06/02/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
When John Wilson first invited European art dealers to display their wares at Chicago's Art Expo, he got the brush as often as he got their paintings. To his continental colleagues, "that Al Capone syndrome still exists," says Wilson, 51. "The only thing they thought of when they thought of Chicago was rat-a-tat."
Not any more. Two weeks ago, as Wilson presided over Chicago's seventh annual International Art Exposition, the biggest mob in town was the show's 45,000 art lovers. About 25,000 works were up for sale, from original Picassos and Matisses to contemporary video sculptures by Nam June Paik and other big names. More than a third of Expo's 154 exhibitors had come to the Second City from Spain, France and a dozen other countries. "It is unreal how many people now consider this the major art event of the year," says Wilson happily. "The show is about as large as it can go."
Wilson went to Michigan State intending to be an engineer before he signed up for a pottery course and quickly decided he had found a new life's work. By the time he graduated, however, he was married with the first of two children and in need of a steady paycheck. For the next eight years he worked as a traveling salesman for a Baltimore print gallery. Then in 1968 he bought a run-down Victorian hotel and carriage house in Lakeside, Mich. The former now serves as headquarters for Wilson's profitable print business as well as a $40-a-night summer lodging for artists and artisans.
Wilson found hesitant backing from the locals when he broached his idea for Art Expo in 1979. ("I thought he was a nut," confesses Bill van Straaten of Chicago's van Straaten Gallery.) For a site Wilson settled on a concert hall built in 1916 on a pier jutting five-eighths of a mile into Lake Michigan. After losing money on the first Art Expo, he mortgaged his print studio, the hotel and his five-bedroom pink stucco home. These days he charges dealers $2,400 for a booth and says that more than $20 million in art was sold during the six-day run. Those kinds of numbers, apparently, can ease even old regrets. Says Wilson: "I think I am doing more than I ever could have accomplished as a potter."