|Visitors fill the sophomore edition of Frieze Seoul at COEX in southern Seoul, Thursday. The four-day fair, which opened on Wednesday, attracted a throng of art aficionados hailing from across Asia and the rest of the world, especially those from mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan and Southeast Asia. Yonhap|
Korean art market expected to grow along with influx of international players
By Park Han-sol
The Korean art market experienced an unprecedented boom since the COVID-19 pandemic, further boosted by Frieze Seoul's debut in 2022. Market records were broken last year when art sales surpassed the 1 trillion won ($748 million) mark for the first time.
Nonetheless, the global market has been experiencing a slowdown since the beginning of this year and Korea was no exception. According to the Korea Art Authentication & Appraisal Research Center's July report, the total sales of Seoul Auction, K-Auction and Myart Auction stood at 61.3 billion won ($46 million) in the first half of 2023 ― a 47 percent drop compared to the same period a year earlier.
Despite the cooling market, the second edition of Frieze Seoul opened on Sept. 6 with a throng of art aficionados hailing from across Asia and the rest of the world, especially those from mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Many participating galleries noted the level of excitement was as strong as last year, with a larger base of international visitors this time.
"Last year, I felt it was like a pilot show, a test. People tried to figure out what's happening here. But after one year, the visitors totally multiplied," Leo Xu, senior director at David Zwirner's Hong Kong location, told The Korea Times. The gallery reported that its preview day sales included a work by Mamma Andersson sold for $550,000 and a new Katherine Bernhardt painting for $250,000.
Elaine Kwok, Hauser & Wirth's managing partner for Asia, echoed the sentiment: "Last year, there was a lot of buzz because Frieze Seoul was the first major (in-person) international art fair in Asia since COVID-19 that did not require travel restrictions. And then, there was a question afterward ― now that everything has opened up, can this momentum be sustained? I would say very much so."
|A visitor looks at sculptures and paintings by American artist Woody De Othello exhibited at San Francisco-based Jessica Silverman's booth at Frieze Seoul, Wednesday. Titled, "Mineral Memory," this is the artist's first solo show in Asia. Korea Times photo by Park Han-sol|
While aware of the market readjustment, dealers noted that Korea's art scene is dictated by more than secondary market sales. "It's an entire ecosystem," said Emma Son, senior director of Lehmann Maupin's Seoul outpost.
"Korea's art community has been in existence and growing for decades," Frieze Seoul Director Patrick Lee said during a press conference at the fair venue in COEX, southern Seoul, Thursday.
The depth of the country's artistic practice ― from "dansaekhwa" (monochrome painting) and avant-garde experimental masters of the 1960s and 1970s to different generations of notable contemporary artists like Do Ho Suh, Lee Bul and Lee Mi-rae ― as well as a high number of public and private museums and a solid base of curatorial specialists are all that enable Seoul "to hold its own" when compared to other Asian cities, the director added.
There has also been a sophisticated collector base in Korea since the 1980s, with an interest in both Korean and Western art, according to Bo Kim, managing director of Perrotin Seoul. "What's more, the country hosts the Gwangju Biennale, the oldest biennial of contemporary art in Asia. And two of the major local auction houses are listed."
With virtually no transaction tax or import tax levied, Seoul also presents itself as a favorable art market center for international dealers, Hauser & Wirth's Kwok noted. "Like Hong Kong, Seoul has the special advantage of being a free port for transactions in art. Singapore, Taiwan, mainland China and Japan ― they all have varying amounts of tax that make them less attractive as a transactional hub."
|Jason Haam's booth at Frieze Seoul / Korea Times photo by Park Han-sol|
Navigating new landscape after arrival of international fairs, dealers
The recent influx of foreign galleries and the arrival of Frieze Seoul have spurred concerns among some of the players in the Korean art scene, who think that global dealers are more interested in tapping into a new market rather than engaging with or contributing to the local community in the long run.
But Seoul-born art dealer and collector Jason Haam, whose highlights at this year's fair include the works of Lee Moka and Urs Fischer, regards the newfound global attention to be a "fantastic way of intervening" in the local art scene.
"What's interesting about Seoul is the huge emotional distance between young artists and people who show up at places like Frieze Seoul. As artists in their 20s or 30s, they never actually think that they can meet or exhibit with these gallerists and collectors," he said, adding that platforms such as Frieze bring closer the new chances of gaining recognition "if the work is good."
"A lot of the galleries represented in this fair understand their responsibility to promote and cultivate Korean art to the global audience. They know that's the way to engage more actively with the Korean audience, and it's going to happen. We just have to provide quality."
His eponymous gallery reported that it sold multiple works on the preview day, including Lee Moka's painting for $55,000 and a work by Jonathan Gardener for $160,000.
"It's a very long-term relationship that we want to develop with the audience here. It's not just about showing up at an art fair (for one-way sales). It's also working with the institutions here to do exhibitions … There are a lot of wonderful cross-cultural dialogues that can be had," Hauser & Wirth's Kwok similarly noted. "And I think everyone coming into town does mean a greater platform for Korean artists in the end."