Scattered across a scenic rooftop garden of newly-opened Whitestone Gallery in central Seoul's Yongsan District on a cloudless September afternoon were moon jars made by rising Korean ceramicist Shin Won-dong.
Walking around the voluminous jars, the Tokyo-headquartered gallery's CEO Koei Shiraishi pointed out how the building, designed by acclaimed architect Kengo Kuma, overlooks the city's skyscrapers on one side and lush Mount Nam on the other.
"When I look at this place, it feels connected to the city center as well as the older Seoul area with the mountains. It's also very calm and peaceful. It makes me want to become friends with it," he told The Korea Times.
Despite the building being moderately apart from the city's other more prominent gallery districts ― like Samcheong-dong and Hannam-dong ― he expressed his wish to create "a place where people visit with the purpose of appreciating art with no other distractions" for his gallery's first location in Seoul. In fact, Whitestone is the first Japanese gallery to open a permanent outpost in Korea.
Its new space has been inaugurated by the group show with a title that reflects the gallery's vision in the country: "We Love Korea."
A half-hour walk from Whitestone through the city center will take visitors to the site that used to be Joseon-era Queen Insoo's office in Deoksu Palace, where another global dealer greets them in its brand-new Seoul location: Duarte Sequeira.
The announcement of the new venue, which currently hosts American artist Pieter Schoolwerth's first solo show in Asia, comes just a year after the Portuguese dealer opened its first outpost in southern Seoul's upscale Gangnam District.
Sequeira said that he "immediately clicked with" the vibrant Korean art scene when he landed in the country for the first time in May last year to take part in Art Busan.
"I realized that it's here that I wanted to expand my gallery," he noted, adding that having two outposts in different neighborhoods will allow his gallery to "show our artists in spaces with very different characteristics" and "attract different demographics within Seoul."
With the opening of their Seoul branches this month, the two dealers have joined a flurry of international exhibitors that have newly entered or expanded their footprints within the Korean art market this year.
Blue-chip gallery White Cube is one of the newcomers to the art scene here, inaugurating its space in Gangnam District with a group exhibition titled "The Embodied Spirit."
Powerhouse dealer Thaddaeus Ropac has expanded its existing outpost in Yongsan District with the addition of a first-floor gallery. Berlin-based Peres Projects, which initially made inroads into Korea last year, opened its second location in downtown Seoul in April. Also joining the western-rooted institutions' eastward move is auction house Sotheby's, which unveiled its new premises in the city this week.
Seoul as attractive site for international players
The Korean art market experienced an unprecedented boom in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, boosted further by Frieze Seoul's debut in 2022. Market records were broken last year when art sales surpassed the 1 trillion won ($752 million) mark for the first time.
Nonetheless, like the rest of the global market, the country's commercial art scene has been experiencing a slowdown this year. 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 steep 47 percent drop compared to the same period a year earlier.
Despite the apparent market correction, Seoul is still viewed to be an attractive site for a number of international dealers looking to gain a foothold in the region as part of their long-term growth strategy.
"It shows that international galleries really believe in the Korean market despite the current downtrend. There is definitely something solid in Korea that makes them, including myself, believe in this market in the long term," Sequeira noted. "It's also a new and emerging art hub and I think everyone wants to explore and be a part of that."
Compared to Europe, he added, Korea has a much larger number of young collectors who are eager to learn and meet new players, creating a "vibrant and sophisticated scene even though (the market) is not so old."
The 33-year-old dealer noted that there is also a prominent difference in how collectors in Korea behave relative to their European counterparts.
"Europeans are more individualized when it comes to deciding what they want to acquire, but in Seoul, young collectors would actively talk to one another, go to the fair together and show each other what they have. There's a genuine interest in what they're seeing. I think having such dialogues will always allow for a more educated public."
In addition to the visible rise of a new generation of young collectors of late, other global exhibitors who partook in this year's sophomore edition of Frieze Seoul described the country's art scene as an "entire ecosystem" that has been growing for decades.
The various stakeholders in the scene include a high number of public and private museums and galleries, established local auction houses, art biennales (including the Gwangju Biennale, the longest-running contemporary art biennial in Asia), a sophisticated collector base with purchasing power since the 1980s, as well as an internationally trained cohort of curatorial specialists and artistic talents.
With virtually no transaction tax or import tax levied, the country also presents itself as a favorable art market center for global players, Hauser & Wirth's Elaine Kwok told The Korea Times.
"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."
Whitestone CEO Shiraishi explained that part of his gallery's growth strategy in Seoul will involve contributing to a more balanced representation of both Asian and Euro-American creatives within the country's art scene.
"Here, there are good Western galleries alongside their Korean counterparts. So, for Korean collectors, Western art is very familiar. But it seemed to me that artists from other regions in Asia ― China, Japan, Taiwan, Southeast Asia, among others ― have not had as many opportunities to have a show in the country," he noted. "When I learned that my gallery was the first from Japan to open a space here, I felt that we should make it our mission to do so."
Engaging with Korean art community
Dealers that have made inroads into the Korean art scene through their Seoul outposts have stressed their goal to engage with the local art community and work to promote Korean artists on the global stage in the long run ― instead of simply viewing the country as a new market to tap.
This summer, Whitestone hosted a solo exhibition on veteran painter Kwon Soon-ik in its Taipei location. And in its inaugural Seoul group show, the gallery has placed the works of established and rising Korean creatives ― Lee U-fan, Lee Jae-hyun and Shin Won-dong, among others ― alongside acclaimed Japanese post-war postmodern and avant-garde artists including those from the Gutai Art Association.
"We want to introduce Korean artists, both historical and emerging, to all over Asia through our branches in the region. This is our vision. We want to be a cultural bridge between the cities, between the people," Shiraishi said.
Thaddaeus Ropac announced this month that emerging abstractionist Chung Hee-min has joined the gallery; her solo show will take place in the dealer's London space next year. The gallery also represents Korean Canadian visual artist Zadie Xa, who will also have her first solo showcase in Paris in 2024.
And Sequeira noted that his gallery is currently in conversation to bring some Korean creatives to Portugal ― and introduce their pieces to the European audience ― via an artist residency program it runs in its Braga headquarters starting from next year.
"We are a foreign gallery in Seoul, but we don't want to come here and just drop our artists," the Portuguese dealer said. "We also want to have a connection with the actual players here and help develop the Korean art scene as much as we can. That intersection will always be important for us."