To date, the bulk of the discussion surrounding the MDW Fair in Chicago has been heavy-handed and pedantic, bordering on mean-spirited. Let’s assume you’ve seen none of it yet: a quick recap would be to imagine art writers wondering what an art fair is without money and why anyone would attempt an ambitious event not sheltered with institutional affiliations, followed by outbursts on both sides on Twitter.
First off, I have to disclose the fact that I was a participant, both as a curator and as an editor– while that may disqualify me from being an objective party, it does, in fact, allow for a fair position to lobby a few parting shots at the absurdity of this framing of the event. For one, can we not begin with an acknowledgement that MDW is truly of the moment and exists as an incisive exercise into what nurtures the bedroom communities that make up an undercurrent that sustains more of the art world that anyone admits?
As our economy remains in double and triple-dip doldrums, a large-scale art fair not centralized around speculation, blue chips and assumed trends is a feat in itself. There were few out-of-town participants (my organization being one exception) and certainly an insular, Chicago-centric conversation within the event, but the fact that dozens of artist-run and alternative spaces, curatorial projects, and independent publishers would converge in one place with several thousand attendees and essentially no competitive or commercial presence is remarkable for a zero profit startup venture. If you are going to complain about getting dust on your shirt because it is newly built out, or even the semantics of a self-described fair, you’ve shown your hand and missed the point of the event in the first place. There has been essentially no writing surrounding the actual artwork or a survey giving any sense of what it was like at the event.
Am I playing in to this? Sure, yeah, it seems like it. This isn’t the piece I would want to write, but somewhere there has to be a wager made that perhaps there is a failure on the part of art writers to develop language to address something with a vision alterior to their own. Fitting a fair comprised solely of alternative and artist-run projects, the quality of the work was erratic but energetic, and brought out a young, impressive crowd for the three day event. The participants primarily treated the fair as a non-commercial extension of their disparate work spread throughout houses, front lawns, online forums, and proper galleries centered around Chicago and the Midwest, leaning to small-stakes material explorations, documentarian impulses, and half-formed jokes.
Accepting its admitted limitations, it is a remarkable document of alternative projects emerging without the pressure of rapid commercialization. It hovered in an unprofessionalized space that allows for astounding work, but also for failure. Yet that failure doesn’t imply a commercial bust, much less an imaginative desert, but a productive assertion that other models lurk beneath the logic of our assumed art worlds. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that our art media prefers an antiseptic art world. We are all susceptible to the lure of the known, the long bet on the lasting. I would like to think that I write from an unprivileged position, but I have a stake in this alternative model creating a space for this conversation. Artist-run spaces will never pay a critic’s bills and alternative art fairs will never succeed through sales, yet expression in emerging form opens a space of possibility not found on the Navy Pier, not seen in Miami Beach, and rarely gathered together from the intimate other of an art world of wave and crescent, boom and bust. Here’s hoping that MDW shakes off the plaster dust and polemic barbs to seriously consider itself, and also its other future form.
Image of Heaven Gallery’s booth courtesy of Brea Photography.
James McAnally is the executive editor and co-founder of Temporary Art Review. A graduate of Washington University, James McAnally is a founder, Co-Director, and Curator of The Luminary Center for the Arts, a nonprofit artist resourcing organization based in St. Louis. In his personal practice, he works as part of the artistic collaborative US English.