly think there is no city better equipped to host an art fair than ours. We have an unparalleled commitment to art and architecture, are home to world class museums and cultural institutions and know how to work together. Art Chicago is enjoying the participation of 85 cultural institutions around the city and has a particularly strong partnership with the MCA this year. It’s terrific to see how this city can band together to celebrate art and architecture.
We first produced Art Chicago in 2006, and are now the largest producer of contemporary art fairs in the country. I’ve had the opportunity to meet so many incredible people — dealers, collectors, artists, museum professionals and business leaders with a passion and involvement in the arts. Our fairs are fueled by the creativity and expertise of the talented people on our staff, but also by the influence of these individuals.
Due to the might of our fair portfolio, we are able to reach out to an enormous number of collectors and galleries, which is certainly a strong advantage for each fair. The fairs retain their individuality, as they are still run by the people who developed them. The only thing uniform about them is that they can all depend upon the expertise of The Merchandise Mart in show production. Instead of worrying about walls, lights, load-in and load-out, the fair directors and staff can focus their energy on crafting the best experience for their unique fair audience.
DBN/AS: Has the current economic crisis affected your view on the place of the arts and humanities?
CK: Art, especially contemporary art, can be very challenging. An openness to new ideas allows people to be open to new and maybe unexpected means of problem solving. In times of crisis, we need creative problem solving. We can also benefit even more, perhaps, from how transporting the arts can be in our lives. They may challenge, soothe or even disturb, but the arts always involve us — and this involvement can offer a healthy temporary distraction from work-a-day problems, or they can highlight and draw clarity to some of the most pressing issues in our world. But it all begins with this openness.
DBN/AS: Do you collect/own art? If so, what does your collection focus on?
CK: My wife and I do not collect a specific genre or artist. We do have artwork in our home, and everything we own we’ve acquired because it has personal significance to us, reminds us of a special time, person or place. I guess we have an interest in art that is generated far more by passion than by an investment opportunity.