What’s fair about art fairs?


What’s fair about art fairs? That’s the question at the heart of Barely Fair, a show organized by Garfield Park gallery Julius Caesar that’s designed to run in tandem with the international art fair EXPO Chicago. Founded in 2019, this is the second iteration of the Barely Fair, which quietly marks EXPO’s return to in-person programming following COVID-19. 

Thirty independent art spaces and curatorial projects from across the world will gather at the Color Club to exhibit in booths designed at a twelfth of the size of traditional fair booths. While this size constraint poses an exciting challenge to participants, it also invites visitors to consider the scale and expense of traditional art fairs, which serve to push venues like those at Barely Fair out of the broader art conversation.

More often than not, alternative art spaces are labors of love with thin profit margins. They usually exist in spaces and neighborhoods separate from cities’ main art areas, so such spaces can afford to exhibit work with less market value. Want to make money selling art? Don’t focus on emerging or avant-garde artists or showcase pieces that can’t be sold as tidy commodities to investment-minded consumers. 

Barely Fair
Opening event Fri 4/8, 6-10 PM; then on view Sat 4/9, 11 AM-7 PM; Sun 4/10, 11 AM-6 PM; Sat 4/16-Sun 4/17 and Sat 4/23-Sun 4/24, 1-4 PM; or by appointment (email [email protected]) through 4/24. At Color Club, 4146 N. Elston, barelyfair.com

Of course, art has value beyond its price tag; anyone who’s felt changed by an afternoon at the Art Institute can attest to that. And yet fairs such as Frieze, Art Basel, and EXPO set standards for what’s considered attention-worthy based on who shows up and what they sell. Bigger galleries consistently drop six figures because they can—and do—recoup their investment with just one million-dollar sale, but for smaller galleries, it can cost upwards of $10,000 to do a “cheap” fair weekend. As Julia Halpern at Artnet reported in 2017, art fairs are loss leaders for small galleries. 

So with such a high barrier to entry, where does that leave, say, apartment galleries? Shed shows? Artists heavily critiquing capital? Are they less important because they lack the capital to be as visible? In a market designed to make them feel barely there, they can show up and be seen at the Barely Fair.

For a small affair, Barely Fair promises a tremendous breadth of contemporary art. Chicago makes a strong showing with galleries such as Extase, the apartment gallery of Rhona Hoffman director Julia Birka-White; Hyde Park’s artist-run 4th Ward Project Space; the Franklin, which is the backyard gallery of artists Edra Soto and Dan Sullivan; and the frenetic and fun Soccer Club Club. Many projects are coming from California, including LA’s Serious Topics, which boasts specializing in the “conceptually messy,” and Left Field from Los Osos, which showcases bold regional art. New York makes a showing, too. International galleries hail from places such as Toronto, London, and Tokyo, but there’s still midwestern pride in Good Weather (which has locations in both Chicago and North Little Rock, Arkansas) and Milwaukee’s Green Gallery. 

Whether you’re a seasoned aesthete or a casual appreciator or the arts, Barely Fair proves big things can come in small packages.

Chicago Reader print issue cover of March 31, 2022 (Vol. 51, No. 13): Spring Theater & Arts Preview


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