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  • Angela Allyn

The Lolla of Art at Navy Pier

Expo Chicago has rolled in, and now out of Navy Pier this year, back big and bold after the pandemic for its 10th Anniversary year. 170 galleries from 36 countries had booths filled with everything from photography and sculpture to painting to performance in the exhibition hall of Navy Pier and it was THE place to be for contemporary art, in Chicago, for a weekend (although there were related events all week).

I will be honest: I had been skipping this latest incarnation of an art marketplace, after spending years at the John Wilson version now mostly forgotten. But we are coming back to Live gatherings and in this brave new world, I had to witness what one of the largest and most high end art fairs would be like in a post pandemic world. I was inspired, and awed,and a bit overwhelmed

It was crowded. Heading into the press preview there was a line that was 2 city blocks long. And crowds seemed to literally flock. Parking was a nightmare. Food lines could be long.

It was diverse. Both the crowd and the art could be said to span demographics and genres.

It was engaging. The speaker events with artists from Chance the Rapper and Hank Willis Thomas as well as MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn and a panel from the Center for Native Futures addressed everything from public art, art by underserved populations and the place of art in fortifying communities.

It was vast. Rows and rows of booths in the Hall at Navy Pier and then there were preview events, a shuttle to squire fairgoers to the MCA and Art Institute and many local galleries held corollary events so that Expo occupied a lot of mental and physical real estate.

There were prizes: Northern Trust funded the acquisitions of pieces from the Exposures section of the Expo (artists from underrepresented communities exhibited by up and coming galleries) for 3 not for profit art museums: Seattle Art Museum; the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg; and Saint Louis Art Museum. This is a kind of networking that opens up the traditional arts market patronage system to new models.

There was a bookstore with gorgeous art books and glossy art magazines so you can take the art world home and lovingly put it on your coffee table.

There were product placements: an Audi in the Ruinart Champagne garden, a Le Crema wine tasting area. Civilized, upscale.

There was schmoozing and networking and eyeing the competition and sniffing for trends. Everybody who is anybody and a lotta wannabes wanted to be there.

There was so much high quality people watching. People dress to visit art, as though they are trying to make a good impression, an important statement to the art they are about to meet. And after giving up crowds for a few years, the crowd in and of itself is an attraction.

It was a veritable visual feast for the art lover populated mostly by us aspirational middle class folks who could only afford the admission (starting at $35 for a day pass) and to marvel at the art and the prices.

But Expo is nothing but a serious tradeshow. A Lollapalooza of Art with a lot of objects to sell. It is not enough to have us experience the work. Galleries make a huge investment to be there: booths and costs can run upwards from $20,000 to have a presence , and these galleries have products to sell. Make no mistake: Expo Chicago needs well heeled art collectors to attend and to buy–so its an art fair yes, but instead of adorable Hmong handicrafts there are $15,000 photo prints. And the commodification of art is strong in this event– there is a tangible need for a return on the investment. Thursday is a VIP day that allows collectors to have special treatment and from initial reports, sales this year were excellent: collectors arrived with dollars to spend.

There are exceptions: around the periphery there are not for profit, social cause galleries and art. The Museum of Science and Industry featured a booth from their annual Black Creativity exhibition and most of the work featured was not for sale– it was on loan from collectors, as a way to bring visibility to the juried show. Chicago Public Schools were present exhibiting work from their artists in residence in the CPS Lives program, Nathan Miller and Ludvig Perés.

If you make or love art, if you collect, if you just want to observe what the art market is these days or even if you just want to see what the world is up to at least in terms of what galleries believe they can sell, then Expo Chicago is a destination for your April– carve out the time and get to Navy Pier. I will see you there next year.

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