EXPO CHICAGO’s Tony Karman On the City’s Scene and Joining the Frieze Family

"Broadly speaking, I love to say that Chicago is the place where the work just gets done."

A darkly lit headshot of a man wearing a black blazer over a white shirt with the top button undone
Tony Karman. Courtesy EXPO Chicago

Yesterday marked the opening of the eleventh iteration of EXPO CHICAGO, one of America’s leading art fairs and perhaps the biggest event on the calendar for the Midwestern art market—this year featuring more than 170 galleries from 29 countries and 75 cities. This is the first edition of EXPO since its acquisition by Frieze, and we recently caught up with EXPO’s president and director Tony Karman to hear about what else makes this latest version of the art fair unique.

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What are the challenges of balancing a fair that works both for Chicago and the international art world?

EXPO CHICAGO is at the center of over 150 exhibitions and events that form a week of activities showcasing the leading institutions, artists and galleries that shape Chicago and the greater Midwest’s cultural community. The benefit of this approach is the rich exchange that occurs when Chicago welcomes the world, and the world experiences our great city and the region. Conversely, EXPO CHICAGO has been deeply conscious of the long history and tradition of Chicago hosting an international art fair. We remain determined in our efforts to present programming that reflects the contemporary art market while focusing our outreach to attract international galleries, collectors, curators and patrons.

This year marks your tenth curatorial forum, which has become part of the fair’s staple programming. What do you see as its value, and where is it headed in the next ten years?

Ten years ago, we started the forum to secure curator attendance in support of our exhibitors by underwriting hotels and flights for them to attend the fair. The next year, we developed our longstanding partnership with Independent Curators International (ICI) to take the annual gathering to another level with a full schedule of symposia and programming to further benefit the cohort of visiting curators. Over the years, we expanded our financial commitments to build greater attendance and added partnerships with consulates to host additional curators from their home institutions to further expand our international outreach.

SEE ALSO: Five Pieces Not to Miss at EXPO CHICAGO 2024

This year, we are opening the closed-door sessions to invite a larger number of curators to participate in our first-ever Curatorial Conference which will span two days of programming on-site at the fair. Regarding the value, it is immense in many ways.  First and foremost, the Curatorial Forum and Exchange directly support the participating dealers by creating numerous points for them to engage with the curators in support of their programs. Additionally, the visiting curators have access to, and experience with, the rich diversity and scope of Chicago’s artists, collections, institutions and galleries.  Most importantly, we are providing an invaluable professional experience for their development and building a long legacy of attendees.

It’s also the tenth year of the Northern Trust Purchase Prize. What are some qualities you’ve seen in past winners? What does the award tend to celebrate?

In the first few years, the Northern Trust Purchase Prize was for only one institution, but now three prizes are awarded to institutions from Northern Trust’s three U.S. regions—West, Midwest and the East. Given that the prizes are selected by the leadership of the recipient museums, the selected works strategically fit into their collections. The prizes are also selected from the EXPOSURE section, which is our section of galleries ten years and younger. The award celebrates these emerging galleries, as well as the often underrecognized artists they represent. The broad scope of prizes tends to be quite international and diverse.

Navy Pier is a great venue. What are some of the unique challenges and opportunities of programming there?

Navy Pier is the iconic venue that hosted the first international art fair in North and South America beginning in 1980, and it has been our home since 2012. In fact, when the Pier was being renovated in the early 1990s, the exposition was so important that they created the 170,000sq ft/16,000m2 Festival Hall to ensure there was a venue that would facilitate the art fair’s future.

What are some booths that you’re excited for people to see?

I hate to single out any specific booths or programs as we are proud to be welcoming the 170 who will be featuring over 2,000 artists from their programs. That said, highlights include the center IN/SITU installation by Lucia Koch from Nara Roesler (São Paulo, New York), including a wide selection of galleries from Greater Midwest cities such as Minneapolis, Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, Memphis and, of course, Chicago.

Given that this is the first edition of EXPO since your purchase by Frieze, how do you view EXPO CHICAGO’s relationship with the larger organization?

We are deeply proud to be a part of the Frieze family now. Being a part of a preeminent art fair company allows us to access the broad experience and depth of their extraordinary professional teams, and for EXPO CHICAGO to leverage this experience as we continue to innovate and develop programs supporting our local, regional and international audiences.

One concrete example of accessing this broader professional team will be a revised floor plan for 2024 and integrating many new systems as we support our patrons and exhibitors. I look forward to having a larger “ramp” after this edition to layer in additional improvements in 2025 and beyond.

What’s something about the Chicago art scene that might surprise people who aren’t familiar with it?

Broadly speaking, I love to say that Chicago is the place where the work just gets done. We may not always be flashy, by outwardly heralding the large community of artists, galleries and institutions that are active here, but there is a renaissance happening in Chicago. Building on the historic legacies of artist groups such as the Imagists or AFRICOBRA, artists are choosing to stay in the area after graduating from leading art schools. Chicago’s legendary “apartment” and artist-run gallery scene continues to flourish, and numerous galleries are opening to expand the community.

EXPO CHICAGO’s Tony Karman On the City’s Scene and Joining the Frieze Family