Exterior view Mana Building, Chicago

Robert Burnier
Wood, enamel, and pedestal
27″ x 27″ x 27″
Photo: Courtesy the artist and Andrew Rafacz Gallery

As EXPO Chicago heads into its third year, there’s no denying that the city’s biggest art fair is poised to stick around for quite awhile. And its staying power not only applies to the fair itself, but the way in which EXPO has triggered a new fervor around Chicago’s art market-especially in the month of September. The city government has joined in, establishing EXPO ART WEEK, which starts three days prior to the fair weekend, to encourage visiting art enthusiasts to partake in local restaurants and performing arts, and the notably successful EDITION Chicago returning for its second iteration. EXPO weekend has become the most important date on the Chicago art calendar, with the city’s museums, gallery districts, and arts organizations hosting bigger and better events each year.

And in some cases, it’s not just the arts organizations that see the opportunity to get in on the action. The National Resources Defense Council has contributed in both past iterations of EXPO, mounting environmentally-conscious installations by Maya Lin, Gordon Matta-Clark and Vaughn Bell. This year, it seems the arts body of NRDC has further strengthened, with a newly established Artist-In-Residence program, and its first resident artist, Chicagoan Jenny Kendler. Long before her stint with the NRDC, Kendler established a unique art practice that fits into the contemporary art dialogue without sacrificing her environmental activist intentions. Already this year, the artist has been busy with installations and happenings around the country, including her project at Marfa Dialogues in St. Louis: a monarch butterfly “food cart” called Milkweed Dispersal Balloons. Visitors were encouraged to take home and pop balloons filled with seeds in order to revitalize the population of this plant-the only food that monarch caterpillars can eat-which has been disappearing due to pesticides and climate change.

At NRDC’s EXPO booth, Kendler is creating another interactive experience aimed at bringing attention to the local environment. According to Elizabeth Corr, manager of art partnerships & events at the NRDC, the organization’s booth at EXPO is always popular, as it is quite different than that of other booths. And, she says, “it encourages the non-art audience to come to the fair.” Wallpaper printed with a pattern of lichen (the only plant that grows in every kind of climate on earth) will line the booth, punctuated by a series of sculptures in which vintage porcelain birds are modified in order to elevate them from mere tchotchkes to something surprising and extraordinary, or in the artist’s words, to “rewild” them.

The main attraction in the booth, however, is Tell It to the Birds, a large dome for viewers to enter one at a time and confess a secret, which is then filtered through custom software, and projected out into Navy Pier’s Festival Hall as a bird song. Kendler explains that Tell It to the Birds was conceived partly as a respite from the chaotic and visually over-stimulating environment of an art fair. “Tell it to the Birds is experienced primarily with the ears (though also with scent and tactility) in relative darkness, and complete privacy,” says Kendler, “hopefully allowing participants to let their guard down and absorb the experience.”

Pot with Skulls and Arch (detail) Olla con calacas y arco
José Alfonso Fernández Soteno
Polychrome ceramic and wire/ cerámica policromada y alambre
46″ x 22″ x 22″
National Museum of Mexican Art Permanent Collection
Photo: Michael Tropea

Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art also has an activist perspective at its core. Seeing a need for diversity in the artists featured at EXPO, the NMMA and its director, Carlos Tortolero, joined forces with Chicago-based artist/curator Sergio Gomez and Mexico-based independent curator Margaret Failoni to organize an exhibition at EXPO: “Border Crossings: Mexico/USA.” The EXPO booth will feature work by artists living in Mexico, including Daniela Edburg, Alejandra Mendoza and Leonardo Diaz, as well as artists of Mexican heritage from Chicago, such as Elsa Muñoz, Ruben Aguirre and Luis Sahagun. “We care about our living artists just as much as the dead ones,” Tortolero says candidly, referring to the museum’s firm commitment to promoting the careers of the artists of their community. The NMMA’s Kraft Gallery is dedicated to exhibitions of emerging local artists. On display through the fall and winter is a solo show by Gabriel Villa, an artist living and working in Pilsen, the largely Latino neighborhood in which the museum is located. Tortolero explains that one of the museum’s goals is to connect the artists they exhibit with collectors and galleries-a level of transparency and acknowledgement of the market that is almost unheard of amongst museums.

The NMMA, which is the only Latino museum accredited by American Alliance of Museums and has one of the nation’s most substantial collections of Mexican art, is also home to the largest Day of the Dead art exhibition in the US. Opening the Friday of EXPO weekend, September 19, is “Rito y Recuerdo: Day of the Dead.” The Day of the Dead exhibition draws in record numbers of visitors every year, with last year’s iteration bringing in over 600 school groups. To help visualize the popularity of this exhibition, Tortolero explains, “In the same way people flock to see ‘The Nutcracker’ at Christmas, in the fall, they visit the Day of the Dead exhibition.” “Rito y Recuerdo: Day of the Dead,” like the previous shows, will feature wall-to-wall paintings, prints, photos, installations, folk art and ofrendas honoring the deceased, created by artists from Mexico, across the US and Chicago. With both shows scheduled to open during EXPO, the NMMA underscores its sin fronteras, or “without borders,” mission: to both serve its local community, and bring underexposed art from Mexico to a wider US viewership.

A 20-minute walk from the NMMA is Mana Contemporary. A relatively new addition to Pilsen’s art community, Mana opened its Chicago branch last September, and is the first offshoot of the East Coast-based company. “Artists are moving into Pilsen for its affordability,” says Mana Chicago’s Principal Micha Lang, “We chose Pilsen because it’s an emerging artist community.” Modeled after the company’s flagship space in Jersey City, New Jersey, Mana Chicago occupies an historic nine-story building, four of which have already been completely remodeled into artist studios, galleries, performance spaces, a café and the Donald Young Artists’ Library. The remaining floors are still in the process of renovation; some will become state-of-the-art fine art storage for museums, galleries and private clients (fine art moving and storage was East Coast Mana’s first successful venture before they began building art centers). Today, there are over 70 artist studios at Mana, and more artists from all around the city are moving in. Studios are competitively priced for the area, especially considering that the staff at Mana works with artists to customize the space in the studios for their needs, as in the case of ceramicist Amanda Gentry, for whom the space was s
pecially adapted for her kilns, with custom designed tables and shelving.

Mana Chicago is continually seeking more artists for their spaces, however; it’s not simply pay-to-play. Some artists, like conceptual painter Adam Grossi, ended up at Mana through its vetting process of applicants, while others, like University of Illinois at Chicago MFA grad and performance artist Julie Potratz, were approached by Mana out of graduate school. Promising emerging artists maintain studios right alongside more established and well-known figures, such as Tony Tasset, Jan Tichy, Industry of the Ordinary, Barbara Kasten, Jason Lazarus and Faheem Majeed. Other spaces amongst the studios are occupied by arts organizations like Chicago Urban Art Society, High Concept Laboratories, The Propeller Fund, ACRE residency program, a 3-D printing Maker Space, and off-campus classrooms for the nearby University of Illinois at Chicago.

Mana also sees its role as helping advance their artists’ careers. “In Chicago, we are in the beginning stages of developing a collector audience,” says Lang, although the company hopes to replicate the success they’ve had in their Jersey outpost, by bringing collectors and dealers into the space, which according to Lang, has led to “a lot of sales” for Mana’s East Coast artists. Private collector groups, like Chicago Artists’ Coalition’s Chartwell Collectors Circle, have already been touring the studios, and for EXPO weekend, Mana will be hosting an invite-only, VIP studio tour on Saturday with shuttles to bring collectors to Pilsen from Navy Pier. But you don’t have to collect to take part in the festivities. This year, Mana will have its studios open to the public from 1-5 PM on Sunday, September 21; the same day, it will also open a survey exhibition of later works by famed Abstract Expressionist painter Milton Resnick.

Another Chicago art center, this one in the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park, will also be ramping up in September. While Mana is new to Chicago’s art scene, the Hyde Park Art Center is the city’s oldest alternative art space. Famed for launching the careers of many of the Chicago Imagists and the Hairy Who, as well as hosting early exhibitions for big-name contemporary Chicago artists like Theaster Gates, Michelle Grabner and Kerry James Marshall, the Hyde Park Art Center is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

In addition to strong exhibitions and educational programming, HPAC is expanding with the help of a $750,000 gift to create The Guida Family Creative Wing-a suite of studios for artists-in-residence, both local and international.

On view at the Art Center through the end of November is “The Chicago Effect: Redefining the Middle,” an exhibit of 10 artists that also celebrates the anniversary of HPAC. A year and a half ago, when this exhibition was conceived, curators Allison Peters Quinn, Megha Ralapati and Christopher K. Ho decided that instead of a show that recapped the center’s history, they wanted to mount an exhibition that questioned what the role of the art center is today. “There’s attention being given to Chicago and how things happen here in the middle of the country,” says Quinn, HPAC’s director of exhibitions & residency programs. As the show’s title suggests, the works included address the notion of “the middle,” spanning everything from a geographical middle, to middle age, the middle class, and theoretical middle grounds of all kinds. Chicago artist Robert Burnier contributes sculptural works created from a series of old paintings by the artist and the crates that have housed them for years, with an end product that occupies a gray area between the two- and three-dimensions, past and present. Marissa Lee Benedict grows algae collected from around the city, not in order to test for pollutants or bacteria, or other scientific purposes, but to appreciate the formal properties of the algae itself. For Benedict, the work’s significance derives not from a hypothesis, nor the proving/disproving of it, but the process in between.

The works on display in “The Chicago Effect: Redefining the Middle” lean toward the formal and conceptual, while social practice comes into play with cooperation from institutions like the Illinois Institute of Technology, which will conduct “experiments” on the art center itself. While plenty of those involved in the exhibition are Chicago-based, a number are from cities all over the country who are in synch with the collaborative, experimental, inquisitive, DIY practices that define Chicago art. Says Quinn, “Chicago is having a moment. And it’s affecting how everyone else is working.”