At the Inaugural NADA Chicago Fair, Low Price Points and a Quirky Old Hotel Attracted a Curious and Unfamiliar Crowd

In the early 2000s, before Heather Hubbs became the director of the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA), she helped mount a small Chicago satellite fair that ran concurrent with Art Chicago. The Stray Show, as it was called, gathered scrappy young dealers from various parts of the city who had founded galleries in the years just prior. By the 2002 edition, dealers were bringing works by people like Sterling Ruby and Gabriel Orozco, and artnet Magazine reported that the latter artist’s work was on sale for the “ridiculously expensive” price of $4,000. (A recent price for an Orozco at auction was $429,000.)

In 2004, as Art Basel Miami Beach was quickly becoming the dominant art fair in the country, Hubbs took over the directorship of NADA, which the previous December had launched its own Miami fair. NADA New York followed in 2012, but was cancelled after the 2018 edition as the city’s packed fair calendar proved too much competition for the organization.

So Hubbs asked the NADA board about starting a fair in Chicago, which had changed dramatically since she first started out in the city’s art scene two decades ago. Their discussions led to the creation of the NADA Chicago Invitational, which wrapped up its first iteration Saturday after a four-day run in the restored Chicago Athletic Association Hotel on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, just across the street from the Art Institute.

A Shara Hughes painting in the Rachel Uffner Gallery booth. Photo: Nate Freeman.

“There’s more and more good young galleries and not-so-young galleries setting up shop here, and it feels like people are committed to staying,” Hubbs told me Friday.

She was sitting at a vintage poker table with cupholders carved into ancient wood, just one of the quirks of the 1890s building, which was refurbished and reopened as a hotel in 2015.

“Chicago’s always had this incredible history of having alternative spaces and a commercial gallery scene, but I feel a lot of times in the past, when people got to a certain point in their career, they felt like they needed to leave,” Hubbs continued. “And now it seems like the opposite—more people are coming here. People are staying and committed to being in this city.”

With Expo Chicago as an anchoring event (the bigger fair was a ten-minute drive north), collectors, curators, and curious locals streamed into NADA Chicago. A smattering of galleries set up shop in booths on the ground floor, while others camped out upstairs in hotel rooms and a large space that was once the athletic club’s basketball court. (In total, 39 dealers from 19 cities participated.)

Helena Anrather Gallery from New York was in the living room of a large suite, and had installed Farah Al Qasimi’s full-length video work Um Al Naar (Mother of Fire) (2019) on a video screen that’s usually just there for guests to watch TV. By the second day, it was sold to a non-local collector.

“I love how all the curators have come through—from Chicago, but also from New York,” Anrather said, lounging in the suite’s plush couch.

A few doors down, Rachel Uffner was in what they called a mini-suite, and had a number of Sally Saul’s ceramic sculptures installed on pedestals. The room had large windows with great views of the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion, with its whorls of stainless steel, in Millennium Park just below. Down the way was Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, better known as the Bean.

The Shane Campbell Gallery booth. The pants are by artist Amanda Ross-Ho. Photo: Nate Freeman.

“There were more people in Chicago than I thought would come, and there’s been a ton of foot traffic,” Uffner said, adding that she had just met curators from the Aspen Art Museum and the Akron Art Museum.

The centerpiece of the booth—a new painting by white-hot artist Shara Hughes—had sold to a Chicago collector for $35,000, but Uffner admitted that it was a pre-arranged transaction, as the waiting list for the Hughes’s color-burst floral landscapes is long and still growing. (Her works have sold at auction for more than $150,000.)

“The waiting list has gotten so long that people have gone from being mad at me, to just thinking that it’s funny,” Uffner said.

On the basketball court, Nicelle Beauchene was showing three large-scale paintings by Jordan Casey, all of which had sold. Next to her was the Chicago outfit Patron, which was started by two veterans of the longstanding local powerhouse Kavi Gupta Gallery. Patron’s owner, Emanuel Aguilar, said that, while the gallery has done Expo in past years, he jumped at the opportunity to participate in the NADA Chicago Invitational instead.

“We’ve had a longstanding relationship with NADA and Heather, who has her roots here in Chicago, so for us it felt important for us to be part of this moment, this homecoming,” he said.

He added that a quirky, welcoming satellite fair in a hotel, full of young undiscovered artists at low-ish price points, is perfectly attuned to the vibe local collectors are chasing.

“A lot of the collectors here like discovering things, and there are a lot of people in their 30s and 40s who are only now coming into collecting,” Aguilar said. “NADA provides a platform where they don’t have to walk in and feel intimidated by prices. Gallery culture and art fair culture is exclusionary, and NADA provided an option to go in and just check it out.”

Patron had a good fair, selling 60 percent of what they had brought, bringing them into the black on the week.

Shana Sharp paintings in stalled in the booth of the galleries Good Weather and Et al. Photo: Nate Freeman.

In another wing of hotel rooms, Shane Campbell—one of the few galleries at NADA Chicago that did The Stray Show all those years ago—had a big pair of pants by Amanda Ross-Ho just lying on the bed. The installs often got creative. Good Weather, the beloved North Little Rock, Arkansas, gallery, was sharing a room with San Francisco’s Et al., and hung Shana Sharp’s paintings on coat hangers in the closet. Many galleries used the shower as a private viewing room.

Some dealers did note that there was not as much of a sales frenzy as you see at, say, NADA Miami, but there was a steady stream of earnest, curious Chicagoans, many of whom might have a small budget to spend on a work they really like.

“I had a few people come up to me that were like, ‘I just want you to know, I’m not in the art world,” said Erin Riley, a director at Good Weather. “And I would say, ‘That’s OK!”

Ultimately, the show proved that, between the NADA Chicago Invitational and the Felix LA fair—which is set to once again take over the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in February during Frieze LA—the hotel model works for particular kinds of events. And Hubbs said she very much plans to make the NADA show an annual event.

“Chicago’s a great city,” she said. “Every time I come back, I learn about some other new gem.”

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