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Michael Rakowitz

After two dormant COVID years, Chicago’s art market has come roaring back to life with the return of EXPO, the Midwest’s largest art fair.

WBEZ chronicled the bustling preparation just days before the fair opened to the public, putting on display some 3,000 artists from hundreds of galleries from around the world. We set up digital cameras above and around the exhibition floor and let them run over time to show the evolution from an empty show hall to a high-end art show. WBEZ captured the installation as workers unpacked crates, unwrapped precious paintings from cocoons of cellophane and carefully hung works to be viewed in-person for the first time since COVID arrived.

Presiding over all the action was Tony Karman, the fair’s creator and director, who said the return of EXPO signals a broader reawakening of culture in the city.

“The fair touches a broader ecosystem. It touches our cultural community, our hospitality community, even the city’s reputation,” said Karman, who founded EXPO a decade ago.

Early in the week, gallerists had reported early sales – an optimistic sign – and art dealers from New York to Tokyo to Madrid had arrived. Beyond the fair, EXPO has made its name for organizing companion conferences that are an international draw for curators and, for the first time this year, museum directors.

“The way we are in the world right now, people are slowly making their way back out,” said Monique Meloche, a longtime West Town gallery owner. “This is still one of the more recent art fairs to come back. I don’t know what it is about the timing, but I’ve been traveling in the past month, and every city I’ve been going to — from LA to Atlanta to Boston — collectors and curators are all saying that they are coming.”

Meloche’s EXPO booth was hard-to-miss with its signature feature: a vibrant, three-dimensional peacock by the artist Ebony G. Patterson, complete with a sparkling tapestry tail — a signature element of Patterson’s designs. Meloche said it took two days to reassemble the peacock for the fair, but she had ambitions for it: to catch a museum director’s eye and have the mixed-media artwork end up in a museum collection.

“We’ve always had really wonderful luck at EXPO getting institutional support, pretty immediately, because these curators are here and they can make some decisions,” Meloche said. “That’s one thing that’s particularly good about Chicago.”

The pandemic left an indelible imprint on visual arts, but the art world adapted, Karman said. Early threats that the pandemic would shutter half the nation’s galleries never materialized. Instead, the market of art shifted largely online, and gallerists became adept at converting in-person gallery tours to digital events.

But Karman and Meloche agreed that no online experience can match the transformative experience of viewing art in-person, or building a community of artists who collaborate, or sending artists out into communities. This year EXPO is partnering with the program CPS Lives, which pairs artists-in-residence with select Chicago Public Schools. A booth at the fair shows collaborations between local students and prominent local creatives.

“There is a yearning to collect and acquire and have a discourse with artists,” he said. “That enthusiasm has not waned.”

EXPO Chicago runs April 7-10 at Navy Pier in the Festival Hall (600 E. Grand Ave.;

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