This spring finds the Merchandise Mart fully committed to the art-fair business with the recent purchases of the Armory Show, Volta and the Toronto International Art Fair. Also under the Mart’s banner is NEXT, “The Invitational Exhibition of Emerging Art” presented by Volta members, local gallerist Kavi Gupta and Christian Viveros-Faune. Billed as a contemporary art fair, NEXT presents a list of progressive galleries, non-profits and artist projects from around the world. According to NEXT founder Viveros-Faune, “We’re asking significant artists and significant dealers to come to Chicago for the first time in maybe twenty years to take a chance to make a kick-ass fair.” For Viveros-Faune art fairs have “taken the place of biennials and significant international exhibitions” as “the de facto meeting place of the art world. At the same time, there has been an over-extension of the standard model of the art fair.”
Historically there have been efforts to alleviate the visual noise of overcrowded booths and the general sterility of convention halls by curating projects and making single-artist booths look like gallery exhibitions. Newer fairs have adopted the Frieze model that makes fairs less like trade shows and more like festivals by including ancillary events such as lectures and artist projects. These efforts are an important attempt to regain the symbolic value of the artwork through thoughtful presentation and by discouraging the mall-like atmosphere. NEXT adopted many of these steps by encouraging galleries to host single-artist shows in customizable booths and by providing artist projects such as Jonathan Schipper’s kinetic sculpture “The Slow Death of American Muscle,” in which two cars crumple together slowly in a slow-motion wreck.
NEXT’s inclusion of the West Collection in an exhibition titled “Versions of Reality” is intended as a “pedagogical tool” by NEXT’s organizers for other collectors. Viveros-Faune hopes that “in any market, but certainly in a down market, you want to appeal to real substantive qualities that aren’t the qualities of the mall, that sort of impulse-buying you want to go for something slightly deeper. I would say in a very clear way that we’d like to encourage collectors like the West’s more than we’d like to encourage buyers.” But it also increases the West collection’s symbolic value by its association with NEXT’s “quality” similar to the way larger collections like the Rubell’s function in Miami. Collectors have become aware of their role in promoting their artists’ symbolic value, and regardless of the nobility of their motivation, the art object’s cultural significance is being negotiated right along with the price. All of this underscores the importance of the art fair as a site where the meaning of art itself is being dynamically determined, and it’s happening here in Chicago—again. (Dan Gunn)
NEXT: Invitational Exhibition of Emerging Art runs at the Merchandise Mart, Friday-Monday.