Friday, April 30, 2010

NEXT big thing

What started as an Art Chicago annex is becoming the cool, cutting edge place to be
"Gondola Wheel II" drawing by William Steiger, who will be featured at NEXT.  

Art Chicago has descended upon the city every spring for as long as we can remember. (In case you're keeping score, this is its 30th anniversary.)

But among those of us for whom 17th century French landscapes and $50,000 price tags are more fairy-tale than art fair, NEXT: The Invitational Exhibition of Emerging Art, is quickly becoming the must-visit event under the Merchandise Mart's annual visual-arts big top, Artropolis.

It's happening again this weekend, and an estimated 50,000 folks will flock to the Mart to shuffle slowly past thousands of pieces of art over the course of three days.

We'll be there, too. But no offense to Art Chicago and that ginormous antiques show, we'll be spending most of our time on floor 7, at NEXT.

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First and foremost, its affordability for both collectors and exhibitors.

In a time when many of us can only devote a fraction of our fun-money toward art purchases, we're looking for smart investments, not break-the-bank trophies for the mantle. Especially suited to the collector-on-a-budget (and really, who's not on a budget these days?), NEXT's price points fall in the low-thousands and even hundreds, whereas Art Chicago's typically soar into the tens of thousands and up.

Sales alone do not a fair make. Conversation is yet another reason NEXT scores points in our book. The fair's Converge Chicago programming invites curators and museum officials from all over the place to set up temporary shop smack in the middle of NEXT's exhibition hall, accompanied by 100 or so folding chairs set out for curious passers-by to stop and eavesdrop.

We talked to the folks behind the scenes and on the exhibition floor to find out what's next for NEXT, the feisty up-and-comer that in its third year may have the potential to bypass Art Chicago's three-decade legacy, with flying colors.

"It definitely has its niche," says local gallerist Kavi Gupta, and he should know: Gupta founded NEXT in 2008 in partnership with Merchandise Mart Properties, or MMPI, which entrusted him based on the success of Volta, the emerging-art show he co-founded a few years prior in art-centric Basel, Switzerland. Like Volta, NEXT focuses strictly on the up-and-coming: young and midcareer artists, their paintbrushes firmly on the pulse; and, in many instances, young dealers to match.

In literal terms, Gupta says, NEXT represents the next generation of artists and gallerists, which may not have a place at more traditional fairs such as Art Chicago.

"Young dealers usually have to sneak into a bigger fair to get recognition," Gupta says. "If we can make a platform for them to get recognition earlier and to have curators and collectors come and see that work at this stage in their careers, it will just help a whole generation of young artists to get out there before having to wait their turn. I like that model."

More to like: In an effort to keep NEXT affordable to gallerists who are just getting their feet wet, exhibiting is cheap. "Really cheap," Gupta emphasizes. Booth space costs $25 a square foot, almost half of the cost of square footage at Art Chicago. But wait! It gets cheaper. NEXT newcomer Robin Juan, director and co-founder of Logan Square-based HungryMan Gallery, scored 175 square feet of exhibition space for about $1,000. Part of that discount means HungryMan will set up shop in a corner of the area of NEXT designated Goffo (Italian for "awkward"), primarily reserved for artists' books, small-press publishers and handmade objects.

NEXT 2010 is HungryMan's first art fair. As Juan explains, the rationale is primarily to show art, not necessarily sell it.

"I was in New York for the Armory Show," Juan says of New York's premier art fair, "and I was really disappointed in the quality of the work. People weren't taking risks, because of the economy and price points. … We're feeling really strongly about not pushing to sell stuff. Our gallery has never been concerned with selling work, as much as promoting the artists that we show."

That kind of thinking — art for art's sake, not necessarily for the collector's benefit — is just one element that sets NEXT apart from more commercially driven fairs such as Art Chicago. Two-time NEXT exhibitor Andrew Rafacz, whose eponymous gallery shares a building with Kavi Gupta's, acknowledges that "art fairs carry galleries through the year, financially. But if you're just selling things, there's got to be something else there."

For Rafacz and many others, that something else is best exemplified in a symposium called Converge Chicago, an open forum to which curators and museum professionals from across the country are invited to hash out relevant arts-related issues, smack in the middle of the exhibit hall. This year's topics range from student-run art spaces to contemporary art in Texas. In Rafacz's opinion, the event has "definitely gotten more substantial and interesting" since its inception at NEXT 2008.

"Often, things like (Converge) reside at some academic conference, whereas NEXT sort of opens it up a bit more democratically, adding a populist perspective," Rafacz says. "At a time when you're starting to see more of like a Kunsthalle model of regional museums that are doing substantial programming, and smaller museums that can afford to take chances that a larger museum wouldn't take, NEXT has really done a great job of addressing that and bringing curators in, as well as critics and historians."

Imagine it: In the dead center of this giant exhibit hall, it's entirely possible that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's visual arts center curator, the founder of Nigeria's center for contemporary art and, well, your mom could get into a heated discussion about the history of exhibition-making. Tune in at 5:30 p.m. May 1.

And then there are the Spaniards. In addition to Converge Chicago and the Goffo exhibitors, NEXT is dedicating a special section to emerging galleries from Spain in a niche showcase dubbed the Spanish Edge. Represented among them are exhibitors from Gijon, Palma, Murcia and Santander — cities we rarely hear about, let alone from which we've seen art.

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