Weekend festival turns city into art destination for all tastes

By Jessica Hester

For many Chicagoans, warm weather is synonymous with the Cubs, not Chagall. Others associate springtime in the city with the Sox, but not Seurat. This weekend, maybe baseball rivals can call a temporary truce and meet halfway—at the Merchandise Mart, halfway between Wrigley and Cellular Field. It’s hard to imagine passionate Chicago baseball fans peacefully coexisting in one building, but this won’t be your average Chicago weekend. From April 25 to 28, the Windy City will become ARTropolis.

This annual Chicago-wide celebration of arts, antiques, and culture consists of five formal shows and innumerable exhibitions, performances, screenings, and panel discussions. Work on display is culled from both major museums and small, appointment-only apartment galleries sandwiched between the kitchen and the bathroom. The diverse array of paintings, sculpture, video, and installations on display aims to attract both hoity-toity art connoisseurs and hipsters-in-the-know.

The Merchandise Mart is the epicenter of this international artistic metropolis. Three shows will take place concurrently in the massive Mart: Art Chicago, NEXT, and the Merchandise Mart Antiques Fair. Satellite shows also at the Merchandise Mart include The Artist Project and the Intuit Show of Folk and Outsider Art.

Art Chicago is an international fair of modern and contemporary art that features work from 180 established and emerging galleries in Chicago and 10 other major world cities. The target audience consists of curators, conservators, critics, and collectors. If the amount of money in your checking account is below six digits, you will probably go home empty-handed.

NEXT, Art Chicago’s cool younger sister, includes work from 200 commercial and non-commercial galleries and arts organizations, artist collectives, art publications, and private collections. Look for work from emerging and established artists represented by prominent Chicago and European galleries.

“Participating artists and galleries want to be known for edgy, young, and relevant things,” said Caleb Lyons, an artist exhibiting in NEXT. “This event is on a different kind of scale than anything else that happens during the year—usually, things happen on a small scale, in people’s basements, backyards, or garages.”

Lyons would know about small-scale basement events. He and his girlfriend, Kathryn Scanlan, co-own Olbgod Gallery, a basement exhibition space in Humboldt Park. Their gallery sports a built-in bar from the 1940s, a crowd pleaser that Lyons and Scanlan are recreating for the Merchandise Mart space. Scanlan’s parents, both antique dealers, and numerous artist friends contributed building supplies and decorative pieces to the project, which were “camouflaged, so they wouldn’t look too much like art,” Lyons said. The dive-bar feel, combined with Americana comfort food like hot dogs, hamburgers, and waffle fries, should appeal to college students and young artists.

Lyons was given an exhibition space in NEXT as a thank you for his construction skills. As a commentary on the role of monetary value in the art market, Lyons commissioned five artists to make two statues each: one in the $500 range, and one in the $5,000 range. Lyons’s upstart initiative, collaborative approach, and innovative work exemplify what distinguishes NEXT from the slightly stuffier Art Chicago.

The Merchandise Mart International Antiques Fair caters to art enthusiasts, advertising to those seeking the “unique, unusual, and fascinating.” This massive collection includes antiques from a wide variety of time periods and locations, and features everything from barometers to silver services and rare posters.

The Artist Project is a satellite show featuring work by artists undiscovered by the gallery community. These unrepresented artists will exhibit and sell their work directly—and relatively cheaply. Their works are exciting and might even be within a college student’s price range.

The Intuit Show is another satellite show, featuring artists even more removed from the gallery community. This show features work by untrained or self-taught artists, outsider art, ethnographic art, folk art, and visionary art.

The gallery shows are augmented by seminars and panel discussions. Critics of appropriation-based art should check out a talk entitled “Value System: What Gives Art Value?” being given in advance of Jeff Koons’s seminal Museum of Contemporary Art retrospective in May. In this panel discussion, which will be held on the seventh floor of the Merchandise Mart at 1 p.m. on Friday, a collector, economist, curator, and art lawyer will discuss the ways in which criticism, exhibitions, and sales contribute to determining “value” in the contemporary art market.

Though we’ll be back to baseball on Monday, this weekend the Windy City is all about art.