2013 Essay | SOFA in Context

2013 Essay | SOFA in Context

SOFA in Context

By Janet Koplos


Gallery DeCraftig, Copenhagen at SOFA CHICAGO

Look back, for a moment, to 1993. The U.S. had experienced a little recession, which hit the art and crafts worlds after the big-money days of the ‘80s. The Persian Gulf War was over. The World Wide Web was just a few years old and unfamiliar to most people. The Soviet Union had just broken up and, closer to home, the American Craft Council had divested itself of the American Craft Museum. The museum had embarked on an ambitious series of historical exhibitions, mapping out the identity of a cohesive community of contemporary crafts. And in Chicago, Mark Lyman devised the acronym SOFA, standing for Sculpture, Objects, Functional Art, for an exposition that took over the fall time slot previously occupied by the Chicago International New Art Forms Exposition (CINAFE).

Lyman had originated the concept of CINAFE for the Lakeside Group and directed the fair for most of its life, eventually becoming executive director of the larger organization, which also sponsored other expositions. Unlike the familiar fairs that accompanied the rise of postwar crafts and consisted of makers displaying their wares outdoors in the summertime or indoors around the holidays, CINAFE was an exhibition of galleries, newly flourishing as the price of craft objects rose. SOFA debuted as the product of Lyman’s own company, Expressions of Culture. With a ceramics background, Lyman knew this community from the start. Although SOFA has undergone changes of ownership since its initial realization in 1994, his involvement has been the consistent element. And importantly, Anne Meszko, his wife, has always played a significant role, variously identified as Media Coordinator, Project Coordinator, Director of Educational Programming and Director of Advertising and Educational Programming.

Duane Reed Gallery, St. Louis at SOFA CHICAGO


This 20th exposition seems a good time to examine SOFA’s importance to the field of contemporary crafts. It is impossible to overlook its role in the economic, educational and social life of crafts over those two decades – even if it chose not to use that word. SOFA has described itself as “the world’s largest marketplace for contemporary sculpture, art objects and art furnishings.” That means, as longtime exhibiting dealer Bill Zimmer says, that SOFA enables visitors and participants to “see the best of what’s out there this year.” Dealer Sherry Leedy believes SOFA “raised the bar,” and Tom Grotta of browngrotta arts agrees, saying that in its early days, “SOFA was the only place to find stuff of this caliber.”

High-quality work was a conscious strategy, along with prestigious locations. After the first year in a hotel basement (but a fine hotel!), the fair moved to Navy Pier, site of Chicago’s top art fair. In 1998, SOFA developed a sister show in New York City, and there again it found a famous location, the Park Avenue Armory. Lyman tried out other locations with the same kind of cachet: Coconut Grove in Florida and Santa Fe, New Mexico (reputed to be America’s third-largest art market). But Chicago was the biggest and most enduring.


Scott Jacobson, Tommie Rush, Franklin Silverstone
and Wendell Castle attend the International Reception

Every successful fair brings together a class of goods and the audience for it. The stereotypical individual-based summer craft fairs draw makers regionally and audiences locally, while the professional ones run by the American Craft Council and the Rosen Group draw makers nationally and audiences regionally. Craft marketing evolved from shops to galleries beginning in the 1960s and flourishing in the 1980s, when glass led the way to elevated prices. Lyman recognized the field’s readiness for the same kind of professional gallery-centered fairs that painting and sculpture already enjoyed.

At CINAFE and then SOFA, Lyman could encourage the growing sophistication of galleries from across the country, those with a stable of artists whose work they sought to develop and promote. SOFA, former dealer Susan Cummins believes, “was the beginning of getting serious about representation and reputation. It was the beginning of developing a high-end craft market.” Similarly, dealer Duane Reed declares “I can’t help but think that we would not be where we are today had it not existed.” He tells the story of his first nervous investment in the expense of showing at SOFA, wondering if he’d still be in business the next week. “Over that first weekend we grew up and had an epiphany that the sky was the limit and this was only the beginning.... Our experiences at SOFA allowed us to work with collectors and makers for years to come.... It provides us an enormous international visibility....”

American Craft Council Gold Medalist special exhibit

By gathering collectors and potential collectors in one site, Lyman developed strength in numbers for all. Dealer Scott Jacobson says, “SOFA was tremendous at expanding the collector base, bringing brand new people to market.” He says SOFA did what the press does for the fine-art market, serving as a way to reach people and not just preaching to the choir. As expensive as exhibiting was, it was cheaper than an ad in Architectural Digest, he says. Dealer Douglas H’ller notes that he had done antique shows where collectors sometimes responded to contemporary work, but he didn’t dream of getting into contemporary art fairs. “If you were credible SOFA was a great opportunity…. They devoted years to getting lists of names, and new galleries could get the rub off in a minute at the fairs,” Heller says. Zimmer concurs. “The customer base shops the whole show.” He says he could not have the kind of gallery he does in the small town he lives in (Mendocino, CA) without the audience that SOFA provides him, and that the decision to show there is the most important thing he ever did in the gallery business. Likewise Cummins avers, “As a gallery from the small town of Mill Valley, CA, I can’t emphasize enough how important SOFA was to me to develop a national audience. It was a place to show the best I had and to find like-minded souls who appreciated it. It was extremely significant to my development as a gallery both from an immediate financial perspective and for my ability to converse with collectors from all over the country throughout the year.” Leedy appreciates the opportunity to “shine a light on artists that deserved to be seen a larger context” than her Kansas City base. Jacobson says the importance of SOFA from the beginning was “not just sales money but building relationships with new people. That’s crucial for our livelihood. Relationships can last decades – one sale is not so important.”

Frank Paluch of Perimeter Gallery in Chicago does not have the isolated-location problem, but still he says SOFA has been a wonderful venue to show in; he says Perimeter did phenomenally well in the ‘90s, once even having a quarter-million-dollar weekend at SOFA. He also praises SOFA’s public promotion. The exposition is popular, and people don’t feel intimidated. SOFA’s development efforts have opened up new avenues for business. Dealers also mention again and again that Lyman is a “good guy” and that he and Meszko are a pleasure to work with. Grotta says SOFA was “an important tool in our growth,” and he says that the last SOFA in New York was the best they had and he was heartbroken that it was discontinued.


Corning Museum of Glass Hot Glass Roadshow

All the dealers mention SOFA’s educational aspect, “promoting discussion,” as Leedy puts it. From the beginning, there have been lectures and panels free with admission to SOFA. These events are informative to the public and also useful to makers and dealers, encouraging them to articulate ideas embodied in the works. The 1994 catalog announced the fair’s ambitions by opening with a historical essay by Polly Ullrich on the turn-of-the-century Arts & Crafts Movement in Chicago.

The lecture programs have continued to be a popular element (although, Cummins laments, they were never recorded – “What a loss!”). They both attract people to the fair – offering a stellar lineup of speakers that is worth the price of admission in itself – and they keep people at the pier longer, Jacobson notes, increasing the likelihood that they will return to the floor and see things differently after this exposure. They can serve as entry points for casual visitors to the exposition, putting a face to work that’s seen on the floor and introducing the idea that there is a context to this work that might be explored further. For the crafts community, the lectures and panels are an opportunity to offer recognition to up-and-coming artists, or to hear what a critic or scholar is thinking about. Most are either one artist speaking about his/her own work or panels that present a mini-survey of recent work, but there are also tributes to makers of the past and thematic presentations. For collectors, SOFA offered lectures on due diligence, the secondary market, establishing valuations, and such. And for students, former professor and administrator Marge Levy notes, SOFA has been “a central place where students could see advanced work in their field in the marketplace and often see enough work of one person to [grasp] their language of form and meaning and learn from it.” It allowed students to “imagine showing work and having a real career.” And Levy adds, “How often can you go to 10 or so lectures in three days and see old friends, make new friends, and converse people-to-people as well as object-to-object?” She calls the lecture series “brilliant.”

Another SOFA service is providing space to related nonprofits and publications. In a corner of the exposition floor visitors can pick up sample magazines and find out about membership organizations or educational programs, both national and international. Listing the non-profits in most SOFA catalogs, especially pre-internet, made contact information and promotional literature available to both insiders and newcomers in a longer-lasting form.

Another way of helping others was making the opening night gala a benefit for a local cause. In Chicago it included a hospital art program and AIDS support, which had the potential to bring new populations onto the exposition floor. During the entire run of SOFA New York the American Craft Museum (now Museum of Arts and Design) was the beneficiary.

Ferrin Gallery’s Anne Lemanski
SOLO @ SOFA presentation


SOFA has also made itself a facilitator for collector groups – another symbiotic relationship. Friends of Fiber Art International, Collectors of Wood Art, the Art Jewelry Forum and others have organized lectures and panels and even special exhibitions. Since SOFA itself attracts the collectors as a buying opportunity, these groups have held annual meetings or board meetings at SOFA. Both academic and non-academic educational programs have benefitted from SOFA in the same way, with Penland, the Archie Bray Foundation and Haystack maintaining tables in the Resource Center (now the Partner Pavilion), sponsoring lectures or panels, or organizing exhibitions. A 2011 exhibition featured the work of Cranbrook jewelry students, for example. That exposure was both thrilling for the students and illustrative of the new generations who will be showing – or buying – in the future. UrbanGlass both manned a table in the Resource Center and acted as a gallery with a sales booth. An exhibition of donated works was a fundraiser for the Craft Emergency Relief Fund. Curators and museum directors have also met at SOFA, and the American Craft Council has presented panels and exhibitions focusing on its prestigious Fellows and Gold Medalists.

Clearly, for the national crafts community, SOFA has been the quintessential meeting point for the last two decades. “SOFA provided a social element that was important,” Jacobson says. The opening night offers the opportunity to run into people not seen in a long time and to plan meeting for a meal or a drink. These encounters are facilitated by pre-selection, since the opening benefit has an extra cost; that means that the people attending are likely to be those with an interest. But the whole exposition is networking time, on and off the floor. And its regularity is advantageous. Reed says, “It is much easier to take the pulse when it comes together like this year after year. This is good for the entire field and provides us a means to keep abreast of trends and the evolution of the artists we are watching.”

Heller notes, however, that it can be personally frustrating to be an exhibitor because of all the other things going on, from lectures to open-houses, which most dealers miss because they are tied to their booths. Grotta speaks of going booth to booth when he first arrives to see what can be discovered – often there are serendipitous themes or emphases, depending on what the galleries bring.

He says “Every show has a character that the catalog can’t show because it’s done ahead.” He feels he has met exceptional numbers of artists, but also “collectors, clients, and curators we’d never have met anywhere else.” For artists it is one place to see what everyone else is doing, while for curators it is essentially one-stop shopping.


Rawspace at SOFA CHICAGO

Importantly, Lyman and his crew have consistently searched for new ideas, new connections, new stimuli to keep the exposition from getting stale. It’s easy for visitors to look back over two decades and think that SOFA is identifiable by its formula. In outline, that’s true, but to read through the catalogs is to be struck by the constant effort at invention. The very first SOFA catalog, for example, differed from CINAFE catalogs by including the historical essay, and essays grew more numerous later. There were more color pictures for the gallery spreads, making the catalog collectible. And superb image quality gave it an elegance that made it desirable (even if a load to carry!).

The number of international galleries grew as SOFA looked for breadth and connections. It helped that some foreign governments supported their galleries’ participation. Essays, lectures and special exhibitions addressed work by artists from dozens of countries primarily European, Asian and Canadian but including such surprises as Tasmania and Puerto Rico. And artist-lecturers often introduced interesting motifs or genres via their own work, such as Kiff Slemmons discussing insects and jewelry or Julian Stair presenting funerary ceramics.

A 1997 Chicago innovation called Rawspace – repeated several years – gave galleries a spot to show large-scale or installation work that could not be accommodated in booths. (Leedy describes SOFA as “always very gracious to us” in facilitating the showing of large sculptural works.) For several years there was a juried exhibition of emerging artists sponsored by Absolut and called “AuKurant.” The year 2000 was marked by a “British initiative.” “SOLO @ SOFA” was another opportunity for exhibiting galleries to give special focus to an artist. Demonstrations, however, were rare – it’s not that kind of fair. The few examples were woodturning and the semi-regular appearance of the Hot Glass Road Show from Corning.

Heller Gallery Nest installation


Even the structure was tinkered with. The Resource Center was moved near the entrance instead of at a corner; the opening gala was subdivided into “First Choice” – an elite collector preview, the better to kick off sales – followed by a lower-cost public preview meant to encourage new buyers, hopefully a younger generation. A surprising and illuminating exhibitor for a decade was Douglas Dawson, a Chicago dealer in ethnographic objects, who in 2002 organized a special exhibition for SOFA of forms of money from Africa, Asia and the Americas. In recent years SOFA also partnered with Intuit, a show of folk and outsider art. It also set up a design advisory committee that sponsored breakfast presentations to bring more designers in to see the work. Lyman embraced these pairings because of the “bridge” nature of the work at the heart of SOFA. (The fair is focused and broad at the same time, Jacobson notes.) Chubb Personal Insurance sponsored a V.I.P. Lounge, SOFAspherewas established with the intention of becoming an interactive onlineonline community.

But for all the innovation, there was also some repetition. Bruce Pepich of the Racine Art Museum was the go-to moderator or presenter for SOFA CHICAGO; in New York, curator David McFadden was a regular expert voice, and Jack Lenor Larsen was a facilitator who often made himself the focus of the many activities he aided. AIDA, promoting Israeli crafts and sponsored by two important American collector couples, seemed to have a privileged position at SOFA for a number of years. Fiber, despite two panels every year sponsored by the Friends of Fiber Art, seems to have been consistently under-represented in essays and special exhibitions – maybe because there are only a few specialty textile galleries. And dealers in other mediums frequently complain that glass is over-represented. The dominance of glass is part of what led Dawson to leave the show, although he enjoyed the enthusiasm for his materials among many artists represented at SOFA. It’s hard to argue, though: glass sells, or its dominance wouldn’t continue.

Because of his crafts background, Lyman has treated SOFA not just as a business but as a calling. The letters of welcome with which he opened the catalogs were not pro forma but impassioned boosterism. In 2000, for example, he wrote of the exposition as an “expansive art experience, with its promise of passage from everyday, compressed reality” and he praised the “synergistic tension between tradition and innovation” in the works on view. Nearly every time he remarked that the art was what the SOFA experience was all about.


Charon Kransen Arts

During those two decades there have been economic ups and downs, including such refocusing events as the 9/11 terrorism. SOFA rides with the changes and with the bobbles in gallery participation – from 58 in 1994 to 99 in 1998, 2001 and 2008 to around 70 more recently. The height of international participation was 32 galleries from 10 nations showing in 2004. Attendance went as high as 35,000 in 2005. We are now at a widely noted time of generational shift in the field – the dealers are grayer and the major collectors are thinking about gifting their collections rather than adding to them. The last few years have not been great for galleries, and that affects SOFA. It’s another transitional time. Zimmer does not want SOFA to weaken its high-end focus; Dawson has wondered if a selection committee would help cement that focus on quality.

With each sale of the fair organization, people worry that the effectiveness of SOFA will suffer, and the question is more acute this time, with the recent shuttering of SOFA Santa Fe and SOFA New York. Heller says it’s impossible to ignore SOFA’s positive impact: for two decades it has given galleries a significant venue, had educational value, demonstrated the maturity of the field and that it was a viable business, and has provided a playing field and a model to encourage the expansion of galleries. “It was a new paradigm,” he says. But today there are many art fairs, all competing for the attention of the same collectors. Cummins speculates that an association with design may be useful – something that SOFA is already working on under Donna Davies, Director for the last two years. “It’s our intent to continue to grow the fair into the future and with that comes change – it’s inevitable. And we are evolving,” Davies says. For what it has consistently brought to the lives of every participant in the contemporary crafts, SOFA deserves a rousing chorus of “Happy Anniversary!”

Janet Koplos is a freelance art critic and contributing editor to Art in America

Published in counction with the 20th annual SOFA CHICAGO and the 2013 lecture series presentation The Backstory with Janet Koplos, and SOFA CHICAGO founders Mark Lyman and Anne Meszko, about the origins, objectives, high points and surprises of SOFA’s 20-year history as an economic, educational and social nexus of the contemporary crafts world. Introductory remarks by Donna Davies, Director, SOFA CHICAGO

Special thanks to Susan Cummins, Douglas Dawson, Tom Grotta, Douglas Heller, Scott Jacobson, Sherry Leedy, Marge Levy, Frank Paluch, Duane Reed and William Zimmer for sharing their thoughts on SOFA.

Additional thanks to photograhers David Barnes and Cheri Eisenberg

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