CHICAGO — The inaugural Chicago Art Book Fair (CABF), which opened last night, takes place in an odd setting. Spread across two floors of the Chicago Athletic Association — a luxury, Venetian Gothic hotel that overlooks Millennium Park — the fair is bisected by a game room, bar, and study area that harken back to the building’s origins as a gentlemen’s club. Yet, unexpected as it might be, the swanky setting is a smart and perfectly fitting one for CABF, which was conceived as an open event for small press arts publishing that draws people beyond a niche crowd of art book lovers.
Its co-founders, Alex Valentine and Aay Preston-Myint, decided to try creating a Chicago art book fair after showing material from their publishing imprint, No Coast, at the Vancouver Art Book Fair. The event felt personable to them, and they thought that an art book fair of that scale could complement the already lively publishing scene in Chicago, which is home to events such as Zinefest, the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, and the Chicago Printers Guild Publishers’s Fair. Like the Vancouver fair, CABF also has satellite programming around the city; all happenings are free and open to all. To help organize everything, Valentine and Preston-Myint also added Imani Jackson & Conor Stechschulte to their team as assistant director.
“We have a little more of a scrappy start up that is not institutionally related at all,” Valentine told Hyperallergic. “This is just a couple of people who really like arts publishing in a broad sense, and we just want to present a place for people to define that in whatever weird and diverse ways they can.”
That this place isn’t in a museum, unlike Printed Matter’s New York and LA events — the two fairs that have long reigned over the art publishing world (stateside) — inherently makes CABF incredibly accessible. The hotel is open to the public, so friends who planned a night out for fancy beverages or tourists who pop in out of curiosity are more than likely to also stumble upon this wonderland of material.
The fair itself takes place in the building’s former ground-floor swimming pool and basketball court, where vintage hoops still hang. This year, over 100 exhibitors filled the spaces, about half of whom hail from Chicago and around 10% who are based outside the country. Preston-Myint and Valentine had put out an open call for applicants, then had a juried process to select vendors from a pool of about 275 to highlight a rich and diverse group of artists; the resulting showcase meditates on what an “art book” is, and can be.
“The ‘art book fair’ moniker was a flexible, pliable term for us and can be interpreted however people want,” Valentine said. “Hopefully it is an inclusive term, too, and we have made an effort to not make this a curated space.”
That intention comes through clearly as you stroll through the fair, whose layout encourages exploration. There aren’t separate sections for zines or rare books; instead, risograph prints, buttons, and patches neighbor $500 artist books. Although you’ll also find sleek titles that will make you nervous about thumbing through, there’s a clear emphasis on DIY projects here; you don’t have to break the bank to walk away with a trove. And, as Valentine hinted, you’ll find more than paper-based objects here. To give a few examples: among the wares at local gallery fernway is a fruity-flavored puzzle by Kevin Goodrich; Chloë Perkis is offering dangly, wicked earrings among an array of dynamite comics; and stop by EPISODE to make your mark with one of the six artist-designed rubber stamps for sale and contribute to an ever-changing work of art.
“I just hope that the fair puts a lot of visitors in connection with a lot of artists,” Valentine said. “This fair is a really direct way to meet artists, find out about their practices, and ask questions. The nice thing about arts publishing is that it should be accessibly priced and made on a scale that reaches an audience. Hopefully having CABF in a downtown location that is open really encourages that community interaction.”
The Chicago Art Book Fair continues through November 19 at the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel (2 Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL), with additional programming occurring at various locations around the city.