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Art Chicago NEXT Artropolis 2011 Recap

May 1, 2011

 3 Days, over 20 hours and 1 frozen pizza later…

Pull up a chair my darlings because it is gossip time.  I did a three day romp through NEXT / Art Chicago / Artropolis 2011 at the Chicago Merchandise Mart.  This is a massive art fair with a lot of money flowing through it.  A lot.  A spectrum of people from the lowliest starving artists to the highest echelon of the bejeweled wealthy collide in this arena.  Here is a short recap of events and impressions.

NEXT Awesomeness:  I found a whole bunch of exciting new artists in the emerging artist and gallery area, NEXT, doing interesting and fresh work in addition to some in the main gallerist section in Art Chicago.  I think this has been the best NEXT I have ever seen.  I was able to wrangle a few video interviews, many photographs and a whole lot of inspiration.  My Artist of the Week section is going to be phat for weeks to come!  There are so many artists to choose from, I will have to be a bit random and hop from one to another.

Tension, Anyone?:  For the first time in my experience, I think the first time ever, NEXT and Art Chicago were smashed on the same floor. Uh oh, trouble in paradise!  Usually, NEXT -the emerging artists and minor galleries- were on their own floor, below that of the dominant galleries and dealers in Art Chicago; and in some cases visitors may not stop on the NEXT floor at all because Art Chicago was Serious Stuff and NEXT was New and Probably Weird Stuff.  Now the two were squared off, sabers crossed, facing each other on a floor divided, in direct competition.  On Friday in particular, I felt the Art Chicago side of the fence was irritable and withdrawn.  Some dealers were outright pissed off.  They had the competition breathing down their backs.  There was an exception to this, being the approximate four galleries I spoke with that were first-time participants in this art fair, one from Paris and one from the UK.  A few notable professionals that are life-long gallery owners and art dealers understand that the art market goes up and down beyond their control and maintained their professionalism and charm regardless.

Going, going, gone!: Despite the economic slump and Chicago being a tough art market in general, I was pleased to see some sale markers showing up on day three [Sunday] for artists I had been cheering on in my heart.  Any sale in this environment is a victory!  At the least, anyone in attendance at this fair is getting their name out there, and sometimes the general public needs repetition before some art is noticed.

I got schooled:  A gallerist representing a very famous shall-not-be-named artist that is very popular right now, and one whose work I am deeply fond of, totally dissed me.  (The artist in question shall-not-be-named, because I would not hold the gallerist’s behavior to reflect this artist in any way.)  I had complimented the gallerist on his success with his large number of sales and noted that a lot of them must have been from the “preview” day before the official opening of the art fair.  He was practically cuddling me and cooing about which pieces were still available, and I honestly admitted that I was a fellow artist and admirer of the artist [implication: broke] which led to one of the strangest 180 degree turns in body language I have every witnessed in another human being.  He simply stopped speaking to me, turned exactly in the opposite direction, folded his arms behind him and walked away.  I thought he was redirecting his attention to a couple that had just entered the booth, but he did not speak to them; then it sunk in that I was dumped and totally dissed.  Wow!

I will take this opportunity to editorialize: American art dealers and gallery owners have the greatest potential to be vulgar and can be as aggressive as second-hand car sellers.  I find that UK, European and Asian art dealers and gallerists are far more polite, accommodating and patient souls.  They realize that even if I am not a potential buyer now, there is the big picture over the course of time, because next year I could be their client.  The Asian vendors are the most quiet and reserved in their sales style; they let you flow through and will respond in a genteel fashion if an inquiry is made, otherwise they make themselves a part of the background unless approached.  The UK and European vendors are more gregarious, they are going to be stuck in the small sales booth for days and if they cannot at least sell something they will pass the time with general schmoozing and talking about the art to alleviate boredom.  The wisest of the American vendors try to look for potential sales and promote the work of their artists through an ongoing campaign of education about the style of art or about the biography of the artist.  The worst of the American vendors pounce on you and practically shake you down; they hustle in the wrong environment; and sadly, it is only my fellow Americans that are aggressive enough to outright hustle.  I verbally beat one off of me by snarling at him that -although I found the art wonderful- not only could I not afford the work he was selling, the majority of my income is expended on the luxury of living indoors.

Social Morons: Also, it is often best that many artists do not represent themselves unless they have the social skills to do so.  If you are a confident social butterfly and have a gift for sales and self-promotion, then get yourself out there.   I will say in all truth that I could sell anyone else’s art, especially that of artist friends, a hundred times better than my own.  I know I have a high rate of failure on self-promotion; I get shy and tongue tied.  I could sell anyone else’s art if I familiar with it: there is no fear of rejection or failure, no emotional entanglements of trying to explain subtle nuances and details of the art and no double-guessing my answers to potential buyers because their questions make me think of something I never considered.  I met some wonderfully educated artists who were confident artists, out promoting their work perfectly.  Then I ran into a few social morons.  A major art fair like this is the wrong environment to be emo or screw up in; an artist is on public display alongside the art created.  One goofball handed me a price list of his work.  I had started to fold the pages in half to put in my shoulder bag and look at later when he ripped the papers back out of my hand saying “I’ll take those back if you aren’t going to use them!”  I filed this experience under the same category as the rude gallerist that dissed me; I was surprised at the time but laughed it off later.

Popcorn and Old Money:  For the first time, I made my way through the ANTIQUES section of this art fair.  A food seller had just made a huge batch of popcorn at a little pushcart when I arrived, and it dawned on me that the whole antiques section reeked to me of both popcorn and old money.  This area has heavy crowd appeal.  I suspect now that more money may possibly change hands in the antiques area than any other.  Antiques dealers are a curious lot.  Most tend to be specialists: one I saw was only selling antique telescopes, nothing else.  There was a buzz in one booth selling antique ladies purses and handbags.  I passed droves of jewelry, silverware and silver items, porcelain, Chinese antiques, furniture, prints and paintings.  A pair with African antique art sat chatting in their own language as time wore on.  The art is predominantly Western pre-Modern period; this is a good place to look if you want men on horses hunting with hounds paintings.  I saw a lovely Dutch 17th Century painting of skaters on a frozen pond that had fetched $650,000 USD.  This area is more like a shop: it is more geared toward purchase and carry.  I passed a man with a nice little turn of the century bronze statue wrapped in plastic scurrying away with his treasure right as I came in.  The oldest work I had seen in Art Chicago was a small [about 6” x 6”] Rembrandt etching illustrating the “Return of the Prodigal Son” from 1636 priced at $25,000 USD; yet, in general, the art in the antiques section runs to being older and higher priced.  Also, surrounded as I was with dense clusters of high priced things, I was terrified to come into physical contact with anything.  With my luck I would break something of massive monetary value.  I kept my visit brief.

Exhaustion: I try to see as much as possible and take my time in considering each art work on display as fully as possible.  I will drift and get an overview, but I hate when people sprint past everything, like television channel flipping, seeing each art work for a second or two.  The point of art is to view it, not blast past it like one is in a shopping mall.  I have found that going to the fair for three days was the best, previously I visited for only two, because this year I noticed things more over the course of time and was able to revisit works that interested me.  Going to this show is exhausting.  I call it “Image Overload”.  Works are stacked on top of works, additionally densely packed into small spaces; this event is at least twice as intense as trying to go through the works in a large museum in one day.  My notebook was filled and the motherboard on my trashy Kodak digital camera blew a second time and the camera was useless again.  I returned with a loaner camera and resumed my art discovery adventure.  As each day wears on and hours have passed, when I am tired, hungry and have decided that my brain is full, it’s time to trek back to the train home and look forward to next year.

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