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EXPO CHICAGO 2013 // An Interview with Tony Karman

Expo Chicago 2012 Vernissage. (Image courtesy of Carol Fox and Associates Public Relations.)

Art lovers, clear your schedules. This week, Expo Chicago, the International Exposition of Contemporary and Modern Art, is back for its second year. Art from 125 premier galleries will grace Navy Pier’s Festival Hall, transformed once again by Jeanne Gang and Studio Gang Architects into an engaging interior environment. Also returning to Expo are EXPOSURE, a platform for emerging galleries; IN/SITU, a showcase of large-scale installations and performative works; the culmination of  /Dialogues, a roster of discussion panels featuring leaders in the art field; and a VIP Program.

New this year are Expo Video, a section for cutting-edge film and new media, and Expo Art Week, an ambitious, city-wide celebration of Chicago’s rich cultural landscape. Highlights of Expo Art Week include museum exhibitions and gallery openings; public art projects; music, theater, and dance performances; special dining experiences, and more. Shuttles will be available to take visitors from Navy Pier to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the River North and West Loop gallery districts.

As if that weren’t enough to sate your art and culture appetites, there will also be two new satellite fairs: the inaugural EDITION Chicago at Chicago Artists Coalition in the West Loop; and the Chicago debut of the alternative-minded Fountain Art Fair at Mana Contemporary in Pilsen.

What sophomore slump?

I sat down and chatted with Expo’s President and Director, Tony Karman, for a preview. (He also shared his opinion on the rise of the mega-fair, gave [actually good] career advice to young artists and arts professionals, and talked about his favorite things to do in his [rare] spare time, which may or may not involve having a beer at the Hideout.) Continue reading below.

Expo Chicago runs from Friday, September 20, through Sunday, September 22, with a Vernissage opening night preview on Thursday, September 19.

Expo Chicago 2012 Vernissage. (Image courtesy of Carol Fox and Associates Public Relations.)

Jenny Lam: How are you? How are you feeling?

Tony Karman: Calm, wonderful, ready.

JL: What would you say is the main difference between this year’s fair and last year’s?

TK: I think sophomore years provide a different kind of challenge. Year one, everything that we created was created. I know that sounds odd, but it came from nowhere and became something. I think that having a sophomore year allows you to refine programs and the scope of the event in ways that are much different than the first year. You’re able to see what you did and know what you want to change, and that’s really what we’ve been doing—refining programming, getting way ahead of the game to not only lock the core programs like /Dialogues or IN/SITU, but also to adjust and amend the actual physical layout.

JL: One of the changes that I’m most excited about is the fact that, this year, there will be an Expo Art Week. How did that idea come about?

TK: It’s been a pledge of mine and surely a part of the mission of the fair to make sure that we’re supporting the broader ecosystem of the cultural community of Chicago. There’s no question that collectors, curators, art enthusiasts, and just your international cultural tourist is coming to Chicago for lots of reasons. We hope that they’re coming for the centerpiece event which is Expo Chicago, but last year it was obvious that they also came to eat in our great restaurants and take advantage of our great galleries and artists and music, theater, dance, and performance institutions at the same time.

So Expo Art Week is really designed mainly to support what’s already here and create a window or a calendar week, where things in future years can start to fall into: large-scale installations, public art pieces… a number of things that can happen as a part of this broader week of cultural activities, and if we didn’t start it this year we wouldn’t have both this year and the future to build off of. But truthfully it’s about making sure that we’re attracting visitors not only to Expo Chicago but that they’re also exploring the great galleries, artists, and institutions we have in our city.

Expo Chicago 2012 Vernissage. (Image courtesy of Carol Fox and Associates Public Relations.)

JL: How were the galleries and institutions participating in Expo Art Week selected?

TK: This year—and rightfully so—it’s rather broad. Certain institutions joined on because it made sense for them. Steppenwolf Theatre had a performance; Goodman Theatre had a performance.

Lots of institutions aligned with exhibitions. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago adjusted their hard opening for Paul Sietsema during the fair. The Art Institute of Chicago extended their closing weekend for the Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity exhibition. The Arts Club of Chicago chose to align the opening of Josiah McElheny during the fair. The Graham Foundation did an opening. You can see what’s starting to happen.

I was pleased to hear a number of our leading galleries also shifted their openings to occur during the fair. Kavi Gupta’s opening both Theaster Gates as well as Roxy Paine on Friday the 20th. Richard Gray Gallery is opening Alex Katz. Rhona Hoffman is bringing Spencer Finch. There’s a whole host of wonderful things that have occurred just because we put that window out there.

JL: What are you personally most looking forward to?

TK: You know, I’m hopeful that this is a successful year for the exhibitors that I know take a large financial risk in participating. I’m most looking forward to seeing the curators and collectors from around the greater Midwest, the country, and the world that weren’t here [last year] come this year and see how extraordinary not only the exposition is, but all of what our great city offers.

I think that that coupled with a wonderful adjustment by Jeanne Gang with the floor plan and a couple of new programs—we launched what’s called Expo Video this year as one of our core programs, and it’s curated by Dean Otto from the Walker Art Center—I think all of us are excited for this to just happen and fulfill the vision that we saw or we hoped for the second year. I think if we do that, the future of expositions in the next ten years is going to be an extraordinary thing to watch.

Expo Chicago 2012 Vernissage. (Image courtesy of Carol Fox and Associates Public Relations.)

JL: In the media, there have been opinion pieces about how, with the recent rise of the international art fair, traditional galleries are floundering, that galleries must exhibit at all these fairs in order to have an actual presence in the global art world. What do you think about these statements?

TK: You know, I think to some extent, that’s absolutely true. There’s no question that art fairs play a much different role or much more important role in the broader activities of an art gallery. Many, many years ago, an art gallery might’ve participated in one or two art fairs. Now, you find galleries—not just the big, more established galleries—doing five, six, seven, eight, ten fairs. I know it’s a huge commitment on their part, and I’m sure it’s a huge drain on their staffing as well as the artists they’re representing.

My hope—and our pledge last year—was to make sure that we establish Expo Chicago as a fair that plays at the top level. There aren’t many of those. And I think it’s important to the legacy of our city when we always had that, and it’s important to the future of this great city, its galleries, its institutions, and its collectors to make sure that we’re doing that type of fair. I think that quality of fair will always have a place in the calendar.

My hope was that we are able to carve out September in the international art fair calendar so it’s just part of a sequence. If that happens, I think what you’ll see is Expo Chicago maturing into not only a preeminent global fair, but also a must-stop for collectors, curators, and art enthusiasts every year.

And it doesn’t mean that it’s always the same galleries. I think it’s really important to note that, to some extent, I’m OK—and it should be expected—if all 125 galleries don’t come back next year. Not because they don’t do well. But some may want to do another fair strategically with the artist they’re representing in another city in another part of the world, and it’s just not going to work for 2014. And I think that we have to be conscious because of this global art place, that that’s exactly what will happen.

My hope is that if you’re rotating galleries, you’re rotating galleries at the top level and providing an extraordinary experience every year in Chicago.

My other pledge is to make sure that we’re not trying to build a mega-fair. I’m sure we might get a little bit bigger, but the plan is not to be a mega-fair. The plan is to keep it extremely well-curated with a great selection committee and keep it about the same size of 125 galleries: 105 in the main fair and 20 in Exposure. The economics work out in ways that if we can keep that size, it’s better for the exhibitors, dealers, the future of the fair, and, ultimately, the patrons visiting.

Expo Chicago 2012 Vernissage. (Image courtesy of Carol Fox and Associates Public Relations.)

JL: One of my favorite things about your life story—and we’ve talked about this before—is that you started out as a security guard at an art fair, and now you’re the President of Expo Chicago. What advice would you give to aspiring arts professionals?

TK: Oh my gosh. You know, I did that in wonderfully misguided way. My degree was a BFA. As an artist, I love to paint and draw. I don’t do that necessarily, but early on I realized I loved production, and I wanted to be a part of a large event. It just happens. I mean, who would’ve thought thirty years later? I sure wouldn’t have; it wasn’t a part of my grand plan thirty years ago to one time own and operate and present a fair.

My first bit of advice is: You just never know. The wonderful turns and twists of life can take you down wonderfully different directions than you expect. I made a choice to go into the arts in a different way, not as a practicing artist.

I have great respect for an artist in any of the disciplines—whether it be visual, performative, theater, etc.—for their undying vision to pursue their craft and their career. I think that’s probably the most fearless, most extraordinary job anyone could take. I’m married to a woman who was a professional classical ballerina for many years.

Be open to lots of different roads. Sometimes it may not work out with the way you practice professionally and be an artist and go down a gallery road. You might find, in my road, I enjoy being on the administrative side of the arts.

I also was open to exploring outside of the visual arts community. For many years, I was very active in Chicago’s theater and dance communities. For me it was all about staying within the cultural arts, but also being open to taking different roads and not being afraid to take those different roads and seeing where they went.

And I’m a big fan of simply just jumping in. If you feel like it’s something you want to do, find a way to get involved. Volunteer if that’s the matter. Even if it’s just a small amount, if you get involved, I think it’s fascinating how revealing they can be on what makes you tick.

I think that, for me, I’ve never been afraid to just jump into something and take a chance. And it might mean that I’m stuffing envelopes, and I did. It might mean that I’m doing something in production that was rigging or something like that. All of those things contribute to what I think is a vocabulary, that, if you listen to it, might get you down a road to your right livelihood, if that makes sense. [laughter] I think it’s really important to just try.

Navy Pier. (Image courtesy of Carol Fox and Associates Public Relations.)

JL: That is great advice.

TK: I hope so!

JL: Last question: What are your personal favorite things to do in Chicago?

TK: Oh gosh. You know, can I default to an easy answer? I actually love to just be home with my wife and two cats and make a great meal. I mean, I am grateful to be able to go out to lots of different events and performances and be a part of what this great city offers, and for all of that I can’t express my gratitude any more than what I am right now. But sometimes I love to just shut off, and being home and being with some close friends is probably one of the most cherished things.

But I also like to have a beer now and then at the Hideout.

JL: Ahhh, love the Hideout.

TK: There are certain things that are just precious Chicago moments. We have so much in our city to be proud of. There are great restaurants. I love our music scene. I love our theater scene. There’s the lakefront to just gaze at. I love to sail. Occasionally I’ll hop on a boat ride with my friend Carl Hammer, who has a wonderful wooden boat that was done in the 1940s. There’s nothing more peaceful to me than being out on the lake and sailing. I think if you want to give me another chance to add a favorite thing, that would be one of them. I didn’t get to sail at all this year, though.

JL: There’s still time!

TK: There’s still time. Well, after the fair!


For more information about Expo Chicago, visit their website here.

Jenny Lam blogs at Artists on the Lam and tweets at @TheJennyLam.

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1 Response to " EXPO CHICAGO 2013 // An Interview with Tony Karman "

  1. What a fun read! Both of you enjoying your conversation comes through clearly.

    This art fair seems like a clearly evolving vision and vehicle for an arts crescendo at the acknowledged start of the art season. Like the Daytona 500 being at the beginning of the NASCAR season–what could go wrong following that model?

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