Chicago braces for fine arts invasion. Dealers from around the world converge on Navy Pier

At least one week each year, Chicago becomes one of the busiest fine arts capitals of the world. The city's Navy Pier, jutting more than half a mile into Lake Michigan, is to be a showcase for 167 of the world's art dealers beginning Thursday, when the Chicago Art Exposition opens.

Dealers have signed up from as far away as Czechoslovakia, Zimbabwe, South Korea, and the Soviet Union to display their wares to an estimated 40,000 visitors. Last year, 36,000 people spent more than $30 million on the works of masters, old and new.

Galleries in the United States and 18 other countries will be showing art works of many kinds: on canvas, in brass, on cardboard, in plastic, on rice paper, in wood.

Under these conditions, the Navy Pier might look like nothing so much as a giant, gaudy shopping center, but its purveyors will be quick to tell you what they are offering is anything but shopping-mall art. Among the people expected to attend are a number of critics and curators, according to Mary Wade of the Lakeside Group, which has produced the Chicago Art Expo since its birth in 1980.

At the time, the US had no art show to compete with the annual exposition in Basel, Switzerland, or the biennial ``Faire International des Artes Contemporare'' in Paris.

``There was an art fair in Washington in the late '70s, but it was going down the drain,'' said Tom Blackman, the Chicago Expo director. ``It wasn't managed correctly, and the galleries weren't participating.''

It was then that John D. Wilson, the Lakeside Group's president, harnessed the energy of ``a group of good friends in the Chicago area'' and brought the show in.

``The galleries saw a need for a quality fair in the United States, and a few good galleries convinced other good galleries to join them,'' Mr. Blackman said.

The Expo grew each year until it became a favorite with veteran collectors and with novices who come to learn and compare.

The 40 New York dealers scheduled to open shop at Navy Pier include not only venerable figures like Leo Castelli, Maxwell Davidson, Nancy Hoffman, and Richard Feigen, but many of the galleries that exhibit young artists ``right on the cutting edge,'' as Blackman put it: Josh Baer, Jamie Wolff, Massimo Audiello, the Sharpe Gallery, Bess Cutler, and Damon Brandt.

``This is a really pivotal show for us, because this year we're sort of renewing our connections with the most immediate sectors of the contemporary art market. We not only have a wonderful array of great dealers who sell old and modern masters, we also serve this new group of dealers, mostly from the East Village. And for the first time we'll have Michael Vernor from Cologne, one of the kingpins of the German art scene for a long time,'' Blackman said.

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