With its thriving local gallery scene and a growing class of affluent collectors, South Korea has long been considered one of the art world’s sleeping giants. The announcement that a major art fair, Frieze, would launch its inaugural Asian edition there may have surprised some, but it was the culmination of decades of growth.
This week, the jet-setting gallery world has descended on the capital Seoul, which welcomed visitors with a packed schedule of new exhibitions and cultural events. The four-day fair sees over 110 galleries from 20 countries vying for collectors’ attention at an exhibition center located in the upmarket Gangnam district.
“It’s a real validation of the strength of the arts scene, not just in Korea but in Asia,” Frieze Seoul director Patrick Lee told CNN on Friday, the fair’s opening day.
“Seoul is a very dynamic place with a strong history and appreciation of culture not just in art but in music, design and fashion,” he added. “And really the world is just becoming exposed to it.”
Borne from a magazine of the same name, Frieze launched in London in 2003 before expanding to New York in 2012 and Los Angeles seven years later. At its Seoul debut, Western heavyweights like Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth are joined by leading Asian galleries, while the event’s Focus Asia section spotlights 10 regional galleries that opened in or after 2010.
“(The fair) provides an opportunity to expose the Western world to what’s here in Asia and vice versa,” said Lee, adding over 30% of participating galleries from Asia.
Several major galleries have also established Seoul outposts in the past two years, including Thaddaeus Ropac, Pace and Gladstone. Those already based in the city are meanwhile expanding their presence, with French gallery Perrotin this week opening its second location in the capital and Lehmann Maupin relocating to a new two-story space in the chic Hannam-dong neighborhood.
Lehmann Maupin gallery in Yongsan-gu, Seoul. Credit: Courtesy 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 Korean art market’s growth.
“Collectors here have an openness to engage with artists — and to buy and talk 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. “Their collecting habits come out of connoisseurship, interest and passion.”
There has been growing international interest in Korean works, too. Abstract paintings from the country’s post-war Dansaekhwa (or “monochrome painting”) movement 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, is not necessarily the arrival of international art institutions but the vibrancy if its local scene.
Artwork by Korean artist Park Seo-Bo. Credit: Courtesy of Park Seo-Bo Studio and Tokyo Gallery + BTAP
“There’s also great art schools here,” he added. “I’m very optimistic to see more and more Korean artists in the future.”
Korean artist Hun Kyu Kim, who is based 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, though, “it’s a really good sign,” the painter said.
“I’ve seen so many Korean artists who have had no chance to show their work internationally,” he added. “So, I think it’s (going) to be a good chance to (not only) see international art but also for local artists as well.”
To that end, Frieze opted to collaborate — not compete — with the Galleries Association of Korea’s longstanding local fair, Kiaf Art Seoul, which has been running in the capital since 2002. The two events are being held simultaneously at the same venue.
“It was very important for Frieze to reach out to (the galleries association) and get their support,” said Frieze director Lee, who was previously executive director of Gallery Hyundai, a stalwart of the Seoul art world.
“The best art fairs are the ones that really engage with the (local) institutions … and are activating, exposing and supporting the local art scene.”