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Inside South Korea’s Art-Mad Capital

SEOUL — One recent afternoon in the vibrant Itaewon neighborhood, art types trickled into a four-story building that the Berlin and Paris gallery Esther Schipper had just unveiled as a showroom, to catch an interactive performance by the artist Tino Sehgal. It involved a girl, in character, delivering a short monologue and addressing questions to her audience. At one point, she turned to an artist on hand and asked, “Would you rather feel too busy or not busy enough?” Not a fair question: Anyone trying to keep up with art in this art-mad city hardly has a choice.

New museums are opening, foreign galleries are alighting and corporations are plowing money into contemporary art. Frieze opened a fair here in September, some 120 exhibitors strong, and the international art world flew in. At Samsung’s palatial Leeum Museum of Art, “Squid Game” stars and visiting museum curators watched the K-pop girl group Kep1er. At a club in the industrial Euljiro neighborhood, the artist Haegue Yang hosted a blowout that lasted into the early morning. Finally, after cautious pandemic management, this metropolitan area of 26 million — that’s half the country’s population in an area the size of Connecticut — felt gloriously alive.

Amid the action, one young gallery worker told me he was proud that Frieze, which has editions in London, New York and Los Angeles, had picked South Korea instead of rival Japan for its first fair in Asia. And the Seoul-born art dealer, Jason Haam, 32, enthused in an interview, “It’s kind of like the World Cup or Olympics coming into this country.” It is an exhilarating moment for art and a complicated one, as everyone navigates rapid changes, sizes up the newcomers and angles for position, as economic fears loom.

“I think it was long overdue that people recognized Seoul, Korea, as an art hub,” said Emma Son, the senior director at Lehmann Maupin’s gallery here. She has been in Seoul’s gallery sector for more than two decades and was sitting in her office, next to a painting by the midcareer Korean artist Keunmin Lee, who channels body horror in virtuosic near-abstractions. Lehmann Maupin, which also has New York and London branches, moved into its elegant two-floor space this year, after opening a smaller showroom in 2017. Pace has also expanded dramatically, and Perrotin just added a second space. Almost 300 galleries were counted in Seoul in a 2020 survey by the Korea Arts Management Service, a government agency.

Gladstone Seoul opened in April.Credit…via Gladstone Gallery; Photo by Keith Park
The elegant new two-story space of Lehmann Maupin in Seoul.Credit…via Lehmann Maupin; Photo by texture by texture

A dealer invasion is underway. In March, Tang Contemporary Art (Bangkok, Beijing, Hong Kong) moved into a capacious exhibition hall in the ultrawealthy Cheongdam area. In April, Peres Projects, a talent-spotting outfit in Berlin and Milan, grabbed a shop in the ritzy Shilla Hotel; it is now prepping a gallery in Samcheong, the preserve of mainstays like Hyundai and PKM. That same month, Gladstone (three New York galleries, one in Brussels) also landed in Cheongdam, where König (Berlin, London) set up in 2021 on the upper floors of an MCM store.

The collector base in South Korea “is big, but it’s not as big as China, or the U.S. or Europe,” Son said, “so the competitiveness is going to be tough between the galleries.”

It may soon be tough between South Korea and other locales, as well. Hong Kong’s political crackdown and strict coronavirus quarantine helped Seoul, but those rules have been dropped. Japan has loosened its tax rules for art, and a fair is on tap for Tokyo this summer from a team that includes the founders of what became Art Basel Hong Kong and that is also behind one starting Jan. 12 in another wealthy Asian city: Singapore.

The foreign influx has its pluses and minuses. “It is pretty nice for me because I can see those works that I would have had to see somewhere else,” while traveling, said Kyungmin Lee in the basement office of Whistle, the Itaewon gallery for emerging artists she started in 2017.

Kyungmin Lee, director of Whistle in Seoul with a show of work by Min ha Park, “Tunnels.” Left, “Enter Namsan (midnight),” 2022.Credit…Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

Though major international galleries are coming to Seoul, they are “still separated from the Korean art scene,” said the curator Haeju Kim, who organized this year’s Busan Biennale in that city on the southern coast. Even the arrivals with big-name Korean artists on their rosters have largely focused on exhibiting European and American talent. In its first year in business here, Thaddaeus Ropac, a European heavyweight, did that exclusively, showing only men. (This week it opens an exhibition of three Korean female artists on the rise.)

Blue-chip dealers and deep-pocketed collectors are, of course, only two parts of a viable industry. Art scenes rise or fall on their emerging artists. While this is difficult to measure, it feels far more challenging for a vanguard-minded young local artist to be represented by a gallery in Seoul than it would be in, say, New York, which is comparatively abundant in dealers eager to take risks on the new and untested.

“I want galleries to be more open to more experimental things,” the artist Haena Yoo told me, taking a break at a coffee shop near her studio on a weekend morning. Yoo, 32, makes intricate sculptures and installations that incorporate organic substances and plumb how goods and identities are packaged and transform as they flow across borders. Homemade meju, a brick of fermented soybeans used in many Korean dishes, figures in some of her work. (She made sure to get a studio with a kitchen.)

The artist Haena Yoo at her studio. She makes intricate sculptures and installations that incorporate organic substances and explore how goods and identity flow and morph across borders.Credit…Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

Yoo was readying a solo show at Gallery Shilla, a veteran of the city of Daegu that opened here in 2021. After college in Seoul, she got her M.F.A. in California, and now splits her time between Los Angeles and the Korean capital. She said that she has seen dealers here become more intrepid in the past couple of years, perhaps spurred on by the expectations of younger patrons and all the new competition. Local ventures like P21, Gallery 2, Cylinder and BB & M have been injecting fresh energy.

Whistle came about when Lee, 38, wanted “to have some kind of opportunity for younger artists to show in a professional way, because it was lacking,” she said. One of two Korean galleries in Frieze Seoul’s section for emerging Asian galleries, it presented wily abstractions of flat, bright color by the Korean artist Hejum Bä. Some local collectors had been waiting more than a year for a Bä but ceded their planned purchases to foreigners — “they want international collectors to collect the work and for her to be more well known,” Lee said. “I collect, and it’s really not easy to let it go. I almost cried. Everyone was so supportive.”

Hejum Bä, “Target Chill,” 2022. Some local collectors who had been waiting a year to buy work ceded it to foreign collectors to help build her reputation.Credit…via Hejum Bä; and Whistle

The hope among many artists and dealers here is that this newfound attention will endure, and open doors beyond Korea. (The worry is that this may be a largely one-way relationship, with multinational galleries simply selling to a new market.) There are astonishingly talented artists here who have shown abroad only sparingly, like Heecheon Kim, an incisive video maker; Yooyun Yang, who conjures cinematic scenes from traditional ink-and-paper painting; Rondi Park, who makes hilarious works in every medium that are cut through with pathos; and Haneyl Choi, who crafts spare, enigmatic, queer sculptures.

The government has been providing grants to push along that process, helping artists and dealers exhibit widely, intent on generating a hallyu, or “Korean wave” that has propelled K-pop and Korean cinema to worldwide prominence. Korean corporations — the family-owned conglomerates known as chaebol that have long been art buyers and philanthropists — have also funded art initiatives abroad.

Yooyun Yang, “Beholder,” acrylic on Korean paper, 2019. The artist conjures cinematic scenes from traditional ink-and-paper painting.Credit…via Yooyun Yang
Exhibition view of Rondi Park’s show, “And I Need You More Than I Want You,” at White Noise.Credit…via White Noise; Photo by Haeran Lee

On the home front, too, there are government efforts to bolster art-making. “Korea has a good public-funding structure for residencies and studio spaces,” said Sook-Kyung Lee, who started her career in the 1990s at South Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA). She is now senior curator of international art at Tate Modern in London. “Compared to Britain, it’s just so much better,” she said. Agencies give grants for artists to publish catalogs and stage exhibitions, though some criticize the mechanics of the process, which involves onerous paperwork and the use of funds to rent venues for brief runs.

Real estate is pricey in Seoul — and most galleries are modest by Chelsea standards — but people find ways to make it work. Scrappy alternative galleries, many run by artists, dot neighborhoods like Euljiro, Mullae and Seochon, and slices of the Mapo district. (Stalwarts includes WESS, Factory 2, Space 413, Sarubia and Saga.) For better and for worse, they can feel disconnected from the commercial sphere, and they come and go with heartbreaking speed.

“To be honest, at the start, I didn’t mean to do this,” Jungmin Cho said at one such space, White Noise, which she directs. It is in a basement with low ceilings that once held a catering business in a stretch of the Bangbae neighborhood lined with cozy cafes. “I was just gathering my friends and doing fun, experimental things without thinking about the future.”

That was in 2018. People told her to keep it going. For one night, on Dec. 30, White Noise hosted its 37th project, with Lilbiitz (a “creative food project team”) offering dishes inspired by the gallery’s 2022 shows. The week of Frieze, Cho had artists make presentations of their work at a design shop before it was auctioned off, live, as a D.I.Y. sendup of that market ritual.

Jungmin Cho, the director of White Noise, a basement gallery in Seoul.Credit…Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

When it comes to the global art market, South Korea remains a minor player. Its total art sales in 2021 were 922.3 billion won (about $726 million at the current exchange rate), according to a report from Seoul National University and the Paradise Cultural Foundation. China’s were around $13 billion, per an Art Basel and UBS survey. Auction turnover in Hong Kong alone was $1.7 billion for that year, according to Artprice — more than six times South Korea’s total.

But the major houses are taking an interest. Christie’s staged a blockbuster exhibition of Francis Bacon and Adrian Ghenie during Frieze Seoul; Sotheby’s hired Jane Yoon (formerly of Phillips) to open a new office, and Minhee Suh has joined Phillips as regional director after a dozen years at the local K Auction. In an interview, Suh described how she has seen collecting change. “Before it was just like a hobby,” she said. Now “it’s a kind of culture.”

What is particularly striking about being in South Korea right now is the sense of possibility in the air. About 80 percent of its art museums — more than 200 — were established after 2000, according to the Korea Arts Management Service. The Seoul Museum of Art has seven branches in the city, and is readying three more. The federal government, meanwhile, is planning another for the hulking collection of art, books, and antiquities donated by the family of the Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee, who died in 2020.

Samsung’s cultural foundation has two museums of its own — the Leeum and, just south of Seoul, the Ho-Am, which will reopen in April after a renovation. Other corporate giants, like SK and Amorepacific, also operate art institutions. In 2021, ST International (an energy concern) inaugurated a striking building for its headquarters and its art nonprofit, SongEun, which focuses on up-and-coming Korean figures.

“We wanted — through the architecture, through making a landmark with Herzog & de Meuron — more exposure for our young artists,” said SongEun’s artistic director, Laurencina Farrant-Lee.

ST inaugurated its headquarters and SongEunm Art Space, designed by Herzog & de Meuron.Credit…Iwan Baan
SongEun Art Space was designed in part to bring more attention to artists.Credit…Iwan Baan

The pace of building in South Korea awes, but there are gripes that the quality of public exhibitions, and professional standards, varies widely. Many public collections remain in nascent stages, and their acquisition budgets are not large.

The national museum, MMCA, had about $4 million for art buys in 2021, which would not cover half of the roughly $11.2 million that a collector, Kim Woong-ki, paid in 2019 for a 1971 Kim Whanki painting, the record price for Korean art at auction. It is a radiant, swirling work of minute blue marks, and it was just on view at a new art venue in an office building associated with Global Sae-A Group (clothing and more), where Kim is chairman. (Some have called for South Korea to adopt tax incentives for donating art to museums.)

“It’s kind of like the World Cup or Olympics coming into this country,” the art dealer Jason Haam said of Frieze’s arrival in Seoul.Credit…Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

Even as the city’s art scene expands, there is a measure of nervousness. The Korean won has started to recover after a rough year, but economic uncertainty remains. If Frieze “had been last year, it would have been so much crazier,” said Haam, the dealer, who opened his gallery in 2018 in an Italian restaurant that he gutted in the moneyed Seongbuk district. During Frieze, new paintings by the blue-chipper Urs Fischer hung on his walls, a feat for a young dealer with only a few years’ experience.

Haam’s parents are collectors, and while studying at Cornell University, he started selling art to his mother’s friends back home, building an international roster. “I felt like I had a little bit of a safe haven here, especially at the incubation stage of the gallery,” he said.

Those days are certainly over, but even as the scene gets crowded, Haam remains bullish, with plans to expand in Seoul. “Twenty years from now, if the country is as rich as it is right now,” he said, “I think it can be like London or New York.”

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