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Merchandise Mart pulls the plug on Art Chicago

4-29-2010---Preview for Artropolis 2010 at the Merchandise Mart that includes Art Chicago, NEXT and the Merchandise Mart International Antique Fair. The show runs from Friday April 30---Monday May 3. Tickets are $20 for adults or $25 for a multi-day pass; $15 for seniors, students and groups. Children under 12 are free. The show covers three floors of the Mart. People study the Photo Mosaics of artist Alex Guofeng Cao. Repetitive tiny images in graged shades compose the recognizable image. The larger photo is not composed of like images though. Example-JFK is made nearly entirely of Jackie images and also some of the Kennedy family. Sun-Times photo by Tom Cruze

Citing mostly financial concerns, Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. Wednesday announced the scuttling of its 2012 Next Art Chicago fair. Slated to take place at the Merchandise Mart in late April, various incarnations of the event have drawn dealers and potential patrons from far and wide for more than three decades.

But Merchandise Mart Properties president Mark Falanga said the purchasing of artwork has failed to keep pace with rising attendance. From 2006, when Mart Properties took over the fair, to 2011, he said attendance rose from around 22,000 to more than 53,000. Nonetheless, Falanga noted, dealers historically have had much more luck selling in Miami, New York and Los Angeles.

Not so, said Catherine Edelman, owner of the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago and president of the Chicago Art Dealers Association.

“[MMPI] created an atmosphere that was more like a museum, which in and of itself isn’t bad. It’s just that it didn’t produce the sales that dealers want.”

Falanga’s company, which he said has invested millions in the fair with no return on its investment, will now focus on shows inNew York and Los Angeles. In addition to Chicago, MMPI helms Volta and the Armory Show in New York, Art Platform–Los Angeles and Art Toronto.

“It’s not only the finances,” Falanga said. “Part of business is having a gut instinct and a feel. And when convincing every single dealer to come is such a process, when nothing comes easy, I think that’s very revealing.”

Edelman, though, said galleries – including hers – were reluctant to attend or dropped out not because they “didn’t want to be at Art Chicago, but people want to be in Chicago.”

For evidence of that, she points to the town’s new art fair, Expo Chicago, slated happen Sept. 20-23 at Navy Pier. From what Edelman has seen so far, its still-growing roster boasts “top-notch galleries” from around the world.

“If you put up an elegant show, she said, “people will come to Chicago.”

Falanga said the competing fair – with which “we were never really competing” – was “not really” a factor in MMPI’s decision to close up shop locally and hopes it succeeds. He also said that Art Chicago’s dealer “retention rate had eroded for each fair” over a five-year period, which proved increasingly problematic.

According to Edelman, the Merchandise Mart was a less-than-ideal space for fine art exhibition due to low ceilings, “cavernous” rooms and other issues. Falanga, though, noted that most art fairs are held in trade show venues, and that MMPI had vacated and built out an entire Merchandise Mart floor – at great expense – to accommodate exhibitors.

Another concern, Edelman said, were the throngs of non-buying patrons who flooded in courtesy of “thousands and thousands of free tickets” doled out by MMPI. “But you can’t fault the public that you’ve given free tickets to for not buying [the] art.”

While Falanga confirmed the ticket giveaways, he thinks it enhanced rather than diluted potential buying power.

After two decades of exhibiting at Art Chicago, Edelman already decided last year not to return in 2012.

“You don’t go down with the ship when you see it sinking.”