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Expo is a little smaller than last year but bigger than ever

The annual art fair is deliberately overlapping with the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

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In 2014 art critic Christian Viveros-Fauné and his Artnet News colleague Blake Gopnik made a five-minute, tongue-in-cheek video in which they pretend to be billionaire collectors on the prowl at the New York edition of the Frieze art fair.

Their opening line, before taking on their pseudopersonas, goes like this: "We hate art fairs." Why? Gopnik asks. "Because," Viveros-Faune answers, "it's where the sausage is made."

The hope is there'll be a lot of sausage made this week as Expo Chicago hosts its sixth annual fair at Navy Pier, launching a frenzy of art activity. For the first time since 2012, when director Tony Karman salvaged the massive event (which, under various names, goes back to 1980) and brought it back to its original home on the water, the fair will have a five-day run. That means it'll overlap with the opening of the second Chicago Architecture Biennial.

Expo runs September 13 to 17; the biennial, headquartered in the Cultural Center, opens September 16 and continues through the first week of January. Karman says the overlap is strategic, intended to boost attendance for both.

The fair drew 38,000 people in 2016, Karman says; this edition has 135 galleries from 25 countries. That's down ten from last year, but Karman explains that the number is also strategic, and the important thing is quality. "We still had a long waiting list, and we're limited by size anyway," he points out. "It's only 170,000 square feet. There could be 80 galleries or there could be 160, but this is probably the sweet spot."

It doesn't look like any scrappy satellite fairs will surface this year (an announced stARTup show was canceled), but there are dozens of allied exhibitions and events in museums and galleries around the city, including a major "pop-up" show of emerging French and Chicago-area artists by Paris's Palais de Tokyo in the DuSable Museum's historic Roundhouse, and images of artwork literally popping up on the city's digital billboard network. More emerging artists will be featured in Expo's 30-gallery "Exposure" section, and there's daily "Dialogues" programming on the pier, with artists, critics, and curators in conversation.

Viveros-Fauné is part of that programming. A New York-based curator and critic for publications like the Village Voice and, most recently, Artnet News, he'll moderate a forum titled "Criticism in the Post-Truth Era."

But Viveros-Fauné has a broader resumé than most critics: he's run a cutting-edge New York gallery, Roebling Hall, and headed two art fairs, one of which was the Next show when it was part of Art Chicago at the Merchandise Mart, in the Artropolis era, 2007-2009. (That job caused him to temporarily, and rather notoriously, lose a gig as a critic for the Village Voice over concerns about conflict of interest. He was subsequently rehired.)

So though he says he's not an expert on the art market, Viveros-Fauné has some perspective on questions like how the global increase in the number of major art fairs (up from a handful when the first Chicago fair was launched to hundreds recently) is affecting the gallery business.

I asked him that last week. "Buyers aren't going to galleries the way they used to," he says, "they're going to the fairs instead." That's unfortunate, he adds, "but the art fairs provide some really important glue and, more significantly, the grease that gets the wheel moving." Or, you know, the sausage made.

What about auctions? "There's a lot more money at the top of the auction market on specific pieces, and more volume at the art-fair level. I hate to put it this way, but one's varsity and the other's junior varsity."

The Internet? "Going up, but still a tiny fraction of what art fairs and auction houses do," he says. "I don't think we've gotten to the point where we can Amazon art yet."

Astronomical prices? "I think at this point the art market provides a perfect mirror image of the macroeconomic problems that America and the world is having. There's a disparity in resources, and a weakening middle class. The Expo team's doing a great job, but I think in general, at all fairs, the middle market's having a tough time."  v

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