Despite Competition From New York's PAD, Chicago's SOFA Holds Its Own

A gorilla figurine made out of cow intestine, a massive, paper-thin silver bowl dotted with precious stones, and a lyrical conjoined desk and chair by furniture designer Wendell Castle were among the idiosyncratic works on offer at SOFA Chicago, the 17th-annual sculpture objects and functional art fair held from November 4 - 6 at Chicago's Navy Pier. While design fanatics may have already turned their attention to New York’s inaugural edition of the Pavilion of Art and Design, the famously eclectic SOFA fair saw attendance reach 30,000 — on par with that of 2010. “Design is a big buzzword, but what it's all about is applied arts and studio art and design, and that's what SOFA has always been about,” Mark Lyman, the founder of the fair, told ARTINFO on opening night.

For the second year in a row, SOFA shared the pier with Intuit, a fair devoted to outsider art, and together they featured 80 exhibitors. Overall reports of sales were uneven, with the majority of work selling in the $5,000 to $50,000 range. Michigan’s Habitat Galleries, whose booth was among the largest and most successful at the fair, sold a 350-pound cast glass pyramid by Czech duo Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová for $100,000. (According to Habitat’s sales director Corey Hampson, the glass object, created in 1994, was so massive it took almost four months to come down to room temperature.)


Philadelphia's Wexler Gallery sold a yellow bridge-shaped sculpture by Mark Pieser for $49,300 and a hanging, pouch-shaped glass piece depicting a forest scene by William Morris listed at $97,000. Donna Schneier Fine Arts of Palm Beach and New York sold ceramic pieces by Michael Lucero, Jun Kaneko, and Beatrice Wood at prices ranging from $5,000 to $35,000. “Considering the times, I thought it went very well,” said Carole Hochman, director of New York’s Barry Friedman Gallery, which sold a Bodhi by Laura de Santillana to a museum, among other sales.

While some dealers reported strong results during the fair, others said they were barely able to cover their costs. “There were a lot of people, maybe even more than last year, but they didn't strike me as seriously looking to buy,” one participating dealer told ARTINFO. "We were expecting more sales," said another. Carl Hammer Gallery, which boasted one of the strongest booths at Intuit, sold a drawing by self-taught artist Joseph Yoakum for $60,000, but failed to find a buyer for three large-scale Henry Darger drawings featuring the artist's trademark Vivian girl-filled landscapes. 

Despite slow sales in some areas, several dealers noted that SOFA in particular is a fair whose follow-up sales tend to be stronger than those that occur during the actual event. Though Lewis Wexler said sales during the fair went “exceptionally well” for his gallery, he noted that “in this economy, most people are less apt to make decisions at the fair itself — they need to think things over.” Local Chicago dealer KM Fine Arts sold almost as much in the days following the show ($135,000 worth of art) as it did in during ($145,000). Two cinematic, close-up portraits by the Spanish painter Lila Cabellut sold for $65,000 and $60,000, while several abstract paintings by Texas-based Christopher Martin sold for prices between $11,000 and $28,000. KM also presented the world premiere of John Chamberlain’s massive coiled aluminum sculpture “Rosetuxedo One,” which gallery founder Tom Kavisto purchased directly from the artist in 2008.

Dealers were universally impressed with the fair's spiffed-up design, which featured higher walls (elevated from 10 feet to 12 feet) to provide more room for display. A staggered booth layout also made the aisles less imposing, encouraging and facilitating wandering throughout the cavernous Navy Pier exhibition hall. Said David Eichholtz of Santa Fe's David Richard Contemporary, "SOFA is still the place you come to show new work."