The entrance to Expo Chicago (all photos courtesy the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — The excitement and buzz around Expo Chicago, the Windy City’s resurgence into the international art world, felt deafening. Practically every artist in the city who knew how to handle art was in some way involved with the fair. Newcity newspaper, the city’s #1 alt-weekly, published “Chicago top 50 artists,” a timely and simultaneously ballsy list explaining the who’s who of Chicago.

I attempted to interview art editor Jason Foumberg for this story, but he was too swamped post-Expo; or, rather, before the fair even began. Such is typical of art fairs; those involved rarely get to enjoy it. Those who are resigned to babysit booths chatter about “thank goodness there are drinks available, it’s the only reason I could make it through the endless days in the never-ending rows of three-walled white cube spaces.”

Like any art fair, Expo brings employment services, albeit temporary ones. But outside of all the hustle and buzz of the fair, Expo Chicago signals the Second City, the Windy City, or whatever type of Chicago-centric label you want to slap on it city’s attempt to rebrand and, ultimately, rejoin the ranks of the international commercial art world.

Chicago is not new to the international art market, but admittedly it hasn’t been a part of it for some time. In 1980, Chicago dealers launched the International Art Exposition at Navy Pier. Chicago had become known for the late 1960s/early 1970s Imagists movement, a group of artists whose work riffed on postwar America through visions of the grotesque and surreal. Completely disconnected from the New York art world, the Imagists set the stage for perhaps what tends to happen in Chicago quite often; a disconnect from the rest of the art world proper, and a type of isolationism that both marks Chicago as different, and others it next to New York and Los Angeles’ flashy art worlds inhabited by moneyed, big name collectors.

Despite Chicago’s reputation, by the 1990s and 2000s, the International Art Exposition — or Art Chicago, as it was later called — became arguably one of the best art fairs in the world. In 2006, Art Chicago encountered financial problems and had to move to the Merchandise Mart. This mammoth haven for trade shows, interior design studios and fast food restaurants galore shut down Art Chicago, which had become known as Next Art Chicago, in February 2012. The sole reason: The fair wasn’t making them any money. A business must bring in a return on investment if it is to succeed. The low ceilings, multiple floors of three-walled white cubes, and the feeling of being a hamster running around a never-ending maze, made this fair feel second-rate.

Gordon Matta-Clark, “Garbage Wall” (2012) is composed of garbage from the Chicago, Mississippi, Ohio and Illinois Rivers and was on display at Expo Chicago. It was created posthumously by gallerist Rhona Hoffman and the National Resources Defense Council to “highlight water pollution issues in the Midwest.” The original Garbage Wall was constructed on the first Earth Day in April of 1970 in New York City.

In this post-Mayor Daley era, Expo Chicago director Tony Karman seeks to bring the city and its art market back into the spotlight.

Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was in attendance at the Wednesday opening night Vernissage, and returned again on Sunday, when I arrived to meet up with a friend and check out the fair again post-opening night madness.

“I resigned from Art Chicago in December 2010 with the intent not to do this,” Expo Chicago director Tony Karman tells me just days before the fair kicked off. “I was approached by a number of big dealers who knew I had a vision that I wanted to package.”

Karman, who moved to Chicago proper from the suburb of Rock Island in 1982, says he’s had a 30-year love affair with the city.

“I’m bullish,” he admits. “I think this is an extraordinary city with great artists, teachers, institutions, and there’s no doubt taking the temperature of the international art world that they want to see a fair back in Chicago.”

He limited the number of galleries exhibiting to a mere 120 with the intent of keeping quality high, trim and slim. This made it possible to actually see everything that the fair has to offer.

Comparing Expo Chicago to Art Basel Miami Beach is not worth it. This is Chicago, it’s not Miami, and it certainly isn’t trying to be.

A view of Miami Art Basel 2011 on left vs. Expo Chicago on right.

What Chicago is trying to be, ultimately, is itself. This year suggests a return to the “Old Glory” days of yore. Chicago Arts videographer and artist MartinJon Garcia suggests that it’s this adolescent spirit of never-giving-up that will bring Chicago back.

“People are taking risks,” says Garcia. “There’s a youthful excitement around it. We are trying to put out a better show, and it isn’t necessarily bigger. Booths were taking up the space for what the other fairs would have been three booths.”

Expo Chicago’s spirit marks a break from the Daley reign, and an entrance into Rahm’s world.

“Ten years ago, that chip on Chicago’s shoulder was huge,” Garcia says. “We lost Daley, and when you lose something that is in place for 20-some odd years, you get a chip on your shoulder. There is a chipping away at Chicago’s grudge against the world — for NY being NY, for LA getting all the money and the arts.”

Expo Chicago plays an important role in Chicago’s business of art. This past February — the same month that Merchandise Mart said it wouldn’t host Next Art Chicago — Mayor Rahm Emmanuel launched the Chicago Cultural Plan 2012 as part of a new way to identify arts and cultural growth opportunities in the city. It is the first cultural plan since Harold Washington’s, who served as mayor from 1983–1987 before the Daley era began in 1989. The Cultural Plan is set to position Chicago as “a global destination for creativity, innovation and excellence in the arts.” Expo Chicago, should it succeed, will serve as another way to bring a greater international audience to the city that perhaps won’t be calling itself “second” forever.

Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...