Art for Sale

Reading time: 2 min

The fine art world has never really been comfortable with money, despite how much it really depends on it. Designers — who by trade make art for everyday life — confront commerce daily. They sell their art to make a living, only without as many of the cultural hangups strapped to the fine art world. This week, looks at fine art that is more accustomed to capitalism. Art Expo, “The world’s largest fine art trade show,” showcases hundreds of exhibitors in the spralling 75,000 square feet of Pier 92. The contemporary pieces at Art Expo will appear in galleries and living rooms around the world, and accordingly, they vary greatly in quality and style. The huge, carpeted space is full of fresh flowers, but smells like a locker room. It’s definitely not as glamourous as the Armory Show, nor as edgy as the trendier Independent, but this kind of accessible and affordable art will be a part of our daily lives, whether we like it or not. These artists are a lot less squeamish about money than those holding solo shows in galleries downtown. After all, their booths go for between $3,450 and $50,000. That said, they’ve got a lot to lose, too.  Roderick Stevens, wearing a kilt and long curly hair, makes multimedia constructions — typewriters, toy soldier flags, assorted Americana — that have comic-book lure and the noir of Dick Tracy. Stevens has spent a lot of time away from his home state Arizona at outdoor art fairs, but this is the first time he’s participated in something as big as Art Expo. “You pay a whole lot of money for a booth and you pay a whole lot of money to ship your art out here,” says Stevens, who in his estimation paid 10 times the amount he normally pays to exhibit. “Then you wait to see what happens.” Lillian Samson-John makes intricate and time-consuming pieces using silk thread or beads and glue. Comely under a pile of curled hair, she sits in her tiny booth against the southern wall of the elongated Pier 92. She’s sold at shows in Nigeria, but none anywhere near this size. She and a fellow artist from her home country, Abbey David, split a booth to bring their art into the United States. It’s much more than they’d normally spend to showcase their art, but Art Expo represents a jump into the big time. Says Samson-John, “You have to spend this much to bring this work out into the public.” Chicago wholesale art seller Slaymaker Fine Art represents 80 artists, selling their original pieces en masse to galleries around the world. Their paintings and drawings sit in stacks one would normally associate with reproduced posters. Owner Woody Slaymaker dons piercing eyes and a pinstripe suit. Slaymaker says he usually sells over 2,000 pieces, from the 6,000 he brings, which he says is more than worth the booth price. While we spoke, a sales attendant was securing a transaction with a gallery in Australia. “This is the only trade show where people are buying,” he says. Perhaps Art Expo’s catalog describes the show better: “Contemporary art you can afford to love.” It’s also an economy in which artists are fine with selling. Like designers, this is how they can afford to do what they do: selling art, so that they can make more art.

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