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Everywhere an Art Fair 

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While last spring Chicago hosted two art fairs the same weekend, this year there are five at once--three of them new. The same amount of contemporary art will be shown, but it will be scattered among the two large fairs near the lake and two smaller ones, each with about 35 exhibitors, featuring younger, edgier artists from alternative spaces.

Tom Blackman's Art Chicago, now in its 13th year, reached a peak of more than 200 dealers a few years ago but more recently has suffered from increased competition worldwide. "Now there's an international art fair--or two or three--every month," Blackman says. Last year Art Chicago's roster had dropped to about 160 dealers, with fewer of them top-ranked international galleries. This year Blackman's usual venue, Navy Pier, was awarded to a new fair, Chicago Contemporary & Classic. Art Chicago is still the best bet for seeing art that reflects current trends--it has 94 dealers to Chicago Contemporary & Classic's 70 or so--but neither fair has the best-known New York and European galleries. Chicago is home to only three galleries of truly international stature (Richard Gray, Rhona Hoffman, and Donald Young), two of which exhibited at Art Chicago last year, and none of which is at any Chicago fair this year.

Blackman, who parted ways with the Municipal Pier and Exposition Authority when it started looking for other promoters last June, says he won't miss the amusement park atmosphere. "In the early days you could get saturated with art, then step outside and look at the lake and rest. Now you go out and you're bombarded with cotton candy machines and music." He's happy about his fair's new location, in a tent southeast of Millennium Park easily accessible by car: the Monroe parking garage has 2,000 spaces.

The buzz about Chicago Contemporary & Classic has been that it's more conservative than Art Chicago. Director Ilana Vardy, who used to work for Blackman, confirms that view. "There is cutting-edge work and photography and installations," she says. "But our fair is heavy on painting and sculpture, and I think that the midwest audience is going to find itself much more comfortable with the material we show." This fair is owned by Pfingsten Publishing, which acquired Art Miami last year and whose parent company is Pfingsten Partners in Deerfield.

The new Nova Young Art Fair, put on by Bridge magazine, has a "marketing partnership" with Chicago Contemporary & Classic. Including some venerable nonprofit spaces like the Hyde Park Art Center and the Contemporary Art Workshop, Nova is organized by Michael Workman, who ran the Artboat, a cruising exhibit, the last two years as an alternative to Art Chicago. For this fair, he says, "we were looking for work that didn't have an established market value, maybe not even a significant audience yet." (That sounds something like Blackman's Stray Show, which last year included an excellent array from 50 alternative galleries, most local or midwestern and a few international. This year the Stray Show is much smaller and has been absorbed by Art Chicago.) Like the NFO Expo, part of the Version>05 festival, Nova includes performances, among them one by Industry of the Ordinary, a collective consisting of Adam Brooks and Mathew Wilson. They'll offer a pancake brunch at noon in response to the trend of branding grilled food with logos purchased online. Brooks and Wilson will brand their pancakes with a logo of their own design. They won't say what it is.

Though there's no contemporary art at the Chicago Antiques Fair--anything made after 1975 is excluded--some fine-art dealers are showing paintings and prints, and the fair includes folk-art paintings for the first time. With more than 100 dealers from North America, Europe, and Asia, this event is as large as it's ever been and the largest of all the fairs.

While Blackman and Vardy both suggest that the smaller size of their fairs will make them easier to navigate than Art Chicago has been in the past, trying to see all five would be a challenge, and all five may not survive. Chicago Contemporary & Classic has a seven-year contract at Navy Pier, but when I queried Vardy about next year she replied, "Ask me in two weeks." Art Chicago's deal with the Chicago Park District is firm only for this year, and Blackman sounds uncertain when speaking of the future. "I really believe that Chicago is one of the most comfortable places to buy art," he says. "We're trying to reinvent the fair one more time." But one Chicago dealer who's in none of the fairs told me he hopes that the ones focused on contemporary work fail so that they can be replaced by a better-managed fair of truly international stature. The first part seems likelier than the second.

See Special Events in the art listings for complete information.

Art Chicago in the Park

Where: Butler Field, Monroe at Columbus

When: 4/29-5/2

Price: $15

Info: 312-938-3838

Chicago Contemporary & Classic

Where: Navy Pier, Festival Hall, 600 E. Grand

When: 4/29-5/2

Price: $15

Info: 312-447 0430

Nova Young Art Fair

Where: 840 & 850 W. Washington

When: 4/29-5/1

Price: $5

Info: 312-421-2227

NFO Expo

Where: 1029 W. 35th St.

When: 4/30-5/1

Price: $10

Info: 773-837-0145

Chicago Antiques Fair

Where: Merchandise Mart, 350 N. Orleans

When: 4/29-5/2

Price: $12

Info: 800-677-6278

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