When South Korea’s richest man, Lee Kun-hee, died this past October, at 78, rumors immediately began swirling about his art collection, a trove said to include thousands of pieces, and to be worth well more than $1 billion. “The reason many go to the Louvre is to see the Mona Lisa, and the Sistine Chapel, the Creation of Adam,” an anonymous critic who had viewed Lee’s bounty told Reuters, adding that “there are valuable masterpieces that can compare to that in the Lee collection.” Lee’s father, the founder of Samsung, had acquired masterworks of traditional Korean art, and Lee Kun-hee followed in his footsteps, spending more than 30 years as chairman of Samsung, and with his wife, Hong Ra-hee, buying more recent pieces by Claude Monet, Lee Jung-seop, Pablo Picasso, and other giants. The company’s cultural foundation runs two museums in South Korea, the Leeum and Ho-Am. The question everyone was asking was: Would Lee’s holdings go to institutions in South Korea? His heirs faced an estate-tax bill north of $10 billion, and that art collection would help cover it, if it were to be sold or used as loan collateral. Dealers and former culture ministers called on the government to pass legislation that would allow art to be applied to taxes, to keep the work from leaving the country. In late April, the family finally announced its plans: 23,000 works from the patriarch’s collection would be donated to local museums. It is a huge step, but only the latest in the country’s emergence as a world-class art destination, with a thriving market center, Seoul, positioned to steal the spotlight from Asia’s current market capital, Hong Kong.
South Korea is a small country, about the size of Indiana, and half its residents live in the Seoul Metropolitan Area, which is roughly Los Angeles County with twice as many people, 25 million. As of 2019, that dense region boasted 100 art museums. Nationwide, they have been opening at a fast clip. Between 2008 and 2019, their number doubled, from 127 to 256, according to a report on the art sector put out annually by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, and the Korea Arts Management Service, a government agency. About a quarter of those museums are national or public; the remainder are privately funded by universities or companies, which have become buyers in the Samsung mold (albeit at a smaller scale).
In 2017, beauty conglomerate Amorepacific (of Innisfree fame) opened a headquarters in Seoul, designed by David Chipperfield, which includes a vast exhibition space. Its CEO, Suh Kyung-bae (an ARTnews Top 200 Collector since 2016), has filled the Amorepacific Museum of Art with works by Sterling Ruby, Adam Pendleton, and Lee Bul, many fresh from the studio.
Art spaces have become a way for brands to compete. This past February, a million-square-foot Hyundai department store, with a dedicated exhibition space, began welcoming shoppers in the Yeouido district. (Fittingly, the business-art maestro Andy Warhol got the first show.) Retail rival Lotte has a museum of its own in its Lotte World mall, which opened in 2014, with the country’s tallest building soaring above it. A touring Basquiat show there recently drew more than 100,000 visitors, a big number even in non-pandemic times. The energy company Samtan is readying a new Herzog & de Meuron–designed headquarters in ultra-luxe Cheongdam—a striking, $52 million right triangle, 11 stories tall—that will house its closely watched SongEun Art and Cultural Foundation.
State-backed institutions have also stepped up. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) has opened two new branches in the last eight years. One was inaugurated in 2018 in Cheongju, a city of about 1 million an hour south of Seoul by train. The other arrived in the capital’s moneyed Samcheong neighborhood, in 2013. As part of the Lee family donation, the MMCA will receive north of 1,200 pieces, including its first Claude Monet and important canvases by Kim Whanki and Lee Jung-seop. More than 20,000 traditional Korean works, including dozens designated as National Treasures, will head to the National Museum of Korea, and other material would bolster the collections of regional museums. The donation includes art that almost no public museums in the world can now afford—and, conveniently, it removed those assets from the Lees’ tax bill; the hope in the art industry is that the donation could set an example for future patrons. (With Samsung’s de facto leader, Lee Jae-yong [Lee Kun-hee’s son], in prison for bribery, the donations also had the helpful benefit of generating some favorable press for the family.)
Seoul’s art scene has risen quickly. Until the 1980s, when a dictatorship gave way to democracy, only the most well-connected artists could get visas to travel abroad. The MMCA was founded in 1969, after a picketing campaign by artists, Soojung Kang, an MMCA curator, said through a translator, but its first purpose-built home opened only in 1986, just outside Seoul. (The MMCA has not emphasized collecting Western art—no public museum in Korea has it in great depth.) In 1995, government officials intent on boosting South Korea’s art world started the Gwangju Biennale, attracting global notice. Similar events followed in Busan (on the south coast) and Seoul, in 1998 and 2000. They align on the calendar in the fall every two years to draw the international art set.
In 1979, the Korea Galleries Association founded the annual Korea Galleries Art Fair, and a local bazaar was born. This past March, it drew 48,000 people, with visitors using apps to facilitate contact tracing, should a Covid outbreak make that necessary (it didn’t). “I’ve never seen so many people at that fair in my entire 20-year career,” said Emma Son, senior director at the Seoul branch of New York’s Lehmann Maupin gallery. Sales were good too, the latest indicator of strong local demand. “I keep telling my colleagues, it feels like a revival of what happened back in 2007,” Son said of the bullish mood in the country. That preceded a crash, but this time, she said, “the market is a lot stronger.”
“In the 1990s, after the Seoul Olympics [which occurred in 1988], and after the globalization of South Korea, the art market became very active,” said Kang, the MMCA curator, “and there was also a great boom in the 2000s.” She will highlight the artists who forged the art scene before then, like Lee Kang-So and Lee Seung-taek, in “The Avant-Garde: Experimental Art in South Korea, in 1960s–1970s,” which is set to run in 2022 at the MMCA and the Guggenheim, whose Kyung An is co-curating. It’s the first major museum show to take up the subject beyond the Korean peninsula.
Blue-chip art dealers from abroad have taken notice of this activity and established beachheads in Seoul over the past five years. Attractive business rules provided encouragement: there’s no import duty on art, and no sales tax on items under 60 million South Korean won (about $55,000). The same goes for work made by living artists. Between 2016 and 2017, Lehmann Maupin, Emmanuel Perrotin, and Pace all took space in the city.
“The South Korean art market had been well developed ahead of many other Asian markets,” said the Paris-based Perrotin, who has helped guide the careers of Takashi Murakami and Paola Pivi. He rented in a building where Christie’s resides, in the Samcheong area, which is home to stalwart local galleries like Hyundai (now in its 51st year, and no relation to the department store: the name means “modern”) and Kukje, a short walk from the Blue House, the official residence of South Korea’s president.
Pre-pandemic, Perrotin visited Korea three or four times a year, and he added to his roster canonical post–Korean War painters like Park Seo-Bo and the late Chung Chang-Sup, whose stature and prices have risen abroad, alongside their peers in the Dansaekhwa (“Monochrome”) movement. The Seoul gallery became integral to Perrotin’s regional expansion plans. He’d opened in Hong Kong in 2012, and after Seoul, he launched in Tokyo and Shanghai. “With our experience there, we were well-equipped when entering other markets in Asia,” he said.
Samcheong also attracted New York–based Lehmann Maupin, which had been showing the Korean stars Lee Bul and Do Ho Suh for years, and which also has London and Hong Kong outposts. “We had a very important base of Korean collectors,” cofounder Rachel Lehmann said. Before international travel halted, Seoul was a meeting point. “You would have Japanese collectors, you would have Chinese collectors who were coming, for example, to do a food trip,” she said.
Pace went with Hannam-dong, a chic haven for expats and the wealthy, and the site of the Leeum, which opened in 2004, with buildings by a trio of starchitects, Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel, and Rem Koolhaas. Pace began with a compact space tucked away in an office building. “I’d rather just start than build a temple to myself,” Pace CEO Marc Glimcher said. “But we did outgrow it.” In May, it opened a much larger, two-story venue across the street with paintings by African-American artist Sam Gilliam. Why Seoul? “Obviously, the history of collecting our artists in Korea is unquestionable,” Glimcher said, then continued, “we did have something to add, in a way that, like, in L.A., I feel I don’t have anything to add.”
Last year, New York dealer Barbara Gladstone hired HeeJin Park, a Kukje alum, to run a Seoul office and handle fairs around Asia. (The gallery has no plans to add a full-fledged exhibition space.) The powerful European dealer Thaddaeus Ropac plans to open a Seoul branch in October. This April, German power couple Johann and Lena König, who exhibit mid-career figures like Camille Henrot and Helen Marten, swung open the doors on a gallery that occupies the top floor and (selfie-ready) rooftop garden of fashion brand MCM’s building in Cheongdam. (The gallery previously had an MCM space in Tokyo that shuttered last year.) König’s ambassador in the city is Soo Choi, who will continue to run her four-year-old P21 gallery in two pocket-size storefronts in Itaewon. König’s entry comes as the “general audience and the collector base for contemporary art are constantly growing” in the country, Choi said.
“Until fairly recently, a lot of Korean collectors seldom knew about or traveled to the main international art fairs, or even local fairs,” Park said in an email.
It is not just deep-pocketed mega-galleries betting on the city. In 2019, Esther Kim Varet opened a branch of her Los Angeles gallery, Various Small Fires, in Hannam, where she’s been showing artists from her eclectic, American-focused roster, like Gina Beavers and Billy Al Bengston. Until Covid, she flew out for every opening. The modest-size venue now accounts for half her business, she said by video from L.A. “It’s kind of surprising.”
Varet’s parents emigrated from Korea to the United States, and kept a home in the city, so she visited regularly. But Seoul’s draw was about more than her family ties. The West Coast avant-garde looked to Asia, she pointed out, and the notion of a single market center is no longer valid. “Being in L.A., it makes for a much more natural jumping-off point to go into Korea for me than if I were to set up shop in New York,” she said.
South Korea has been spending money to promote the field, aiming to create, for art, the “Korean wave” (hallyu) enjoyed by Korean pop juggernauts like Blackpink and BTS. (As it happens, BTS’s leader, RM, is a huge art fan, and recently gave funds to the MMCA to republish out-of-print books.) And it is not just spending on biennials. Local artists can get grants to support projects in the country and beyond, and dealers can partake too. “If a young gallery like [mine] is going to Taipei Dangdai [an annual fair], we can apply for the funds,” Kyungmin Lee said in a video call, sitting in Whistle, her gallery in Itaewon, a red abstract painting by Eimei Kaneyama on the wall behind her. Such funding “doesn’t cover the whole thing, but at least it can be a little bit of relief from paying the shipping,” she said.
Lee started her gallery in 2017, after working at One and J., a key spot for emerging Korean contemporary art that opened in 2005. She wanted to “show the younger generation of artists,” she said. “It’s really tough for younger artists to enter commercial galleries in Korea.” As in so many places, the biggest galleries have established, international rosters, and many collectors gravitate toward bankable names.
“Despite having a very rich art scene, many talented emerging artists in Korea do not have a platform in a commercial sector, although they are highly active in nonprofit art spaces and institutions,” Choi, the new König director, said. That led her to open P21, which has championed young figures like Heemin Chung, who makes deliriously frenetic paintings in a post-internet vein, and Haneyl Choi, whose charismatic, idiosyncratic sculptures (think Rachel Harrison) allude playfully to queer themes.
For foreign dealers entering Seoul, costs are by no means low, but the city is more affordable than some other metropolises. On a yearly list of the most expensive cities for expats compiled by ECA International, a consultancy specializing in cross-border business, the top three spots were occupied by Hong Kong, Tokyo, and New York. Seoul came in at number eight.
“If you’re opening up a gallery in New York, the seed money will be completely different,” Lee, the Whistle founder, said. “I think people in Asia are starting to look into Korea, because it’s kind of doable at this time.” And its duty-free status means “it’s essentially like Hong Kong, except it’s not tied to China,” Varet said.
As Beijing has tightened its control over the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, jailing protesters, crushing free speech, and banning opposition parties, there is talk of international firms abandoning the city. In an American Chamber of Commerce poll of businesses, reported on by Nikkei, nearly 40 percent of respondents said they would consider moving operations from the city. Deutsche Bank has shifted its Asia chief to Singapore, and the New York Times decided last summer to establish a base in Seoul, relocating some employees from Hong Kong. (Full disclosure: my wife’s job at the Times brought us here.) Could the art world follow, with South Korea deposing Hong Kong as the dominant arts hub in the region?
So far, there have been no signs of dealers packing up and heading elsewhere on political grounds. “Hong Kong has been unique in its positioning as a gateway to the international and mainland Chinese markets for many years,” Perrotin said. “We remain optimistic about it.”
“We are completely behind Hong Kong, because Hong Kong has been very good to us,” Lehmann said, while admitting, like everyone, “I don’t know how it’s going to go.”
Belgian collector Alain Servais said that he would feel uncomfortable visiting the city, given comments he has made on social media about China in the past. “I would consider positively a move of Art Basel to Korea or Taiwan,” he said, “but I am not naive, the negative and revengeful reaction of Beijing to such a move would make it a no-go for Art Basel because of the power and influence of Chinese collectors in the region.”
“There is a point at which such an erosion of progress makes a city untenable for the art businesses that exist there,” Glimcher said. “I don’t think that’s happened in Hong Kong. The example of that is Moscow. We were all going to Moscow three times a year.”
Regardless, that cost differential is notable. “Why spend those huge rents on the Pedder Building in Hong Kong and Central [the city’s business nexus], and get these tiny spaces, when you can have something really quite nice in Seoul?” said Iain Robertson, head of art business studies at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. He was referring to the century-old Beaux-Arts tower, currently home to branches of global galleries like Gagosian, Simon Lee, and Lehmann Maupin. To cover that overhead, he said, “you can only sell Picassos and Hirsts, really.”
In April, the New York Times reported that China was prepping tax breaks to keep companies loyal to Hong Kong. For art firms weighing their options, the city has the advantage of hosting a global fair, which began when Art Basel took over the annual Art HK in 2013. But Frieze, the London-based fair that also does shows in New York and Los Angeles, has been eyeing Seoul. In May, after months of speculation, it announced that it would stage a September fair in Seoul in 2022, with about 100 galleries, to coincide with the Korea Galleries Association’s annual Korea International Art Fair, which runs each fall at Coex.
Frieze could shift energy from Hong Kong to Seoul. It could also bring new vigor to KIAF, which is the most high-profile market event of the year in Korea, but one that is still dominated by local exhibitors. At the 2019 edition (the 2020 outing was scuttled by a corona spike), only about a third of the booths featured exhibitors without a South Korean presence. Quipped Robertson, “It’s called the Korea International Art Fair. It’s anything but international.”
Of course, it takes more than well-capitalized companies and plucky entrepreneurs, whether foreign or domestic, to make a vital arts center. It takes solid art schools (check, in the form of Hongik, Seoul National, Korea National, and others). Alternative venues help too, and they have proliferated, aided by government grants and diverse funding models.
“We don’t do sales,” Sangjin Kim, director of a space called Out_Sight, said wryly. “We want to, but it’s not really easy.” There’s a wide divide between the commercial sector, where collectors buy, and the experimental realm, where they do not, in his view, and the gallery he runs with his wife, Jinho Lim, is very much in the latter category.
Kim, an artist, converted his basement workspace in lively Daehangno into Out_Sight in 2016, and has staged intrepid shows by untested artists. Proceeds from Kim’s own art sometimes go toward the gallery. “Yeah, we waste the money on this space,”
he said, laughing.
Public funding covers a portion of the budget. An Out_Sight show earlier this year by Dew Kim (who also goes by HornyHoneydew) featured rather graphic videos and sculptures made of bondage toys.
As the Korean art world grows, its denizens face the same challenges that their colleagues are dealing with elsewhere in the world: how to sustain it. Mega-galleries can generate buzz and get money flowing through the system, but long-term health requires a broad base of players. Asked about all the dealers who have been landing in town, Kim said matter-of-factly, “Although they’re in Seoul, for most young artists, that’s a different world.”
The same could be said of the Lees, the high-flying Samsung family that embodies so much of the glory and tumult of recent Korean history. Seoul-based art critic Dong-Yeon Koh called them “pioneers of art collecting in South Korea.” They are also notoriously secretive, even by the cloak-and-dagger standards of the chaebol, the family-run conglomerates that dominate many industries in the country. The National Museum and the MMCA have announced that they are readying shows devoted to Lee Kun-hee’s collections. There is no telling who might visit those exhibitions, decide to become a collector, and keep Seoul’s momentum going.