A Nationwide Arts Advocate
In recent years, Chris Kennedy has worked tirelessly to promote art through politics, philanthropy, and sheer love of creativity.
‘‘I don’t know if people who live in Chicago can explain to people who live in LA why art is important!” laughs Chris Kennedy, the president of Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc. (MMPI), the owners and operators of the newly refurbished LA Mart and the producers of ten international art fairs, including Art Chicago, the Toronto International Art Fair, VOLTA and the Armory Show. Because of his involvement in the business of both fine and decorative art, he has a unique perspective on the importance of art to community and to commerce.
“Los Angeles enjoys an economy driven by the creative talents of its citizens,” he continues. “In Los Angeles, you see a lot of leaders who combine creativity with great business sense. We’re trying to replicate that in other cities, channeling the unbridled creativity of children as they transition into adulthood.” Art, in Chris Kennedy’s opinion, is as vital to a city’s—even a
nation’s—infrastructure as roads and bridges. “I don’t think art is frivolous at all,” he insists. “Art in schools has sometimes been looked at as just a way to engage kids who don’t have other outlets, like sports and academics. Art and music get cut from school budgets by people who don’t think creativity is important because they themselves don’t take a creative
approach to solving problems.”
The LA Mart works closely with organizations that encourage and support the arts in underprivileged schools, which is part of Kennedy’s philosophy that art and creativity are vital to the future and prosperity of our communities and our country. “We think it’s important to work with kids,” he explains. “We do all we can to ensure a creative future.”
The son of the late senator Robert F. Kennedy, Chris Kennedy has inherited a formidable family legacy of both public service and support for the arts. After all, the performing arts center in our nation’s capitol is named for his uncle. “JFK and my father both embraced performers and artists and involved them in their campaigns,” he says. “It was great for me, growing up in Washington; we always went to the Kennedy Center. We were very comfortable with musicians and writers; there was no division for us between artists and business people.”
Kennedy would like to see Washington DC embrace contemporary art. “Washington has never supported a major art fair!” he says incredulously. “Conservatives who attack the NEA are misguided. Conformity is the enemy of creativity and, without creativity, there is no innovation. The current president [George W. Bush] didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to expose himself to innovative thinkers, Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, painters and musicians. Creativity was devoid in the administration, and it has harmed our image in the world.”
He discounts the notion that art is strictly for the much-vilified “latte sipping” few. “Anybody who says that art is only for the educated and the elite is wrong,” he asserts. “If you want to see your town, your city, your country grow and change, you have to embrace creativity. There is no better way to prepare a community for relentless change than to expose it to contemporary art.” The revivals of many American cities’ urban cores can be directly attributed to the artistic communities. “River North in Chicago, SoHo, the Meatpacking District, downtown LA—those are all neighborhoods that were decaying, dying. Then, artists moved in looking for cheap live/work spaces, and art galleries followed. Later came restaurants, retail and upscale development and a once-depressed area becomes totally revitalized by art. The arts as an industry can be a huge economic engine in most major cities,” he asserts.
The art fairs Kennedy’s company produces—Basel, Art Chicago, the Toronto International Art Fair, NEXT, VOLTA and VOLTA NY—also provide substantial economic benefits to the cities where they are held. “It’s a boost to the hospitality industry: dealers and buyers check in to local hotels, they visit other local galleries, restaurants and stores,” he says. “It’s good for business all around.” Art fairs are also a wonderful introduction for the nascent collector as well as a resource for established art buyers. The sheer scale and scope of the exhibitions and the juxtapositions of schools and genres allow visitors to take a comprehensive overview of contemporary art all at once. “It’s not like going to a gallery behind locked doors,” Kennedy says enthusiastically. “It’s more open, accessible, and you get introduced to art in a very friendly, informal way. And it gives seasoned collectors an opportunity to take the pulse of the market.”
Kennedy hopes that business people in every community will take time to attend art fairs in their city, visit galleries and join museums. “Buy corporate tickets; bring a large group,” he encourages, suggesting that many may be surprised by the parallels that can be found between business and contemporary art. “Contemporary art is not simple; neither is meeting a payroll. Both require innovative thinking, and exposing yourself to contemporary art is one of the best ways to keep your own thinking fresh.” “Art is not effete or superflous,” Kennedy insists. “It’s essential to every business.”
Pictured: Mark di Suvero’s sculpture CHOOPY in front of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart during Art Chicago 2008. Images courtesy of Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc.