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The art world agitators driving Chicago’s creative renaissance

Chicago’s art scene came out as a collective force for EXPO Chicago and claimed its status as a formidable player on the international art stage

In 1980, Chicago opened the first large-scale international art exposition in the United States. Positioned just shy of a three-hour plane journey from New York City and four from Los Angeles, 80 dealers and 10,000 visitors attended. The Chicago International Art Exposition (later known as Art Chicago) was America’s answer to Art Basel. But Chicago’s early promise as an art epicentre was dimmed by the 1987 stock crash, followed by the devastating 1989 River North gallery fire that incinerated the heart of the city’s art scene, and the 1994 launch of New York’s The Armory Show and Miami Art Basel in 2002. In 2011, Art Chicago ceased operations entirely.

In 2012, Chicago’s international art reputation received a lifeline when Tony Karman – Art Chicago’s ex-Vice President – launched EXPO Chicago with the determination of Chicago to reclaim its place on the international art fair calendar. “From a civic standpoint, I felt it was wrong for a great, international city, with great institutions, artists, galleries, collectors, to no longer have what we had for many years,” Karman says. “So I hoped that we would be able to re-establish our place. Do what Chicago does best – and that’s collaborate.” This year, more than 170 galleries from 36 countries packed into the historic Navy Pier’s Festival Hall.

As one of the first cities to mandate the inclusion of public art when developing or renovating municipal buildings in 1978, Chicago ensured art was integral to its fabric. This same ethos is a lynchpin of Karman’s vision. Programming like INSITU/OUTSIDE – temporary public art installations situated around Chicago – and OVERRIDE | A Billboard Project – citywide public art placing art where advertising usually lives – encourages visitors to explore beyond the fair’s walls. 

“EXPO’s programming is wonderfully inclusive and taps into various artistic communities within the city, so it feels like you are getting the full experience of Chicago’s art scene,” says Chanelle Lacy, Director of Kavi Gupta, a gallery championing diverse and underrepresented artists for more than 20 years. “Sometimes that means driving to the South Side – an area that gets vilified in the media but is full of beautiful, creative energy and vital players within the city! I don’t see as many fairs pushing their audience in that same bold way.” 

This boldness runs through the city’s DNA. Chicago’s cost of living is around 36 per cent lower than New York’s, so there’s less risk for artists experimenting beyond what sells. “We have a unique level of freedom to think outside of the box because we don’t have the same pressures as New York and LA,” continues Lacy. “This freedom allows us to present expansive and experimental programming that reverberates differently when encountered and participated in.” 

Easy Otabor, the founder of Anthony Gallery located in the Fulton River District, is at the forefront of a new wave of gallerists bridging disciplines and eschewing expectations. He launched Anthony Gallery, named after his late father, in 2019 after years spent cutting his teeth working as a buyer and curator at Virgil Abloh and Don Crawley’s RSVP Gallery in the 00s. “Chicago breeds so many multi-faceted types of creatives, people that can’t be put into a box,” he says. “We have so many people within the industry from Chicago that can do so many things.”

Anthony Gallery’s EXPO debut was a highlight for this year’s EXPOSURE section, which platforms galleries ten years or younger, and showcased Texas-born artist Henry Swanson. For Otabor, launching Anthony Gallery meant expanding representation and giving it space to thrive through artistic collaborations and partnerships. “I just wanted to see the type of art my friends and I liked that never came to Chicago: art that you could only see in NYC, LA, or Europe. My goal was to bring artists from around the world to the city I grew up in and to put people in a room that wouldn’t normally be in a room together.” 

Otabor also invests resources back into the community through scholarships and collaborations with renowned curators and institutions like Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation, which it completed a year-long collaboration in 2022 to highlight emerging and established contemporary artists working in the field of African and Black American identity. 

Chicago boasts the second-largest American Indian population of any metropolitan area in the US, with more than 170,000 living in the city and its surrounding suburbs. When Chicago-based Native artist Debra Yepa-Pappan began her career, approaching galleries was intimidating. “There weren’t any galleries in Chicago that showed (contemporary) art made by Natives, and they weren’t welcoming to Native artists,” she recalls. Tired of waiting for acknowledgement and space, Yepa-Pappan and her husband founded the Center for Native Futures, a Native artist-founded and led space. “We are not bound or confined by colonial structures. We get to do this our way and offer a ‘home’ to the other Chicago-based contemporary fine artists,” she explains. “As well as those artists who represent Tribes displaced from this area and Native artists across the country.” For its booth at EXPO, the Center showed four artists: Holly Wilson, John Hitchcock, Tom Jones, and Dakota Mace, and Yepa-Pappan spoke on the panel ‘Leading the Way: Women Indigenising Institutions’.

“I’m glad we’re the only Native art centre in Chicago, but I don’t want us to be the only one. We need more around the city.” Until then, she says, “Galleries and museums could better represent the Native artists living in Chicago and including us when they do bring in Native artists and art. They should be less pretentious when we walk into their galleries to see the Native art on display. Nothing bugs me more than when a museum or gallery featuring a Native artist doesn’t do any outreach to the Native community to ensure we are aware and invited.” Yepa-Pappan hopes the Center will be a mediator that informs the community of these events and can advocate for events exclusive to the Native community. “I’m somewhat optimistic because I’ve seen some things changing,” she says. “But there’s still much for folks to learn, including cultural competency.” 

Five years ago, photographer Suzette Bross founded CPS Lives, an artist residency that partners Chicago artists with Chicago Public School to bring artists together to create change in their communities through art. She was inspired by AfriCOBRA, a group of Black, Chicago-based artists in the 1970s using art to empower Black communities, and City 2000, a year-long group photography project that documented the city of Chicago at the dawn of the new millennium. 

As the third largest US school system, Chicago is home to around 340,000 students and 650 schools. Since launching, CPS Lives has paired 60 professional artists with 72 different Chicago schools, spanning 58 neighbourhoods. “We have been able to show the general public what public school looks like today and change perceptions of public education through art making,” says Bross.

“Galleries, artists, collectors, are no longer looking outside of the city for validation or the ‘next big thing’ in an attempt to assert our relevancy. We are the next best” –  Chanelle Lacy

These artist-student partnerships aim to introduce students to art and highlight issues ongoing in their lives for a wider audience. For CPS Lives’ booth at EXPO, Swedish, Chicago-based artist Ludvig Peres and Chicago-born and based artist Nathan Miller’s works were exhibited. Peres’ showed large-scale photographs and sculptures created during the pandemic to give voice to the alienating impact of the shift to online learning on the students. Miller’s photographic still life series Gas Station highlighted Chicago’s food deserts through frozen pizza and Hot Cheetos assemblages. A sinister social issue underpins these still life as Miller asked students to select the foods they regularly consume from the gas stations that are often the only resource for families in these areas known as food deserts.

For Bross, it’s about bringing the community a better understanding of public education in Chicago and the issues students face. It also gives the students an alternate perspective on the world. “When you provide students with opportunities to work with professionals, it creates a space for them to think outside the box and produces the next generation of designers, photographers, artists and creative thinkers,” she says. “We provide schools with the opportunity to be connected to the art world in a meaningful way. Art and education should always be connected, and we should always strive to bring them together.”

There’s no shortage of people pushing the Chicago scene into a bright future. For Lacy, the city has proved it’s back to being a contender on the world’s art stage. “The temptation of comparison has also always been there,” she says. The city is no longer in the shadow of its coastal contemporaries: LA, Miami, and New York City; it’s forged forward with its own identity, attracting people from all around the world to take a piece of its magic with them.

“Galleries, artists, collectors, are no longer looking outside of the city for validation or the ‘next big thing’ in an attempt to assert our relevancy. We are the next best,” Lacy continues. “Confidence is increasing. We’re leaning into the fact that we aren’t New York instead of trying to be. Chicago has brilliant, pioneering artists, art movements, and world-class institutions, so the path has already been paved. There is really nothing to prove.”

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