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Portrait by Shawn Brackbill

Director Tony Karman on the second edition of EXPO Chicago

EXPO Chicago opens for a VIP preview today, and to the public tomorrow. We spoke with the fair’s President and Director, Tony Karman, about the second edition of EXPO for the fall issue of Whitewall. The issue isn’t out until Friday, so here’s a first look at our interview with Karman.


WHITEWALL: The second edition of EXPO Chicago opens in September. As director of the art fair, could you start by telling us the story behind it?

TONY KARMAN: Chicago has a great legacy of art fairs, and so there was a deep past I could tap into. In June 2011—16 months before the inaugural fair—we officially launched EXPO Chicago with the intent to do an international art fair that spoke to that great legacy.

Traditionally, the Chicago art fair season was in the spring, but I felt strongly that we should open in the fall, to allow for greater opportunity in the arts community. We also made a pledge for quality, not quantity. This is not meant to be a mega-fair; it’s meant to be respectful of the work that is shown by a great collection of international dealers.

WW: EXPO Chicago has replaced the previous fair, Art Chicago. Do you think it’s filling in a gap with something that was missing before? 

TK: Art Chicago, and the International Chicago Art Exposition that came before it, played a huge role. There were periods of time when those fairs meant something more, or something less; that’s the natural arc of any art fair. There were extraordinary years for the Chicago International Art Exposition that remain unmatched. I’m looking to both respect that past and usher in the new. It’s not about replacing, it’s about redefining and repositioning what a great fair in Chicago can be.

WW: What makes EXPO Chicago, Chicago?

TK: We draw on a huge foundation of cultural support and assets. Chicago has world-renowned institutions and a patron and collector base that has been active worldwide for generations, an important foundation to build on.

To use an old colloquialism, I get to put a fair within “the broad shoulders of the city.” We have a restaurant scene, music scene, and theater scene, all of which infuses the cultural experience of what an art fair is. In many ways EXPO Chicago is the centerpiece of a number of activities that take place during that week in September.

WW: There are fantastic artists coming out of Chicago right now. 

TK: Theaster Gates, Nick Cave, Kerry James Marshall . . . You also have artists, like Amanda Ross-Ho, who have connections to the art schools here, out changing the world. The institutions have such a great legacy that you even find curators that formed the basis of their curatorial voice with a stint in Chicago. It’s been said before; this is kind of a Chicago moment in a lot of ways.

WW: Do you think it’s changed for artists and curators starting out now in Chicago compared to when you began working at fairs?

TK: This generation has many different outlets that, by virtue of the Internet and technology, allow artists to engage in so many different ways. To some extent it’s beginning to change the gallery/artist/dealer/exhibition relationship. We have an extraordinary partnership with Artspace, who have done a great deal to not only showcase the work of artists, but also be a platform for them to sell work. It’s in nascent stages, but there’s no way it’s going away.

WW: Was it easier preparing for the second edition of EXPO Chicago?

TK: Sophomore years are challenging [laughs]. You’re fighting both the expectations from the first year and the inability to be everything at once. I had several of my colleagues remind me that no major fair was built in a year! We still have something to prove, and I think that this is a critical year for our future.

WW: How do you hope to see the fair evolve?

TK: I think the vision is really clear: I want to make sure that we have carved out a place for EXPO Chicago in the international art fair calendar, and for it be of service to Chicago’s ecosystem that is already in place 365 days of the year.

We want to make sure that the world continues to come to Chicago and see the work being made.




The Chicago Public Library presents a powerful public artwork by the American artist and University of Chicago professor Theaster Gates.
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