Art boom in Korea: “Seoul benefits from the situation in Hong Kong”

An September 2, Frieze will open an art fair in Seoul for the first time. The South Korean city thus has a prominent place on the itinerary of art collectors. Some internationally renowned galleries have already placed their trust in Seoul and opened branches, such as Pace, Gladstone, Ropac, König and Perrotin. And there are still more to come, such as the Berlin gallery Esther Schipper, which is opening a branch in Seoul just in time for Frieze. However, the Lehmann Maupin Gallery from New York was one of the pioneers in South Korea. Her gallery director, Emma Son, explains why Seoul is now having momentum.

WELT: How do you explain the hype about Seoul?

Emma Son: Korea already has a strong art market at the local and regional level. We have great private and government museums all over the country. There are excellent academies that train artists. This leads to a passion for collecting. In any case, the number of collectors of contemporary art is constantly growing. Also, I believe that Seoul’s geographic location is attractive to international customers.

WELT: Seoul is still a relatively new spot on the art market map.

Son: We haven’t been at an international level for a long time, but in a way we’ve prepared for this moment with the increasing interest in the Asian market. There is more than just Hong Kong and China.

WELT: What is Korea’s collectible like?

Son: The history of collecting began thousands of years ago. But well into the 20th century, more traditional arts were honored. The influx of international culture to Korea began with the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Everything has really changed since then – people started collecting more than just Korean art.

WELT: K-Pop is a Korean export hit. A role model for art?

Son: K-pop’s popularity is global. It’s been said “K-Art” for the work of any artist who is from Korea. But not everything that gets the “K” stamp is a big deal.

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WELT: South Korea is technology and media oriented. Are the art and tech scenes overlapping?

Son: The fine arts business and art collecting has been very conservative up until now. But that is changing rapidly, at least now that everyone has heard about NFT. Korea is now a technically very advanced country. Video has long been a strong medium here, and more and more artists are interested in using the latest technologies. The collectors, however, need a little more time to accept and appreciate that.

WELT: What do you expect from the new art fair Frieze Seoul?

Son: I’ve heard that a lot of international collectors, curators and museum board members want to come to Seoul for Frieze, which is really great. It is the first time that an international art fair is held in Korea. We already have the Kiaf, but it’s geared more towards the regional, local art dealers. Now top-class galleries from all over the world are coming to Seoul. They attract not only Koreans but also international visitors. And our artists, galleries and museums will not miss this opportunity to show what Korea can do culturally. Many guests from abroad will not only come to the fair, but will also visit the studios of Korean artists and view the exhibitions.

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WELT: How did Galerie Lehmann Maupin contribute to the rise of Korea?

Son: One of the main reasons is that from the very beginning, since the late 1990s, the gallery has been collaborating with Do Ho Suh, a Korean-born artist who was fresh out of college at the time. Rachel Lehmann discovered him. Do Ho Suh’s work has also brought her and her partner David Maupin closer to the country and its rich art history. Later, the two began working with Lee Bul, another major Korean artist. So both gallerists are very attracted to our culture. This has helped them better understand Korea’s importance and anticipate its potential.

WELT: At the fair you show an overview of your program. But in the Seoul gallery you are showing works by McArthur Binion, why?

Son: Binion is one of the most important African American abstract painters. We wanted to present one of our most important artists in Seoul, who is also representative of our program. The key to Galerie Lehmann Maupin is our diversity. At this moment, when Seoul is opening up to the global art world, we want to show that we work with a wide variety of positions.

WELT: Does Seoul have a unique selling proposition in the competition of Asian art metropolises?

Son: The great infrastructure. Korea’s strength is its diversity. The Korean landscape has changed a lot, we are now very open to various cultural interests. Most importantly, I believe we have this great energy now that is attracting people from all over the world. In addition, Korea also offers a tax advantage. The state does not levy an import tax on art. This is another attractive reason for galleries to do business here.

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WELT: How do you perceive the political situation in East Asia? Beijing is putting pressure on Hong Kong and militarily threatening Taiwan.

Son: We have been living here with the conflict with North Korea for many decades. We knew what was going to happen in Hong Kong since it was handed back to China. The problems with Taiwan smolder even longer. Seoul is benefiting from the situation in Hong Kong at the moment. Overall, I don’t think the current political problems will have a negative impact on Korea. The art market also has its own dynamics and has always coped well with this type of conflict, in contrast to other sectors of the economy such as the manufacturing industry.

WELT: Can Seoul fill the void Hong Kong may be leaving?

Son: Yes. Of course we have to wait and see how we organize our first international trade fair and get through this year. Then we can assess the situation. But right now, I think this is a really big opportunity for Korea, especially Seoul.

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