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Chicago Art Rising

Thanks to Expo Chicago and winning galleries, the Windy City’s art scene has never been better.

The September 19 opening of Expo Chicago (expochicago.com)—a new, hotly anticipated art fair housed on the Lake Michigan–adjacent Navy Pier—had a warm feeling uncharacteristic of such events. The crowd was chipper, the vibe was inclusive and partygoers raved about the quality of the exhibitors and the art—even before most of them had a chance to fully take in everything. Indeed, it was a “We’re back, baby” kind of night, lacking in the been-there-done-that ennui that can permeate art-fair previews (but with just the right hint of déjà vu for those of us who had attended the once-great, now-defunct Art Chicago).

The vast open space, whose interior environment was designed by local architect Jeanne Gang—an exhibition of her firm’s work is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave.; artic.edu) through February 24—was punctuated with Mylar cones flaring down from the ceiling. Local artists made a strong showing (both in and around the booths), and the more than 120 participating galleries had remarkably ample room to breathe. Speaking to a rapt cluster of VIPs (including Mayor Rahm Emanuel), Expo president and director Tony Karman called the fair “a Chicago story” and spoke of his desire to make the event, and the city, a global destination for contemporary art; Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 E. Chicago Ave.; mcachicago.org), asked everyone to do their part in making this a “win” and “buy, buy, buy!”

Chicago’s academic institutions have always had great arts programs—the School of the Art Institute being the chief conservatory among them—but the city’s never had the far-reaching, internationally recognized, self-perpetuating scene of New York, London, Los Angeles or Berlin. The new and improved art fair is but one of several developments creating something of a moment in the Windy City. For starters, Emanuel has emphasized the arts from the get-go: After taking office in 2011, he had the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events draw up the first new long-term Chicago Cultural Plan in more than 25 years.

Meanwhile, the Art Institute and its slick new Renzo Piano–designed Modern Wing continue to anchor the city’s out-of-town cultural draw. Upcoming museum exhibits include a show dedicated to video artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen (through January 6) and one on the museum’s prodigious Picasso collection (opening February 20). The tastes and visions of the MCA’s new curatorial team are finally hanging on the walls, and internationally renowned artists like Theaster Gates (who will have a solo show at the MCA next year) and Kerry James Marshall (widely considered to be one of the greatest figurative painters of our time) are living, working and, most important, staying in Chicago even as their careers take off. The city’s small but worthy crop of local galleries is actively seeking out ways to bolster visibility.

Before the Armory Show, before Frieze New York, before Art Basel Miami Beach, Art Chicago was the stateside destination for presenting and selling the best in international contemporary art. But new management and, eventually, a new inland location thrust the quality downward. And as other fairs quickly ascended, major galleries started to sit out Chicago. Organizers pulled the plug in 2011, saying, “It is our conclusion that the great majority of the art-fair market in the United States has gravitated toward the coasts.” Karman, a former vice president of Art Chicago, set out to prove them wrong with Expo. His approach included an international roster, strong sponsors (like Mercedes-Benz), institutional partners (like MCA) and returning to the Navy Pier locale.

Chicago is known for having a few excellent, dedicated collectors, but a strong fair is vital in feeding the city’s greater art world ecosystem by bringing in outside buyers. Indeed, for many gallerists, local support isn’t enough. “Way more than 50 percent of my clientele is not from the Midwest,” says longtime gallerist Monique Meloche, who, with 11 other Chicago dealers, founded Gallery Weekend Chicago (galleryweekendchicago.com) last year in an effort to give collectors another reason to come to the city. This year’s Gallery Weekend coincided with Expo, with 15 galleries offering studio visits, private dinners and events to select VIPs, in addition to an array of programming open to the public. Under former mayor Richard Daley, “there was this push to make the city a destination for outsiders,” Theaster Gates says. Now, it seems, the city is looking for ways to support its artists so they don’t leave to get “discovered” in New York or Los Angeles.

Local institutions are aiding in this, too. The MCA, for instance, under the direction of Michael Darling, is incorporating a wider range of local artists into its program. And collection-based shows like “Color Bind: The MCA Collection in Black and White”—opening November 10 and curated by another MCA newcomer, Naomi Beckwith—now feature pieces by Chicago artists perched alongside those of their national and international predecessors and peers. Changes are afoot at the Renaissance Society (5811 S. Ellis Ave.; renaissancesociety.org), too, an exceedingly well-reputed art space at the University of Chicago; its longtime executive director, Susanne Ghez, will step down in January.

The inaugural fair was a hit, judging by the crowds and convivial mood, but the big question was whether there would be many sales. Younger galleries, like San Francisco’s Jessica Silverman, sold out their booths—“I’ll definitely be back,” she says—as did local mainstays like Kavi Gupta, who sold out and then some. (No surprise, really; it’s been a hot few years for the dealer.) Bigger, more established New York and international galleries were a bit hesitant to call the fair a success, reporting far fewer sales (though Zurich’s Galerie Gmurzynska unloaded a $1 million Yves Klein). But, as Gupta suspects, that could actually be a testament to the high quality of the work. “All the Chicago collectors came out and lots were buying, but people were shocked by how much good material there was,” he says, adding that it will help with the draw for next year. And moneyed art lovers from Chicago and beyond will be better prepared.

Highlights from the West Loop Gallery District

Kavi Gupta
Gupta, who also runs a satellite space in Berlin, is the dealer to watch, representing Chicago superstars like Theaster Gates. His second gallery opens in the city in the spring. kavigupta.com.

Andrew Rafacz
Rafacz’s eight-year-old gallery plays host to both emerging and midcareer artists, among them John Opera, Scott Wolniak and Jason Lazarus. andrewrafacz.com.

Carrie Secrist
Secrist celebrates her 20th year in business in December with a show featuring the gallery’s eclectic roster, which includes renowned photographer David Maisel. secristgallery.com.

Ebersmoore
Up now at the local favorite: new works by Chicago artist Stephen Eichhorn, who reconfigures magazine images of flowers and foliage into abstract tableaux. ebersmoore.com.

Rhona Hoffman
Hoffman sells and exhibits works by major 20th-century innovators: A forthcoming show features performance-art pioneer Vito Acconci (December 14). rhoffmangallery.com.

…Elsewhere in the Midwest

Open for just a few weeks now (and clear of the last signs of construction seen here), the cool new home of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland is clad in 1,354 Rimex stainless-steel panels, which, says architect Farshid Moussavi, “bring reflections of the ground or sky onto its surface and present visitors with new images of their surroundings. The building shape also appears to change as people move around it. Therefore, instead of [seeing] a single image, they are compelled to circle it to fully comprehend it.” At 11400 Euclid Ave.; mocacleveland.org.