It's All in the Timing; Miscellany | On Culture | Chicago Reader

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It's All in the Timing; Miscellany

A change of plans pits Thomas Blackman's Art Chicago directly aginst the new art expo at Navy Pier.


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What a coincidence! Give or take a day, the new dates announced last week for Chicago Contemporary & Classic, the show that's replacing Art Chicago on Navy Pier this year, are the same dates Art Chicago announced last fall for its relocated exposition. Art Chicago will be held April 28 to May 2 in a tent on Butler Field, adjacent to Millennium Park; CC&C's new schedule runs April 29 to May 2--moved up a week from the traditional slot on Mother's Day weekend to avoid overlapping with the New York auctions. Never mind the hometown overlap, which will force dealers to choose one show or the other--or none at all.

The move, and the news that the Municipal Pier and Exposition Authority has given CC&C a lock on these dates for the next seven years, is rankling Art Chicago head Thomas Blackman, who says he begged pier officials for years to change the dates. "It's incredibly curious, since it's something I had been trying to do for so long. I have a written [answer] saying there was no way they could do it," he says. "All of a sudden some new show comes along and they can."

Blackman, who jumped from the pier last spring after it began looking for other operators and was sued by the MPEA for $375,000 in unpaid rent and fees (the suit has been settled), suggests that the agency's active recruitment of "someone to compete with a local business" could be a conflict of interest. He should know: Blackman started Art Chicago after quitting as head of John Wilson's Art Expo in '92--and was sued by Wilson for making off with trade secrets. With former Blackman employee Ilana Vardy heading up CC&C, the whole thing resembles a game of musical chairs.

Blackman says he was optimistic about the previous schedule. "When the shows were separated by a week, I thought this could actually work for some dealers [by saving shipping costs]. They could do our show and then go over to their show." The latest announcement from Pfingsten Publishing, which is behind CC&C, "86ed that idea," he says. According to Blackman, "If there was something we weren't focusing on--if they wanted to show older work and more antique stuff and make it a big arts week, it could be healthy. But I don't see any synergy in this. They've come in with a scorched-earth policy."

The fair has needed "dramatic" change for several years, Blackman admits, but says he resisted making it at the specific request of the Navy Pier managers, who "said they would not be able to fill that hole." He says Art Chicago outgrew the pier as far back as '98, when he first told the MPEA he needed more space to compete with shows in other cities. He wasn't allowed to put sculpture outside (the annual outdoor show Pier Walk does that), and parking was a nightmare. "It's difficult to get clients to come out and purchase $10,000 to $1,000,000 paintings when they don't even know if they can get a parking place," he says. The pier--now the state's biggest tourist attraction and a noisy victim of its own success--had become a less desirable but ever more expensive venue: "Even though my demands in terms of electrical and so forth went down for the last three years, my costs went up."

Blackman expects to reap significant savings at the new site and says this is "a good opportunity to break some of the rules that were forced on us in the past." He says the exhibit could include a combination of the Stray Show (the emerging-gallery exhibit he's produced concurrently with Art Chicago) and the International Invitational (for cutting-edge foreign galleries). But firm plans aren't in place for either of these ideas, and he's only three months out.

"It would be hysterical to just move the dates another week, but this isn't a game for me," Blackman says. Although he maintains that "even in our worst years, we've been better than anything Pfingsten's ever done," he says he'll be happy to land 100 dealers, down from 158 last year: "Art Chicago is the show many of these guys got their start in. I'm hoping that will count for something." He wouldn't say how many dealers have signed up so far.


If you'd rather face a firing squad than a microphone, you've got plenty of company. Northwestern University professor Susan Mineka says fear of public speaking is the most common psychological ailment in our culture. But to the Arts & Business Council of Chicago it's just another challenge. A council workshop, "The Actor in Everyone: Presentation Skills for Arts Administrators," is set for 10 AM January 19 at 300 E. Randolph. Imagination Theater executive director Aimee-Lynn Newlan, who will conduct the three-hour session, says "everybody has what it takes to be an inspiring speaker." It'll cost $40 if your organization's annual budget is under $250,000, $60 if it's over, to prove her wrong....Also from the Arts & Business Council, a spring training and matchmaking program for board-member wannabes. If you're an experienced professional with time and money to burn, the council can teach you what's expected (don't imagine it's artistic advice) and pair you with a nonprofit arts organization. Since "On Board" began six years ago, it's churned out 90 such angels. The tab's $1,500; sessions are Saturday mornings beginning in March, and the deadline for application is January 31. Call 312-372-1876 for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Anthony Pidgeon.

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