Reed Exhibitions, on redefining the word “con” for Chicago: or, C2E2 recap

Note: This letter was sent to the Chicago Arts Community on 22 April 2010, and added here on the blog that evening.

Hello, art lovers and fellow Chicagoans!

Last weekend, numerous press sources touted Reed Exhibition’s C2E2 event at McCormick Place as “San Diego Comic Con comes to Chicago”.  As San Diego Comic Con has become synonymous worldwide with both spectacle- and more importantly, excellence- I felt compelled to comment.

A contrast in crowds: Chicago, and San Diego.

A contrast in crowds: Chicago, and San Diego.


Next weekend, the Merchandise Mart hosts Artropolis, Chris Kennedy’s brilliant gift to Chicago’s art scene.  One of the largest events of its kind anywhere in the world, we are lucky to have the stellar international array of art talent in the heart of our city.  For my staff members who are recent additions to the company, I am using these two events as examples in contrast of how to do an event correctly, and incorrectly.

For anyone reading this who is not familiar with our company, Century Guild is an art gallery specializing in Art Nouveau and European art from 1880-1920, specifically lithographs and art objects, and we are proud to call Chicago our home.  Midwesterners will be excited to know that there are a number of pieces now on permanent display in both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Detroit Institute of Art that were from our collection.  We are the only exhibitor who can claim a major presence at all three events, San Diego Comic Con, C2E2, and next weekend’s Artropolis, which gives us a unique position from which to comment on the ways these events are handled by their organizers.

Michael Zulli and an Art Nouveau installation at Century Guild

Michael Zulli and an Art Nouveau installation by Century Guild at C2E2


We have been a presence at San Diego Comic Con since 2004, when we brought a ten by twelve-foot Belgian Art Nouveau room with its sinuous, curving walls, and recreated it as part of our installation.  With the original costumes from the Lord of the Rings movies across from us, it was a potent and breathtaking way to educate art lovers as to the connection between pop culture and art history.  Our booths at San Diego Comic Con every year since have attracted dramatic attention and been a rewarding means of presenting historically important art to younger art lovers, and have been featured on the cover of the Arts section of the major local newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune.   Teenagers we met in those first years now visit us as Art College graduates, and we are honored to be told that we were of some small help in their eyes being opened to the rich history of art as a potential influence on contemporary creativity.

In 1999 we set up our first booth at Artropolis’s earlier incarnation as the International Antiques Fair, and haven’t missed a year since.  Our exhibits at the Merchandise Mart events have been featured in the Arts sections of the Chicago Tribune, and objects in our inventory have been photographed for numerous local magazines.  We are honored to have been called upon as a consultant for the show’s marketing campaigns and direction.

At both of these shows, the attention to detail and quality can only be defined as spectacular.  Justin Dutta at San Diego Comic Con, and Laurette Lutiger at the Merchandise Mart are aggressively competent, focusing on the numerous challenges that will crop up during any event of this size, and quickly moving past the difficulty to a happy solution.  The way that these two individuals can see the importance of the big picture while being able to focus on and repair the smallest ripples is something that has been an inspiration in my own business dealings.

In contrast, Reed Exhibitions who touts themselves as “The world’s leading organiser of trade and consumer events” gives the impression that they gave “the kids” a “funny book” show to play with.

Would-be-thieves, take note: on the first night of set-up, Reed’s administrators were asked about security as I looked around at the numerous open bay doors and persons coming and going unchecked.  The response?  “Well, just try to make it look not so enticing” with the other site manager chiming in, “I mean, I wouldn’t leave anything over a thousand dollars or anything.”

At which point, we completely re-loaded our truck to bring everything back the next morning.

If I try to address my experiences with San Diego Comic Con and the Merchandise Mart, you will quickly become bored with how pleasant they’ve been.  Manpower, heart, and soul are directed at each and every moment of these events, from inception to completion and it has been impossible for me to be anything but thrilled with every single staff member of these venues.  Security is tight as a drum, and set-ups and load-outs are flawless.  The events themselves?  Even better.

It should be noted toward any comment of this being C2E2’s first year that the first year of Artropolis was a much greater undertaking by far, where dramatic logistical difficulties did in fact present themselves, but were quickly and efficiently surmounted by dealing with them directly and passionately.

Alphonse Mucha and Gail Potocki at Century Guild

Alphonse Mucha and Gail Potocki by Century Guild at C2E2


In contrast again, two small examples to give a glimpse of Reed’s very different method of handling things: A local artist- internationally recognized as one of the most famous in the world of graphic novels- was one of the major guests at the show and his attendance undoubtedly sold a great number of tickets.  They had the following exchange with Reed Exhibitions:

“Can I get a hotel room for the weekend so I don’t have to do the drive in to the city each night?”

“Ummmm… no.  You’re local.”

“Ok, what about parking paid for?”

“Ummmmmmmm… no.”

So this creator- who undoubtedly sold thousands of dollars worth of tickets by their presence- had to pay their own $19-a-day parking.

Second example?  We had one of the show guests sit in our booth for a book signing, and were told that we would have to pay $66.70 if he wanted to sit.  That first day, he signed books standing up.

I understand that Reed didn’t have control over the weak attendance.  I understand that Reed can’t control the fifteen hundred dollars we were charged to move in.  We all understand that Reed couldn’t control that people couldn’t find the event, or the poor signage, or that it took three hours or more to get vehicles from outside the building into where they could be loaded.  Chicago might be the City That Works, but on this weekend it was poorly managed.  When there are so many things that are genuinely beyond our control, the things that we can control, we should.

From our point of view, Century Guild had rare and priceless silent film posters, original Alphonse Mucha and Gustav Klimt artworks, original massive paintings by comic industry legend Dave McKean (The Sandman, Coraline, The Graveyard Book), and 19th century Art Nouveau furniture.  One might think after taking the time to bring something as dramatic as we did to enhance a comic book show that someone from show management would come by to see how we were doing, but after that initial confrontation over lack of security the Reed Exhibition floor manager thought the best conflict resolution was to avoid us for the rest of the weekend.  We also never saw the face of the show manager the entire weekend.  It made for a bit of a flea market feeling.  On a leaking raft.

Art Nouveau, Michael Zulli, and Dave McKean at Century Guild

Art Nouveau, Michael Zulli, and Dave McKean by Century Guild at C2E2


The artists and exhibitors at this show are already struggling to bring beauty and creativity into the world, like swimming upstream against a strong current.  The least that could be done is to treat them with some sincere respect. In the face of worldwide depression and epic economic struggles it is important to support creativity, and nurture and preserve the cultural and artistic elements of our society.  Don’t make it impossible for people who aren’t making any money anyway to at least enjoy the process of sharing art and culture.

Let me tell you, then, as someone who has been there: this was in no way San Diego Comic Con comes to Chicago.

San Diego Comic Con is a spectacular experience, and I personally would love to see our city have something comparable.  Reed Exhibitions’ tagline for C2E2 was that theirs was the event “Chicago deserves”.  If this is true, then at this time they clearly do not feel that we deserve very much.  Let’s hope they change their mind, or that someone who cares about quality steps in.

In the meantime, we will be very, very excited to see you at Artropolis!

With all best regards,

Thomas Negovan
Head Curator
Century Guild
est. 1999

3 Responses to “Reed Exhibitions, on redefining the word “con” for Chicago: or, C2E2 recap”

  1. Very informative write up. I think you have many valid points. I wonder how much of the problems encountered are due to the draconian way that McCormick place is run versus the management of Reed. Hopefully both will take your thoughts into concideration for the future.

    • I think that McCormick place was fabulous, we found everyone there to be extremely competent, the Union carpenters were fantastic, the people helping us load at the end as well. The only concern I might voice is that we were able to leave every night with bags that went unchecked- something that would NEVER happen at the Merchandise Mart’s Artropolis show!!!!!!!!

  2. Great points, Thomas. The McCormick location has so much potential (love that sunlight and space) and many feared that it would be organized poorly — which is was. And, like you mentioned, it was definitely a major contrast to the way things are organized and handled at SDCC, big crowd or not. You would think that there would be a stronger presence by in the trenches by Reed volunteers or workers in light of a manageable and slightly less-than-expected attendance. Not that I was prepared with as much product as I wished to have for sale, but the way Artists Alley was laid out with well-recognized artists densely populating the upper alphabet was very disproportionate to the whole Alley. At least at SDCC they knew how to mix things up and keep the flow of traffic throughout. Even Wizard World placed a famous artist or two in each row to encourage more traffic throughout.

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