Young MZ Collectors Driving Korea’s Art Market Boom Are Just Beginning According to New Government Research

Much has been written about the young South Korean collecting class born after 1980 – known locally as MZ, a portmanteau of Millennials and Gen Z – who fuel its current art boom. Now it’s finally the subject of a government-backed in-depth study that breaks down the numbers on how and why they’re spending. The recently released report Analysis of Korean Millennial and Gen Z Art Collectorscommissioned by the Korea Art Management Service (KAMS), surveyed 1,361 collectors and also surveyed galleries, auction houses as well as art advisors about MZ collectors.

Who are they?

The survey establishes that MZ collectors are mostly digital natives with high levels of education, fluency in English and just as strategic about investing as they are culture-hungry. Having grown up with the internet and instilled with strong educational values, they tend to research art extensively, using sources of information ranging from museum art classes to YouTube, social media and the influencer-focused online content. They are heavily influenced by famous art collectors in their ranks, including BTS’s RM, singer G-Dragon and actor Yoo Ah-In. Most MZ collectors were raised by well-educated parents who had one to two children.

Of the MZ collectors surveyed, approximately 60% had a bachelor’s degree and 30% had a master’s degree. Collectors of what Koreans call Generation XB – a combination of Gen Xers born between 1965 and 1979 and Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 – were 54% female, while in MZ women make up 63 .1% of collectors.

The report identifies a top 20% group of collectors with an annual income of more than 300 million Korean won ($218,000), who each spent at least 100 million Korean won ($72,550) to purchase gold. art over the past three years, purchasing an average of 20.8 works. . From this top tier, women made up 53.6% of MZ collectors compared to 39.2% of XBers.

Why do they buy art?

Among MZ collectors surveyed, 88.6% said they buy an artwork primarily because they like it – the most popular response. The second most popular reason is the appeal of art for interior design, linked to repeated strict lockdowns across Asia forcing people to stay at home, according to 34.6% of respondents. The same amount said art has become a more attractive investment amid rising inflation around the world.

However, these motivations change when considering top collectors, where investment motivates 67.9% of respondents. Speculative investment remains pervasive in the Korean art market, according to the survey, as in much of the global and Asian market. But, somewhat reassuringly, MZ collectors were slightly less likely to resell works over the past decade, at 15.6%, compared to XBers, at 19.3%. Additionally, half of MZ sellers did so to purchase new works.

Heejoon Lee’s Watermelon Juice (2022). Courtesy of Kukje Gallery

How do they spend this money?

This upper tier spends between $10,000 and $50,000 per work on average: 41% say their last purchase falls within this range, while 18% have spent between $50,000 and $100,000, and only 1.79% have each spent between $500,000 and $1 million and between $1 and $2 million. A single MZ collector had spent over $3.6 million on art in the past three years. These buys are partly top-notch, with both Korean Dansaekhwa-generation stars like Lee Ufan and Hyong-Keun Yun and big Western names, to which MZers are more receptive than their XB elders.

Although young Koreans have a reputation for favoring Western artists, MZ collectors also buy emerging Korean artists more frequently, mainly due to their low budgets and partly for pragmatic reasons such as shipping costs, international bank transfers and inexperience in purchasing expensive works from international galleries. The survey reveals that 46.3% of MZ collectors have recently purchased works by emerging Korean artists, compared to only 22.7% of XB collectors. In addition, they appreciate artists who share their sensibilities, their references and sometimes their social backgrounds. Drawing on nostalgia for MZ in a time of rapid urban change, multimedia artist Heejoon Lee, who found Korean streetscapes radically altered upon returning from school in the UK. Her work, which deals with moving memory, combines photography with geometric abstraction.

Installation view of Haneyl Choi’s Way at Gallery 2, Seoul. Courtesy of Gallery 2

Growing opportunities for young artists

Other emerging or mid-career artists cited as desirable by MZ collectors include Sangho Noh, who incorporates mixed media and bold color paintings with fashion brands, and graphic designer Kwangsoo Park, who has collaborated with Hyukoh group. Both are now represented by well-established South Korean commercial galleries: Noh by Arario and Park by Hakgoje. These artists initially lacked support from museums and major galleries due to their age, and mid-range galleries fled due to their low prices and more experimental works. However, five to six years ago, more MZ gallery owners began to open up friendlier spaces to emerging artists, and since the boom of 2020, the expanding circles of MZ collectors have begun to organize events and shows for young artists, often supported by KAMS.

The result is a diverse group of increasingly successful artists, including sculptor Haneyl Choi, whose queering Korean masculinity is currently the subject of two commercial exhibitions at Seoul’s P21 and Gallery2 galleries. And Jonghwan Jang’s paintings, mostly of animal skins, veer into caricatural surrealism. Cartoons and other cartoons also inform the works of Seungcheol Ok, who uses Pop Art imagery to challenge definitions of originality. The survey finds that buying from these artists is sustainable and unlikely to create a bubble, as the Korean galleries they work with are experienced enough to keep prices stable.

Ultimately, MZ collectors still need more education to understand and engage with the social and historical values ​​of art. But the underlying cultural enthusiasm of these smart, quick-learners will lead to greater maturation that only comes with more time and experience. The future is bright.

• Henna Joo is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Arts and Cultural Management, Hongik University and lead author of Analysis of Korean Millennial and Gen Z art collectors. She was previously director of the Arario Gallery.

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