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“If you can embrace new ideas, you can embrace your future,” says Christopher Kennedy, shown in the Mart’s space for this year’s Art Chicago exhibition
In late February, racewalking through the 200,000 square feet of the Merchandise Mart’s 12th floor, Christopher Kennedy doesn’t see the current construction mess: the mudding of dry wall, the hanging of ceiling lights, the rolling of paint. Instead, he has a vision—a best-of-class contemporary art show, a see-and-be-seen event with more than 40,000 visitors that ticks along as smoothly as a classic Swiss watch.
On this day, though, the entire space is a hardhat environment, and with a nod to safety, Kennedy, the president of the Mart, carries one in his hand. He gestures with it as he points out how the rooms under construction will turn into galleries that will flow into one another and yet maintain their own level of intimacy. He waves it toward the art-friendly lighting and the moldings in this massive building of show rooms and trade shows. In Kennedy’s world—which is a civic and historic one (he is the son of the late Robert Kennedy, the New York senator turned presidential candidate who was assassinated in 1968)—no detail is too small to be noticed, no plan too large to be considered. That is one reason why Artropolis—an art fair and series of cultural events from April 25th through the 28th that will feature five exhibitions of antique, modern, and contemporary work and more than 2,000 artists—is so important to Kennedy.
“Buying art shouldn’t be hard work,” he is fond of saying. “It should be fun and social and entertaining.” But beyond that, he believes, there is a matter of civic pride and destiny. In 2006, Art Chicago—the centerpiece of Artropolis—almost went into public cardiac arrest when its then owner ran out of cash. Four days before the opening night in Grant Park, the tents were half completed and the unions were refusing to work any longer without pay. A front-page headline in the Chicago Sun-Times proclaimed: “Art Show Fiasco.”
“There were trucks circling the park, wondering if they should unload the art or not,” recalls Howard Tullman, a Chicago entrepreneur and art collector. “It was going to be a horrible black eye for the city, but, thank God, Chris stepped in and saved the day by moving the show to the Mart.”
“It was like he pulled a rabbit out of a magician’s hat,” says Rhona Hoffman, the owner of a contemporary art gallery in the city.
Building on that rescue, last year’s art fair—now owned by the Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. (MMPI) and newly named Artropolis, an umbrella term that encompasses Art Chicago and four satellite exhibitions—drew 42,000 art professionals and consumers, double the number of people who attended the 2006 event. MMPI speculates that last year’s guests spent more than $8 million in the city, which was a boon to local and state tax revenues. This year, the plans for Artropolis are bigger and the organizational details have been tweaked. “Anyone attending this year will know immediately that this is a world-class event,” says Kennedy.
The meshing of culture and business is an important goal for Kennedy, 44, who calls himself “a 20-year transplant” to Chicago. Yet he has developed an unerring sense of the city’s history and spirit. He talks about how it is the city of Frank Lloyd Wright and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a city not just of big shoulders but also of big dreams. “A city that embraces contemporary art is a place that embraces new ideas,” says Kennedy. “And if you can embrace new ideas, you can embrace your future.”
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Photograph: Andreas Larsson