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Tony Karman; Photography by John McArthur

The Visionary

by Matt Lee | Men's Book Chicago magazine | March 15, 2012

Chicago owes Tony Karman a big thank you. A 30-year veteran of the Chicago arts scene and former director of Art Chicago, Karman is the founder and president of new contemporary art fair Expo Chicago, running Sept. 20-23 (expositionchicago.com). His plan is simple: To reestablish Chicago as a truly world-class international contemporary art fair destination. To that end he’s found a perfect location with Festival Hall at Navy Pier, capped the number of exhibitors at 100, partnered with starchitect Jeanne Gang for the hall’s forward interior environment and struck strategic alliances with many of the city’s most prominent artistic and cultural institutions for what promises to be a gangbusters event. We caught up with Karman to discuss the details.

Why is hosting a genuinely world-class contemporary art fair important to Chicago? Part of it is our legacy. Chicago still has a place in the international art world built on the strength of the fairs of the ’80s and ’90s. Because of that the art world has wanted to see an international art fair like this return. And Chicago is a place that can draw well from both coasts, as well as from cities like Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Detroit and Kansas City. The other thing is that whether it’s New York, Paris or London, every great art city has a great international art fair. Chicago has had one and will have one again.

Why did you decide to limit the fair to 100 galleries? Quality trumps quantity. You want to present a fair that not only provides the right size for the collector but also an opportunity for the exhibitor to do well. The most important thing I can do is create a context for the art to be celebrated by the collectors, museum groups and enthusiasts, and to make sure that the exhibitors have a chance to recoup their investments.

The full gallery list hasn’t been released yet, but are there a few galleries you’re excited to have participating? Absolutely. David Zwirner from New York, Galerie Karston Greve from Cologne, Paris and St. Moritz, Galerie Hans Mayer from Düsseldorf, Annely Juda from London. Locally we’re working closely with Richard Gray Gallery and Rhona Hoffman. Our goal is to announce the full list in early spring.

What is most thrilling to you right now? Given that this interview comes the day after a meeting with Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, the MacArthur Fellow architect designing the forward interior environment, and seeing the way that the plan is beginning to take shape, I think that will be an extraordinary experience, so that’s really exciting. Building an international gallery list that is of the utmost quality means a lot not only for the fair but also for our local collectors and institutions. Working closely with the Museum of Contemporary Art, bringing back the opening night of Vernissage, as well as our alliance with the Art Institute and all of the major art institutions in Chicago, is exciting. Also, creating an opportunity for Chicago to export what’s happening here 365 days a year. There’s an extraordinary gallery scene, artist base and institutional activities, and I think that if we do our job right it’s an opportunity for us to draw patrons from all over the world to experience what’s happening in our city.

Tell us a little about Vernissage. In the ’90s and early 2000s Art Expo had a partnership with the MCA, Vernissage. It was one of the social and cultural highlights of Chicago. Working closely with the MCA this year we were able to bring that back. I have a chance to replicate that energy that occurs on opening night and ripples throughout the city.

When did you fall in love with art? I came from a family that recognized that the arts were integral in daily life, whether it was reading, music, the applied arts or performance. When I moved here in 1982 I went to work at the Chicago International Art Exposition because I wanted to do something with galleries and the visual arts that I had studied. I began my career in Chicago as a security guard at that fair, and it allowed me to experience the art world in ways I never could have dreamed. I was able to meet international artists; I took a carload of art dealers from Paris and London down to the Checkerboard Lounge. And that never left me.