Korean art: global art galleries flock to Seoul

Foundry Seoul, a gallery owned by a Korean pipe-making company, opened in June 2021 under Gucci’s new flagship store in the affluent Hannam-dong district. It’s just another addition to the neighborhood’s already thriving local art scene, which has more than a dozen galleries within a 5 km radius, making it a key part of the wider Korean art boom.

Beside the Han River, Hannam-dong is increasingly popular among international galleries that are opening their first outposts in Seoul or expanding their existing footprints in the city.

Pace Gallery recently moved to a space four times the size of its former location in Seoul – next to Samsung-owned Leeum Museum – and Thaddaeus Ropac will open its first Asian outpost in Hannam-dong in October 2021, which will feature interiors designed by Seoul Designer Teo Yang. Yang was also responsible for the K1 Multipurpose Art Complex at the Kukje Gallery, which won the Best Cultural Print award at the 2021 Wallpaper * Design Awards.

Exterior view of Thaddaeus Ropac in Hannam-dong, Seoul, which will open in October 2021, marking the gallery’s first Asian outpost

Local galleries such as BHAK, Gallery Joeun and Gallery Baton have all settled in Hannam-dong, and the Gana Art Center has two exhibition spaces there.

Hannam-dong’s rise as an ideal venue for galleries catering to wealthy local collectors coincides with Seoul’s rise as a hub of art and culture in Asia. Berlin-based König gallery moved its Asian outpost from Tokyo to Seoul in April 2021, relocating to the MCM building in the upscale fashion district of Cheongdam-dong. Frieze art fair will hold its first Asian fair in the capital in September 2022.

Why has Seoul become a magnet for international galleries and art fairs?

Exterior view of the König Gallery, Seoul. Courtesy of the artist and KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Seoul. Photography: Cheonho Ahn

‘He’s a creative, cool, interesting [city]’, says Victoria Siddall, director of the board of directors of Frieze. “Korea has amazing music, food and architecture and just a lot of reasons people want to visit.” What Frieze is looking for is a city “that has a great fundamental arts community, but also goes beyond the arts,” she says.

“London, New York and Los Angeles are all cultural hubs that are home to incredible communities of artists, galleries, museums, major art schools and sophisticated collectible scenes,” she continues. “This is the approach we took for salons, and Seoul was the perfect complement.”

Frieze will launch its first Asian salon in Seoul in September 2022

Seoul’s booming local art scene

“It feels like Seoul and Korea have quickly become a major city and country in the global art world,” says Kyu Jin Hwang, Asia Director at Thaddaeus Ropac.

The Korean art scene has grown rapidly over the past five or six years, starting with the Dansaekhwa boom, she says, which has drawn international attention to Korean art. “Big names such as Lee Ufan, Park Seo-Bo, Yun Hyong-keun, Chung Sang-hwa and Ha Chong-hyun have been regularly promoted by local galleries such as Kukje and Hyundai, and as these artists have started to attract global attention, naturally the market has grown, ”says Hwang.

“I have lived in Europe for 15 years. Ten years ago, when we spoke of Asia, we thought of China, Hong Kong or Japan. Today, the Korean contemporary art market is firmly established and I am proud to make my career in the art industry as a Korean.

“All the right ingredients”

Despite the pandemic, the art world in Seoul has not struggled. In fact, he is doing better because of it, say the gallery owners. “Because people stayed at home, they spent what they spent on travel on home decor and buying art. Online fairs have also become an effective way for people to consume art, ”says Hwang.

Soo Choi, managing director of König Seoul, also says the pandemic has helped bring art closer to people. “Since there are social limits to what people can enjoy culturally, I think they have recently discovered how much they can experience in galleries. They also started collecting art within their budget, ”says Choi.

Courtesy of the artist and KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin, London, Seoul. Photography: Cheonho Ahn

The lower barrier to entry allowed the galleries to be visited by a younger audience – another contributing factor to the burgeoning art scene. “I have been a gallery owner for 15 years and I clearly notice that the public is younger these days. Galleries were not easy places to visit, but now the perception has changed, it is a place they can visit freely, ”Choi continues. “People’s tastes have also increased. “

The influx of young audiences cannot be explained without social media, which has played a central role in creating the art boom in Korea, says Youngjoo Lee, senior director of Pace Gallery, which launched its new Seoul outpost with a solo exhibition by American artist Sam. Gilles. “When it comes to contemporary art and its understanding, Koreans’ speed of communication and sharing on social media is the fastest, especially among young people,” says Lee. “I think the biggest change in the market is that Korea is leading the trend in terms of introducing art. [to the public]. ‘

Above: exterior view of Pace Seoul. Photography: Sangtae Kim. Installation view of Sam Gilliam in Pace Seoul. Photography: courtesy of Pace Gallery

Could Seoul become the new art capital in Asia?

However, socio-political factors should not be discounted in Seoul’s rise to power, as galleries are leaving Hong Kong to find a new Asian hub. Seoul is the most favorable option for many as it offers tax benefits similar to Hong Kong, as well as a growing cultural scene.

“I don’t think we’ve taken full advantage of Korea’s tax-free benefits so far. If Korea uses this to its advantage, not only will the Korean art market grow, but Seoul can become a trade hub, ”says Choi de König.

“The art trade tax exemption has definitely worked to our advantage,” adds Lee of Pace. “The strong contemporary arts scene, tax exemption and the popularity of Korean culture have made Seoul an attractive destination. ”

As Siddall continues, “I think he [Seoul] has the potential to be the art market capital of Asia simply because it has all the right ingredients. ‘ §

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