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Why the Art World Is Pivoting Towards South Korea

Why the Art World Is Pivoting Towards South Korea

By Sam Gaskin

South Korea is more than just a viable option in a complicated region. Galleries are especially buoyed by the rise of a new generation of collectors.

Installation view of KÖNIG SEOUL rooftop. Courtesy: KÖNIG GALERIE Berlin / London / Seoul.

South Korea has never been more important to the art world.

International galleries are opening spaces in Seoul at a rapid clip, and in September 2022 Frieze will launch its first Asian fair in the city in partnership with Kiaf Seoul.

Ocula Magazine spoke to gallery directors, art advisors, and auction staff about the market’s rise ahead of this year’s Kiaf Seoul from 13 to 17 October.

The Art Basel Bump

Long before global galleries arrived, South Korea had a strong domestic art market.

‘South Korea’s contemporary art scene has always been very active, and with major art fairs such as KIAF founded there two decades ago drawing international attention, and a strong domestic market with two local auction houses, it became well developed ahead of many other Asian markets early on,’ said Alice Lung, a partner at Perrotin.

Local galleries such as Gallery Hyundai (since 1970), Kukje Gallery (since 1982), and Arario Gallery (since 1989) helped establish a vibrant scene that has since been supported by institutions with strong reputations abroad such as the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (since 2004).

However, it was only after seeing Korean collectors’ interest in global art spike—following the arrival of Art Basel in Hong Kong in 2013—that big international galleries Lehmann Maupin, Perrotin, and Pace Gallery decided to take up spaces in Seoul.

Los Angeles gallery Various Small Fires arrived in 2019, followed by KÖNIG GALERIE in April this year. Thaddaeus Ropac will open their Seoul gallery this month, and Gladstone Gallery recently announced that they’ll also opening a space in the city.

A New Crop of Young Collectors

Especially exciting to dealers is a new demographic of Korean collectors.

‘Korea has had a small number of major collectors buying international contemporary art for a while but recently a new crop of young collectors has emerged,’ said Ocula advisor Rory Mitchell. ‘They are hungry to learn and rapidly building significant private collections of Western contemporary art.’

‘While there is still obviously demand for Korean artists such as Lee UfanYun Hyong-keun, and Ha Chong-hyun, many collectors are now looking at David Hockney or even younger, newly-crowned hot painters from the US and Europe, such as Adrian GhenieLaura OwensUrs Fischer, and George Condo,’ Mitchell said.

Sotheby’s Heather Kim agrees that this younger demographic of collectors—people in their 30s and 40s—has been enticing for international galleries and art fairs.

She said Korean collectors have always been pioneers when it comes to collecting contemporary art in Asia, keeping a close eye on auctions in New YorkLondon, and Hong Kong. As of late, they’ve been actively looking for artists such as Nicolas Party and Jonas Wood.

Esther Kim Varet, founder of Various Small Fires, said the growing number of young contemporary art collectors is also creating opportunities for smaller galleries.

‘We’re not coming in with blue chip artists that might be recognisable on the secondary market, but we are coming in with very desirable primary market artists,’ said Kim Varet.

‘We’re doing the groundwork of introducing a section of the [international] art world that’s very contemporary that they might have heard about or seen on Instagram but don’t have access to,’ she said.

Kim Varet believes Korean collectors are excited to discover international artists sooner, before they have their first major institutional show.

‘Koreans are very smart about understanding trends, and they tend to want to be early,’ she said.

On the back of Seoul’s rapid ascent, more people are collecting international contemporary art around the country.

‘After five years in Seoul we now have clients visiting from Dae-gu, Gwangju, Busan, and all across the country,’ said Youngjoo Lee, director of Pace’s Seoul gallery.

Tax, Rent, and an Inherent Interest in Art

Seoul offers galleries a foothold in Asia without having to deal with the financial and political risks of setting up in China, by far the region’s biggest art market.

When it comes to choosing whether or not to do business in Korea, Lee pointed to ‘a rich history in modern art stemming from the 1970s, an inherent interest in art in the Korean people compared to other Asian countries, and an increasing interest in Korean culture from the outside.’

‘I’m sure that zero tax for trading art and cheaper rent than Hong Kong are also factors,’ she added.

Art professionals including a spokesperson for Art Basel, Taipei Dangdai co-director Robin Peckham, and Soo Choi, founder of Seoul’s P21 gallery and managing director of KÖNIG GALERIE’s new Seoul location, all agree that the Korean art market is now strong enough to sustain its own major international art fair.

That bodes well for Frieze Seoul in 2022.

A version of this story also appears in the catalogue of Kiaf Seoul 2021.