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The Sophomore Year: An Interview with Tony Karman, President and Director of EXPO Chicago
by Thomas Connors

Chicago’s rocky road in the art fair business isn’t such a distant memory. But if the second iteration of EXPO CHICAGO – running September 19-22 – proves as appealing as its debut last year, that history may be finally relegated to the category of old news. As exhibitors put the finishing touches to their booths on Navy Pier, the show’s President and Director, Tony Karman, offers a few thoughts on his state of the art.

Thomas Connors: How do you go about positioning the fair worldwide to attract top exhibitors?

Tony Karman: First and foremost was forming a selection committee of extraordinary international dealers. Rhona Hoffman, Anthony Meier, Michael Kohn, and Chris D’Amelio of David Zwirner really set the tone, eliciting and encouraging peers at their level to participate. Ultimately, this is a peer review process. Without that structure, without that stamp of quality, there’s really no reason to be doing this. That’s really the flower that attracts the bees. You have to have a great exhibitor list.

TC: What’s the pitch? Why should a successful gallerist in Zurich, for example, want to come to Chicago?

TK: The pitch is to remember that Chicago played a role in the international art show calendar for many, many years. There are great institutions here, great collectors, great artists, great galleries. Coming back to a city with a deep history is not a hard sell. But there’s still much to prove. And a sophomore year can be as challenging as the inaugural year. But we’re in a better place now, because we are refining what we created, not creating from the ground up.

Huma Bhabha, Untitled, 2011, Ink on c-print, 84 x 49.75 in.; courtesy Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, at EXPO Chicago.

TC: What have you done behind-the-scenes this past year to build business?

TK: I think the biggest thing is that we did a lot more targeted outreach to museum groups from the Midwest and around the country. We hosted several dinners and met personally with civic, cultural, and institutional leaders and I expect that that effort will pay off in greater collector and institutional attendance this year.

TC: How have you enhanced the visitor’s experience?  

TK: We’ve added another core program called Expo Video, to showcase video works. We have retooled the floor plan, refined it a bit to make sure it hits every note of ease and beauty of presentation. And I am really pleased about a couple of our special exhibitions that are outside the norm for an international art fair. Last year, The Natural Resources Defense Council had an extremely effective booth and they will be here again. And there’ll be a great booth by Human Rights Watch [presenting Jenny Holzer’s “Inflammatory Essays,” taken from speeches by Trotsky, Mao, and Vladimir Lenin, among others]. Having a cause-related institution using art to provoke more discussion about their mission is a wonderful addition.

TC: A fair of modern and contemporary work must be something of a balancing act. You’ve got the de Kooning collector on one hand and the Simon Starling fan on the other. And I’m guessing the blue chip collector isn’t looking to acquire an emerging artist.

TK: Let me disagree with you. To some extent, there are certain collectors who will only want to buy that de Kooning. But other lifelong collectors want to be in the vanguard; they are going to look to the younger work because that is equally exciting to them. That’s probably more the norm. A great collector likes to have a balance of contemporary work and historical material.

Tony Karman, image courtesy of EXPO Chicago and Carol Fox & Associates. Photo by


TC: What’s your taste?

TK: Look, if I could afford a de Kooning, I would love it. But I love contemporary art in any medium. My wife and I have a small collection. We’ve been bitten and there’s no stopping it.


Thomas Connors 


(Image at top: Mel Bochner, Vulgar, 2006, oil on canvas, 22 x 28 in.; courtesy Marc Selwyn Fine Art, Los Angeles, at EXPO Chicago.)

Posted by Thomas Connors on 9/17/13 | tags: expo chicago chicago Galleries collectors art fairs

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