SOFA 2001: Celebrating the joy of creativity

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
October 4, 2001

After Sept. 11, Mark Lyman wasn’t sure Chicago’s installment of the Sculpture Objects & Functional Art show should take place this year. In light of the tragedies at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Lyman–the president and founder of SOFA–wondered whether taking an art exhibit on the road was the wisest choice.

“I discussed the issue with a number of exhibitors,” Lyman says. “Some of them were thinking it might be best to postpone the event. Others were adamant that we not allow terrorists to change our way of life. I wasn’t sure the country would be ready to go out and see art three weeks after something like this happened, but I also realized that it wasn’t realistic to postpone the show–places like Navy Pier are booked ahead of time and it would’ve been a nightmare trying to rework everyone’s schedules. We would’ve had to cancel it. So we decided to move forward. An art event is really about the joys in life, and we now more than ever need to celebrate.”

Craft Australia, one of the exhibitors, was concerned about safety issues, but decided it was more important to make a stand than to stay away this year.

“When all that happened in America, we were on the phone to each other asking whether it would be too dangerous to travel to America,” says John Odgers, general manager of Craft Australia. “Then we wondered if the audience would stay away and what the turnout would be like. But SOFA is so important to us and for art that we agreed we could overcome any challenges to get to the show.”

Odgers says they had no problem with shipments or air travel.

Of the 92 galleries scheduled to show their exhibits, five dropped out, including two from the United States. But Lyman says it wasn’t necessarily because of the tragedy.

“Dropouts happen at any show, and this was no exception,” he says. “Some galleries can’t meet the deadline or they run into other problems. But everyone has been so supportive. We had some exhibitors say they weren’t sure if they’d be able to freight their pieces in time, but they would show up to support us even if they had nothing to display.”

Ordinarily, Lyman says he would be optimistic in predicting this year’s turnout. Now, he can only wait and see.

“If you had asked me on Sept. 10, I would’ve had a good feeling that we would’ve had slightly more attendees than last year,” he says. “But I honestly can’t say. I don’t know if people will stay home, or if more people will come out for a diversion from the news.”

Now in its eighth year, SOFA Chicago, which is much bigger than the New York version held this past June, has evolved into an international showcase for collectors, museums, architects and designers–as well as the looky-loos. Sales average $20 million per show, with more than 30,000 art aficionados attending last year’s event.

The pieces range in price from $200 to $200,000 and include archeological and historical non-Western pieces in ceramics, textiles and sculptures from Chicago’s Douglas Dawson Gallery, contemporary glass work from Italy’s Galleria Caterina Tognon and figurative sculptural ceramics from New York’s Ferrin Gallery. Also worth a peek is Australian Virginia Kaiser’s “Stiletto II”–a high heeled “shoe” weaved from pine needles and jacaranda.

“People sometimes get intimidated by what they think art is, but art is all around us,” Lyman says. “It’s not just the paintings or sculptures we buy. It’s also the piece of jewelry we have at home, or the intricate rug in our dining room.

“When people attend something like SOFA, they see that art isn’t just something hanging in a museum. It can also be something you sit on or a piece of furniture. That makes art a little more approachable to people, and ultimately, art is for people to enjoy regardless of whether they buy the piece or see it in an exhibition.”

Sales, exposure attract gallery

Since 1993, the owners of Chicago’s Marx-Saunders Gallery Ltd. have been showing their intricate glass work at SOFA.

“It’s such an important show because it accounts for a significant portion of the year’s revenues for a lot of galleries,” says gallery co-owner Ken Saunders. “You get thousands of people who may never visit your gallery but they come to SOFA, walk around and maybe they’ll buy something if it catches their eye. We expect that about 90 percent of our sales this weekend will be from out-of-towners.”

Booth prices vary, with some galleries shelling out as much as $100,000 for their space. The Marx-Saunders Gallery paid more than $50,000 this year, but Saunders says the investment is worth it.

“The booths are quite expensive, but it’s a great way to get your work to the public,” he says. “Our average price is $12,000 per piece. If we sell 50 pieces, which is what we expect to do, then we’ll have made a nice profit. But it’s not just about selling pieces. Thousands of people will come in to peek at what’s out there. The majority won’t buy a thing, but they’ll get to enjoy art in a friendly, accessible atmosphere. Maybe one day they’ll stop back and buy something, but if they don’t, that’s OK, too.”

One of the artists Marx-Saunders is showcasing is Paul Stankard, who has 60 pieces currently on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.

“The thing about glass is that it’s so tempting and seductive,” Saunders says. “People can’t believe these artists were able to manipulate glass to look so stunning. It’s definitely a crowd pleaser.”


Alex Sepkus Ann Nathan Gallery Aron Packer Gallery Douglas Dawson Gallery Evan Lewis Inc. Gisela Habitat Galleries Heltzer Inc. Jean Albano Gallery Marx-Saunders Gallery Ltd. Perimeter Gallery Inc. Portia Gallery R. Duane Reed Gallery

Vibrant art from fibers

Textile art. Should it be hanging in your closet or on your wall?

“It’s generally art that is three-dimensional or wall work made out of fiber materials that’s for display, rather than to wear,” says John Odgers, general manager for Craft Australia, a not-for-profit service organization for the contemporary craft and design sector.

“Textile art is a form that hasn’t caught on completely with the masses yet. It’s quite popular in Australia. But a lot of people don’t equate textile with art, and that certainly has been a challenge for us. Unfortunately, because textiles are associated as a feminine art form, it is sometimes also regarded as a lesser form of art.

“Craft Australia decided to concentrate on textiles this year because so many of the other formats–ceramics, sculpture, metal, jewelry–are well represented at SOFA. But textile really hasn’t been in the past. It was time to change that.”

He’s hoping Craft Australia’s exposure at SOFA will help change that misconception. While textile art isn’t as much in demand as paintings and sculpture are, he says the genre is being welcomed by critics.

“We have one piece made by [basket weaver Virginia Kaiser],” he says. “She made a stiletto shoe out of pine needles and jacaranda root.

“You can’t wear it, but it focuses on the gender issue and how much pressure there is on women in terms of fashion.          “That it’s made by a woman in a traditionally female craft makes an even bigger statement.”


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