What You Need to Know about the Contemporary Art Market in Korea
Exterior view of Pace Seoul. Photo by Sangtae Kim. Courtesy Pace.
Over the past five years or so, South Korea has witnessed an unprecedented surge in its art market, from a growing number of collectors to increasing sales by established local art galleries.
First-generation international galleries with outposts in Seoul such as Pace, Various Small Fires, and Perrotin have also been positively impacted, inadvertently bringing in more of their ilk. In 2021 alone, König Galerie, Gladstone Gallery, and Thaddaeus Ropac all announced or launched new spaces in the capital city.
Hejum Bä, installation view at Whistle. Courtesy of the artist and Whistle.
Homegrown art fairs are having their day in the sun: KIAF, the mainstay art fair in the capital city, reported strong sales last November. That same year, the first edition of the Preview Art Fair, an invitation-only platform for young Korean galleries, opened. And that’s not to mention the highly anticipated inaugural edition of Frieze Seoul in September. To the south of that city, Art Busan, running from May 12th through 15th, has continued to enjoy strong interest since its launch in 2012.
Speaking with Artsy, Art Busan founder Younghee Sohn said, “During its initial years, the participants were mostly Korean galleries and only a handful were joining from the surrounding Asian countries. Since 2017 the fair has become more diverse, hosting international galleries such as Thaddaeus Ropac, Almine Rech, Gray, Commonwealth and Council, Esther Schipper, König Galerie, Peres Projects, Whitestone, and Tang Contemporary Art.”
Industry observers attribute the recent explosion to a growing proportion of younger artists, spaces, and collectors. Jungmin Cho, curator and director of White Noise, an experimental commercial art space in Seoul, said, “Many artists started to debut in their early to mid-twenties, and a lot of people running art spaces and collectors who are ’90s-born emerged. This is thought to be due to the characteristics of the generation, which has become bolder at investing time, effort, and money in what they value in their lives.”
Sohn also commented on the distinctive traits of this rising generation of Korean collectors: “There is no language barrier and they do not hesitate to contact overseas galleries directly, whether via email, Instagram, or Artsy. They make quick decisions and are not afraid of taking actions. I believe millennial and Gen Z collectors played a crucial role in supporting and promoting galleries during the pandemic, especially with the online platforms.”
Exterior view of Various Small Fires, Seoul. Courtesy of Various Small Fires.
Observing the impact of technology on the local art scene, Cho said, “Most young people are good at using online media to brand themselves, while being continuously exposed to algorithms that influence their tastes. These traits induce people to create and consume art in various ways.”
Like most rapidly emerging art-market hubs around the world, a contributing factor for South Korea’s exponential growth is its favorable tax code: The country doesn’t charge import taxes on art or sales tax on any item that costs less than ₩60 million (around $51,000).
Additionally, celebrity culture has helped to popularize art collecting and art appreciation in the mainstream. Korean pop star Choi Seung-hyun, better known as T.O.P, curated a Sotheby’s sale in 2016, which received a strong response from his fans and pioneered the celebrity-curated auction trend. Previews of the auction organized in Korea and Hong Kong drew a large number of high school students. Even though they lacked the funds to purchase the art, they learned about artists such as Jonas Wood through their idol.
Beyond celebrity collectors, a long-running tradition of corporate collecting has bolstered the development of private museums and art spaces by homegrown multinational corporations such as the Amorepacific Museum of Art, Lotte Museum of Art, Hyundai Card Storage, Space K Seoul, Paradise ZIP, and more.
And there are also groups like Re:Art, an association of collectors founded by art educator and author Lee Soyoung. Kyungmin Lee, the director of Whistle, a notable local gallery space established in 2017, highlighted these collectors and their tendency to study together and share information among themselves. “Through their promotions, they have connected many new collectors to rising local artists,” she said.
Somin Jeon, the director of Various Small Fires’s Seoul outpost, observed a similar trend: “With the current art collecting buzz in Korea, more and more collector study groups are forming and they inform each other about new shows and artists. The collectors are also learning about the gallery allocation system and the difference between primary and secondary markets, which was something that many did not know about until international galleries came into Seoul.”
There is a need for research and due diligence in a booming art market that is still playing catch-up in terms of logistics and trusted expertise. To fill this gap, experienced art dealers are stepping in, including Jeon; Soo Choi, founder of P21 gallery and managing director of König Seoul; and HeeJin Park, former director of Kukje Gallery and current director of Seoul’s Gladstone Gallery. Even so, the space can be volatile, as can be seen in the controversy surrounding the owner of the former Gallery Seomi, Hong Song-won.
Nonetheless, even before the recent rise of its art market, South Korea was renowned, at least regionally, for its major exhibitions Gwangju Biennale and Seoul Mediacity Biennale. Internationally, it was known for art stars such as Nam June Paik, Do Ho Suh, Lee Ufan, as well as the mid-1970s minimalist art movement Dansaekhwa, which became a global art market obsession a few years ago.
Interestingly, the tastes of the local contemporary market lean in a slightly traditional direction, with industry experts highlighting artists who specialize in painting or printing. For example, Hejum Bä, who is known for paintings filled with vivid colors and bold strokes, held solo exhibitions at SeMA Storage, Kumho Museum of Art, and Whistle last year. The artist also participated in the Young Korean Artists 2021 group exhibition held by the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Another favorite is Kyoungtae Kim, a recent finalist for the SongEun Art Award, who creates stark prints of cubes and lines.
Even so, there are concerted efforts by certain dealers to turn the gaze of the local and global art market toward new discoveries such as emerging sculptor Haneyl Choi, who will be exhibiting at P21 during the week of Frieze Seoul, and kitschy multimedia artist Sungsil Ryu, whose solo exhibition at Atelier Hermes will coincide with the fair.
All in all, most industry insiders view the exponential growth of South Korea’s market as a positive development. Sohn is among them. “Now the competition is everywhere, among collectors, galleries, and fairs…I see it as a positive trend,” she said. “With this intense interest and competition combined, the quality of art fairs and exhibitions will improve and mature overall.”