SPOTLIGHT: Chicago

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Clockwise, from top left:

Participants in the 2015 Dialogues progam includes:
Michael Darling, Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
Thelma Golden, Courtesy: EXPO Chicago
Franklin Sirmans, Courtesy: LACMA
Solveig Øvstebø, Courtesy The Renaissance Society

“Curators often feel like our function in a place like an art fair is not that well-defined,” says Dan Cameron, the former chief curator of the Orange County Museum of Art. “We’re not customarily there as clients and buyers, and we’re certainly not selling anything. The curator has a certain realm in which they act really naturally, and art fairs aren’t one of them!” he laughs. However, this September, EXPO Chicago is looking to change that with the launching of the Greater Midwest Curatorial Forum. Taking place during the fourth iteration of the fair, the Forum will bring together 25 curators from 20 states, as well as Mexico City and Wales, providing the opportunity for them to get something more professionally beneficial than their typical art fair experience. While the Forum is a chance for curators to exchange ideas amongst each other, in the Dialogues lecture series, the public gets a window into some of these discussions.

Depending upon the institutions to which they belong, curators’ interactions with art fairs at large can be quite varied. For those employed at a collecting museum, a fair weekend could be preoccupied with advising their acquisitions boards on works that will complement their collections, or providing their expert opinion to collectors looking to visualize the long term viability of their investments. For others, a fair has become yet another facet of the researching and networking process that’s about meeting dealers, catching up with colleagues, and looking, looking, looking. Michael Darling, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s chief curator, and one of the local hosts of EXPO’s Forum, explains that making interpersonal connections is obviously a key component of the job, and that much of this now happens at fairs. “It is a way for our museum to gain visibility among the influence-makers that gallerists are,” he says. “If they notice that MCA curators, for instance, are constantly out on the scene seeing things, they will have a higher opinion of the MCA as a dynamic museum that is committed to being informed and involved.”

The rules of the networking game are not the only components of the curator’s profession that have been affected by proliferation of so many art fairs. Forum attendee Anthony Elms, the chief curator of the ICA in Philadelphia and one of the curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, notes a shift in the way viewers experience art in general, no matter the context. “The strangest thing for a curator is that art fairs have made contemporary art very popular,” he says. “You see a lot of the general public at art fairs, and the general public does not always think of an art fair as different from a museum or exhibition space, so it does make our role one as explaining what the role of the museum is.”

As the necessity for curators to engage with the influence of art fairs grows, EXPO Chicago’s Greater Midwest Curatorial Forum is intended to make the experience far more useful for them, no matter what relationship curators have to the buying and selling that goes on. The invite-only event (with transportation costs covered by EXPO) consists of artist studio visits, and tours of local collections and institutions, culminating in a closed-door luncheon on Friday, September 18, hosted by Darling, Lisa Corrin (director of The Block Museum of Art), Solveig Øvstebø (executive director of The Renaissance Society), and James Rondeau (chair and curator of contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago). “The luncheon is an informal opportunity to address topics that are relevant to the issues curators face in their field,” says EXPO Deputy Director Nicole Berry. “They can feel free to have those discussions as working curators.” Cameron, who will be involved in EXPO as both a Forum attendee and a speaker in the fair’s Dialogues lecture series, explains that this focus on curatorial activity is something unique to Chicago’s fair. “If you’re working alone as a curator or within a given geographic environment, you don’t have a lot of opportunity to try out new ideas, or listen to other people’s,” he says.

The Forum expands upon the noncommercial, ideas-based mission EXPO has incorporated since the beginning, and the Dialogues lecture series, which has occurred during all four iterations of EXPO, will feature several Forum attendees. Among the varied offerings, Solveig Øvstebø will join LACMA’s Franklin Sirmans, The Studio Museum’s Thelma Golden and moderator Jacob Proctor of the Neubauer Collegium at the University of Chicago for a panel on the global impact of institutional collections on Friday, September 18. On Saturday, September 19, Cameron and Elms will be talking with Irene Hofmann of SITE Santa Fe and moderator Bruce Altshuler of NYU’s Museum Studies program about international biennials and biennales.

Like the Dialogues series, the team at EXPO Chicago is planning to make the Greater Midwest Curatorial Forum an annual addition to the fair’s programming, especially given the enthusiastic response from all the invitees, and part of that enthusiasm is for the city’s wider art scene. “Our team constantly hears from people throughout our travels that they love Chicago,” Berry notes. “It’s like six degrees of Chicago! Everybody has some sort of connection.” For the museum folks based in locales like New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Dallas, who typically only experience Chicago art when it’s exported out, the Forum will offer an unparalleled occasion to see where these artists live and work, as well as the local galleries and smaller institutions that constitute their support system. “It’s exciting to have such an international event with so much high level exposure, and the Chicago artists are right there in the thick of it,” says Cameron. “And they’re getting their due of attention as well.”