Frieze Seoul 2022: Art fair relies on South Korea as Asia’s next big art market

Written by Oscar Holland, CNNSeoul, South Korea

With a thriving local gallery scene and a growing class of wealthy collectors, South Korea has long been considered one of the art world’s sleeping giants. The announcement that a major art fair, Frieze, would be hosting its first Asian edition there may have surprised some, but it was the culmination of decades of growth.

This week, the world of jet-set galleries invaded the capital, Seoul, which welcomed visitors with a packed program of new exhibitions and cultural events. The four-day fair features over 110 galleries from 20 countries vying for collectors’ attention at an exhibition center in upscale Gangnam.

“It’s a real validation of the strength of the art scene, not only in Korea but also in Asia,” Patrick Lee, director of Frieze Seoul, told CNN on Friday, the fair’s opening day.

“Seoul is a very dynamic place with a strong history and appreciation of culture, not only in art but also in music, design and fashion,” he added. “And really, the world is being exposed to it right now.”

Originating from the magazine of the same name, Frieze started in London in 2003 before expanding to New York in 2012 and then to Los Angeles seven years later. Making their debut in Seoul, Western heavyweights such as Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth will be joined by leading Asian galleries, while the event’s Focus Asia section will spotlight 10 smaller regional galleries that opened in 2010 or later.

“(The fair) provides an opportunity to introduce the western world to what is here in Asia and vice versa,” Lee said, adding that over 30% of the participating galleries are from Asia.

The event marks a significant moment for South Korea, which is experiencing an arts boom. Amid a broader push to boost cultural exports like K-pop and TV shows like Squid Game, new President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration recently allocated 4.8 trillion won ($3.5 billion) to support content from the K-culture promised in the next five years.

Several major galleries have also established outposts in Seoul over the past two years, including Thaddaeus Ropac, Pace, and Gladstone. Those already based in the city, meanwhile, are expanding their presence, with French gallery Perrotin opening its second location in the capital this week and Lehmann Maupin moving to a new two-story space in the chic Hannam-dong district.

Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Youngsan-gu, Seoul.

Lehmann Maupin Gallery in Youngsan-gu, Seoul. Recognition: Courtesy of Lehmann Maupin/Sonongji

The latter gallery’s co-founder, David Maupin, said the arrival of a fair like Frieze was a “natural evolution” of the growth of the Korean art market.

“Collectors here are open to engaging with artists — and buying and talking about art that doesn’t necessarily have auction records,” said Maupin, who represented several major Korean artists, including Lee Bul and Do Ho Suh, before opening his Gallery’s Seoul Outpost in 2017. “Her collecting habits come from connoisseurship, interest, and passion.”

Emerging hub

Asia’s strict Covid-19 guidelines have posed major challenges for the art market – and an industry that still likes to do much of its business in person. The continent’s largest art fair, Art Basel Hong Kong, saw a significant drop in attendance due to the city’s strict quarantine rules. In South Korea, however, restrictions have largely been lifted, with overseas visitors subjected to just a single mandatory PCR test upon arrival.
While Hong Kong is still considered the regional center of the art market, South Korea’s developed infrastructure and low taxes – and in some cases tax exemptions – on art also make it an attractive place to do business. And the country is home to a growing number of affluent collectors, who account for 2% of contemporary art sales in 2021 (fifth after the US, China, the UK and France), according to the latest Art Market Report from UBS and Art Basel.

International interest in Korean works is also growing. Abstract paintings from the country’s post-war Dansaekhwa movement (or “monochrome painting”) can now fetch millions of dollars at auction. And one of the things that makes South Korea a good place to do business, Maupin said, isn’t necessarily the arrival of international arts institutions, but the vibrancy of its local scene.

Artwork by Korean artist Park Seo-Bo.

Artwork by Korean artist Park Seo-Bo. Recognition: Courtesy of Park Seo-Bo Studio and Tokyo Gallery + BTAP

“There are also great art schools here,” he added. “I’m very optimistic to see more and more Korean artists in the future.”

South Korea’s rapid rise has not been without teething problems. The Galleries Association of Korea has complained that the recent spate of sales being conducted by the country’s auction houses is hurting young artists by causing “excessive and frequent price swings,” Art Newspaper reported in January. Bringing the work of emerging artists directly to the collectors’ market, rather than selling them through local galleries, “undermines the very foundation of the market,” the organization argued.

Korean artist Hun Kyu Kim, who lives in London but is showing several works at Frieze Seoul, said the arrival of a major international art fair offers “pros and cons” for the local scene. Ultimately, however, it was “a really good sign,” according to the painter.

“I’ve seen so many Korean artists who haven’t had a chance to show their work internationally,” he added. “So I think it will be a good opportunity to see (not only) international art, but also for local artists.”

To that end, Frieze decided to collaborate – not compete – with the Galleries Association of Korea’s longstanding local fair Kiaf Art Seoul, which has been held in the capital since 2002. The two events will take place simultaneously at the same location. .

“It was very important for Frieze to reach out to (the gallery association) and get their support,” said Frieze director Lee, who was previously the executive director of Gallery Hyundai, a fixture in the Seoul art world.

“The best art fairs are the ones that really engage with the (local) institutions… and activate, showcase and support the local art scene.”

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