What does Korea collect? As Seoul’s art market intensifies, international galleries share what they know about the local ecosystem

As the international art fair circuit turns its attention to Frieze Seoul, which is set to debut in September 2022, it has become impossible to ignore the Korean capital as an emerging alternative venue in the Asian art market.

Seoul is an incredibly sophisticated city with a rich and significant scene,” Frieze Seoul director Patrick Lee told Artnet News, adding that it is “anchored by talented artists and combines an art-hungry audience, a attractive collector base, smart curators, great museums. , institutions, biennials and fascinating galleries. Still, for many foreigners looking to take advantage of Seoul’s rapid rise, the lack of knowledge about potential access points and ways to enter the Korean market poses a daunting challenge.

In recent years, however, a small but formidable cohort of Western galleries have claimed the city’s burgeoning art scene, treating Seoul as a fertile testing ground for various strategies for adapting their businesses to conditions on the Korean peninsula. Unlike China and Hong Kong, where Western art galleries settled from the early 2000s, Korea’s contemporary art scene has long remained relatively insular and its market largely untapped. That is, until 2016, when Paris-based Perrotin opened a modest showroom in the city, followed soon after by powerhouse galleries Pace and Lehmann Maupin.

This heavyweight trio quickly set about introducing new artists to a burgeoning local collector base. They found a market ripe for growth and a large audience with a growing appetite for works by foreign artists. Fast forward several years, and today Korean collectors are hungrier than ever, allowing Pace and Lehmann Maupin to increase their operations in Seoul and move to larger facilities in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

Expansion of Pace in Seoul. Photo: Sangtae Kim.

Although the two American galleries quickly consolidated their presence in the Korean art world, they did so through divergent approaches to programming. Reflecting his blue-chip pedigree, Pace increasingly focused on American artists with established markets: Mary Corse, Alexander Calder, Joel Shapiro and Sam Gilliam all held solo exhibitions in the gallery’s new space at course of the last year.

On the other hand, Lehmann Maupin has always deployed a program of exhibitions with resolutely minority tendencies, which goes hand in hand with the diversity of its repertoire of artists: the solo presentations of Catherine Opie, Billie Zangewa and Mandy El-Sayegh constituted the half of the gallery’s six previous exhibitions (although, to be fair, Lari Pittman and David Salle, both Americans, were also in attendance). AGallery partner Rachel Lehmann explained, “We don’t work with artists unless we’re confident that we can partner with them in a meaningful way, which is what we really believe in and what we do in Seoul. This sense of conviction has always been at the heart of Lehmann Maupin’s strategy, propelling the gallery’s steady ascent over the past five years to a leading position within the burgeoning Korean art scene.

After the early success of this international gallery avant-garde in Seoul, the Los Angeles-based Various Small Fires entered the fray in 2019, shortly before the Covid-19 outbreak. Although the spread of the virus crippled much of the global art world, the effectiveness of Korea’s initial response to Covid-19 ensured that Seoul was never locked down, and art galleries were allowed to continue operating without interruption. This presented VSF founder Esther Kim Varet, who is Korean-American, with a unique opportunity that integrated her enthusiasm for the diversification of Seoul’s art scene with VSF’s inclusive ethos.

“It was only natural to partner with other gallery owners with whom we shared mutual admiration and trust,” said Varet, who reached out to galleries facing indefinite Covid-related closures in their countries, including Jessica Silverman, Night Gallery and Karma. — with invitations to showcase artists from their respective programs at VSF Seoul. This strategy not only forged “a shared sense of connection and investment between VSF and other galleries in new and profound ways”, but it fundamentally altered preconceptions about how incoming galleries might interact with audiences. Korean.

Esther Kim Varet.  Courtesy of Various Small Fires Los Angeles, Seoul and Dallas Photo by Coley Brown

Esther Kim Varet. Courtesy of Various Small Fires Los Angeles, Seoul and Dallas. Photo by Coley Brown

Pandemic-related hurdles have deterred many Western galleries interested in expanding to Hong Kong’s former center of contemporary art, which had already lost much of its luster due to the large-scale political protests that have took place in 2019 and 2020. Before long, these conditions began to tip the scales in favor of Seoul, thanks to business-friendly tax breaks on art sales comparable to those in Hong Kong. This was certainly the case for Austrian gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac, who had actively explored options in both countries before finally opening a well-appointed exhibition space in Seoul with a solo exhibition by Georg Baselitz in the fall of 2021.

Since then, Ropac has drawn inspiration from Pace’s playbook by presenting a steady stream of solo shows from top-notch artists such as Alex Katz and Tom Sachs, quickly cementing the gallery’s position as one of major commercial art spaces in Seoul. As for the future, Ropac envisions an exhibition program “just as varied as the program we have at our other galleries, in order to truly represent the artists we work with”, while actively seeking local Korean artists to work with. work.

Other galleries have opted for less conventional approaches to establish themselves on the Korean art scene. Johann König caused a stir in 2021 when he opened a Seoul outpost of his eponymous Berlin-based gallery on a vacant floor of Korean luxury brand MCM’s flagship building. This unorthodox partnership provided König with an upscale venue that broadened its gallery’s reach while supporting MCM’s efforts to increase its own cultural cachet. The favorable terms of König’s lease with MCM are key to this symbiotic relationship, significantly reducing the gallerist’s financial exposure in his new venture.

Another Berlin-based gallery, Peres Projects, has set its sights on an even more unlikely owner: The Shilla, one of Seoul’s fanciest five-star hotels. In the spring of 2022, the gallery moved into the hotel’s underground shopping arcade, where it began selling its wares amidst an assortment of high-end boutiques, an alignment that positions the gallery as a luxury shopping destination in its own right. Whether these gambles by König and Peres will translate into sustainable business models remains to be seen, but their idiosyncratic approaches to securing exhibition space should encourage other savvy gallerists to think outside the box when considering a move to Seoul. .

Fort Hill in Seoul where Thaddaeus Ropac will open a new gallery this fall.  Courtesy of Thaddaeus Ropac.

Fort Hill in Seoul where Thaddaeus Ropac is. Courtesy of Thaddaeus Ropac.

The newest addition to Seoul’s contemporary art scene is the venerable Gladstone Gallery, which opened a venue there in the spring of 2022 with back-to-back solo exhibitions by Philippe Parreno and Anicka Yi. Gladstone’s Korean expansion came to fruition gradually, beginning in 2020 when veteran local dealer HeeJin Park joined the gallery and proceeded to place an increasing number of primary and secondary works with Asian collectors. .

We are in Seoul for the long haul,” explains gallery partner Paula Tsai, “and our main goal with the gallery is to provide our artists with new opportunities to show their work in a new context with a new audience. With this long-term strategy in mind, Gladstone was able to bide its time to invest in physical exhibition space. And clearly, there’s no better time than now, with Seoul poised to reach an inflection point in 2022 and emerge as a center for authentic contemporary art.

Frieze Seoul’s upcoming launch will work as a litmus test for many fringe galleries. Will the Korean capital prove a viable long-term beachhead for Western galleries seeking to establish their presence in the Asian market, perhaps even diverting gallerists from the region’s traditional hub, Hong Kong? Over the past six years, Seoul has proven itself as an incubator for various business strategies and operational structures. As the country’s art market continues to grow, many players in the international art world are eagerly developing their own approaches to catching the wave.

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