Tony Karman raises the city’s contemporary arts profile with the fourth Expo Chicago.
Expo Chicago’s Tony Karman, photographed at home next to Jackie Saccoccio’s Saccarin (2013), is putting the Windy City on the global art world map.
Tony Karman knows that the strength of Expo Chicago, the international art fair whose fourth iteration runs September 17–20 at Navy Pier, rests on the broad shoulders of the town that attracts the curators, collectors, and other art enthusiasts who come from across the globe. “The asset that we have is our city,” he says. It’s an asset that, during the decline of Expo’s defunct forerunner, Art Chicago, too often went untapped by the world’s art connoisseurs. “I am still amazed at how many collectors confess they’ve never been to Chicago,” he says.
As Expo’s president and director, the 56-year-old Karman wants to restore Chicago’s reputation as the home to a first-rate international art fair. His ideal world? “If you’re a collector, curator, or other arts professional, there’s no question that you are in Chicago in September,” he says.
Working to make that vision a reality, Karman early on identified a few winning strategies. He went small—emphasizing gallery quality, not quantity. He created premier programming, from installations to lectures. He placed the fair on Navy Pier, where Art Chicago used to be held, enlisting renowned architect Jeanne Gang to design the exhibition space. And he scheduled the fair not in the spring, when the international art calendar is packed, but in September. “There’s no better time to be in our city,” he says of our temperate early autumn, when Chicago’s cultural institutions collectively come to life. If the fair depends on the city, it also relies on the city to be at its most vibrant.
Last year, Expo Chicago welcomed 32,500 visitors, significantly more than the year before. While Karman says he’d like to see that number climb even higher, he insists the fair will never have more than this year’s 140 galleries, up from 100 galleries in its inaugural year. And while Karman says he doesn’t know (or even track) any sales figures from Expo’s exhibiting galleries, he notes that if sales weren’t going up, the fair wouldn’t still be here. “What we’re doing is first and foremost an artistic endeavor, and it should be,” he says. “On the other hand, that doesn’t happen unless commerce is transacted.”
An art lover takes in the offerings at Expo Chicago 2014.
The fair owes its success, Karman says, to its partnerships with local arts institutions that align their exhibitions and programs with Expo Chicago. On September 19, the Art Institute of Chicago opens the first exhibition dedicated to British architect David Adjaye, and the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art launches the first solo museum exhibition of local multimedia artist Geof Oppenheimer.
Expo has expanded its collaborations, working with the locally based councils of China, France, Italy, and Spain to bring top curators and collectors from those countries to Chicago’s fair. This year’s show also sees the introduction of the Greater Midwest Curatorial Forum, which connects top Midwest curators with their colleagues from around the world.
“If you’re a collector or curator, there’s no question that you are in Chicago in September.” —Tony Karman
“The act of partnering,” Karman says, “is the only reason success happens in anyone’s endeavors.” He learned that fact, he says, from his 30-plus years working in Chicago’s arts community, a career that ranges from an early stint as a security guard for the Chicago International Art Exposition to a panoply of civic and cultural gigs. In 2006, after Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. boosted a floundering Art Chicago, it named Karman as the fair’s vice president and director, a position he held until 2010, more than a year before the fair closed.
“I decided early on I didn’t have the inner voice that said I have to be an artist,” says Karman, who earned his BFA from Kansas State University. “I don’t paint anymore. Someday, maybe.” Rather than creating art, he collects it, which, he says, “is almost as rich as taking a breath or having a great meal.”
Last year’s Expo drew 32,500 visitors.
That passion can be seen on the walls of the lightflooded River West condo he shares with his wife, Sondra. He demurs when asked the names of the local galleries represented in his home (“If I [were to] ever single out a favorite gallery, I would be tarred and feathered, and I should be”). Still, he acknowledges that most of the pieces he and his wife respond to fall in the realm of structured abstraction. “I love process,” he explains. “There’s something about manipulation that’s always attracted me, whether of canvas, clay, or paper”—and it is thanks in part to that love of process that Chicago once again boasts a globally respected art fair. Expo Chicago runs September 17–20 at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave., 312-867-9220