Will Seoul Become Asia’s Next Major Art Hub?

With the arrival of the first-ever Frieze Seoul this weekend, collectors and dealers are zeroing in on the South Korean capital as a potential new hub for Asia’s art market.

Kiaf Seoul 2021. Image courtesy of Kiaf Operating Committee

In recent years, Korean pop culture—film, design, fashion, and especially music—has enjoyed a swift rise to prominence. “There’s no reason why fine art shouldn’t follow,” dealer Patrick Lee, the former executive director of Seoul’s Gallery Hyundai, tells the Financial Times. Thus heralds the arrival of Frieze Seoul (Sept. 2–5), which Lee is spearheading as director. Launching this week in the South Korean capital alongside the longstanding Korea International Art Fair (Kiaf, Sept. 3–6) at the COEX Center in the popular Gangnam District, it marks the art fair’s inaugural foray into the burgeoning Asian market. 

Lee has every reason to be optimistic. The South Korean art market is expected to surpass a trillion won ($760 million) this year, according to research from the Korea Arts Management Service, which recorded 916 billion won ($682 million) in 2020 and 381 billion won ($284 million) the year before. Credit attractive economic conditions for collectors—South Korea doesn’t impose import duty on artworks, and its president, Yoon Suk-yeol, has pledged $3.66 billion to cultivate the arts. While promising, those numbers pale in comparison to China, which recorded $13.4 billion worth of art sales in 2021. Hong Kong’s contentious political climate and Beijing’s encroachment on freedoms has made some prominent gallerists weary of doing business there despite the well-received debut of Art Basel Hong Kong in 2019.

Perrotin Dosan Park. Photography by Chin Hyosook, courtesy of Perrotin

Powerhouse galleries have also turned their attention to Seoul thanks in part to Asia’s rising class of young, wealthy collectors who were willing to test the waters of the art market during the pandemic, when there weren’t many other places to spend. In South Korea, the generation of collectors born roughly between 1981 and 2005 has been dubbed “MZers,” a combination of millennials and Gen Z. “Younger Korean collectors are really trending,” Lee says. “There’s a lot of potential as they come from different backgrounds. Some grew up with art as their parents were collectors, so they have a sophisticated understanding of the scene, and there are others who may have invested in stocks and are looking at art as an alternative investment.” According to Kiaf, half of the 2021 edition’s 88,000 visitors were first-time attendees. 

Seoul is also becoming a magnet for blue-chip galleries with global footprints. Influential dealer Emmanuel Perrotin made his South Korean debut in the Samcheong-dong neighborhood in 2016 and is launching a second space, Perrotin Dosan Park in Gangnam, to coincide with Kiaf and Frieze, where he’ll present a booth of artworks by Tavares Strachan. Perrotin’s endorsement of the South Korean capital speaks volumes. Since debuting in Paris in the early ‘90s, he’s been credited with identifying several artists like Damien Hirst, KAWS, and Takashi Murakami who went on to become global superstars. Lehmann Maupin and Pace both branched out to Seoul in 2017; the latter recently expanded its outpost there with a teahouse and sculpture courtyard designed by architect Minsuk Cho.

Work by Fyerool Darma at Yeo Workshop, Singapore. Photography by Ng Wu Gang, courtesy of the artist and Yeo Workshop

There’s much to look forward to at Kiaf and Frieze Seoul as nearly 350 dealers scramble to prepare their booths. The latter fair brings primarily a mix of blue-chip galleries, but a new section called Focus Asia spotlights ten young Asia-based galleries established after 2010, with Tabula Rasa Gallery showing Laetitia Yhap and Tehran’s Dastan Gallery showing Ali Beheshti. Curated by the Doosan Art Center’s Hyejung Jang and Christopher Y. Lew of the Horizon Art Foundation, Focus Asia aims to encapsulate the wide range of artistic practices across the continent from Iran to Indonesia—no easy task when limited to ten galleries. Korean dealers will mostly opt for Kiaf, which is presenting a new section, Kiaf Plus, that spotlights ultra-contemporary works by new-media artists and will include a hefty section of NFTs. 

“Frieze’s arrival to the country makes it cool to be working in Seoul, and makes artists more interested in showing in Seoul,” Jason Haam, founder of the eponymous Seoul-based gallery, tells The Art Newspaper. “I’m very happy that the art world is paying attention. Competition will be tougher, but there is a bigger pie now.”

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