C.I. Kim's monumental Britart collection encourages the consumer to dream

The businessman, collector, and artist whose department store museum includes work by Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Anthony Gormley


South Korea might be the last place you would expect to see Damien Hirst’s “Hymn”, a 19 1/2-foot painted bronze anatomical model, of which three editions exist, but it stands under a £150,000 perspex half canopy at the entrance to a smart department store in the Seoul satellite town of Cheonan, home to half a million people. It was brought here by C.I. Kim, chairman of the department store complex which includes a museum. Mr Kim is himself one of Asia’s keenest collectors of contemporary British art, and a working artist, whose work will be on show in London at the Union Projects Gallery in November.

He started his career in the transport business and, as well as being chairman of the Arario Department store, he is also the owner of 14 restaurants, all of them designed by architects under Mr Kim’s supervision, and all in this otherwise uninspiring metropolis.

Mr Kim’s department store museum, called the Arario Gallery, includes hundreds of works by leading contemporary artists, many of them British.

The museum, which is funded from his business empire, attracts 300 people a day and shows a rolling programme of exhibitions. “Thru Pop Art” ran from May to July 2003, and a British art show opens next month. It is to be made up almost totally from the businessman’s own collection. The current show is of Mr Kim’s own work and revolves around his obsession with the fulfilment of dreams. It is hard to knock a man who has recovered from practical bankruptcy and a brain tumour to become, among other things, the biggest collector of contemporary art in Korea outside corporate collectors Samsung.

For 25 years C.I. Kim has trawled the West’s art fairs, and built up relations with Jay Jopling of White Cube, the Lisson’s Nicholas Logsdail who, according to a source in the museum, is “always keen to meet Mr Kim”, the Gagosian Gallery and an Athens-based gallery, Bernier. He bought a Gilbert & George, and a painting by Chinese artist Yan Pei-Ming from Bernier, but it is Gagosian in New York and the White Cube in London that have really benefited from his patronage.

In 2001 he bought “Hymn” from Gagosian Gallery for $2 million. Another edition of the sculpture was bought by London collector and advertising mogul Charles Saatchi for £1 million from White Cube in London for his London gallery. Mr Kim bought his version after the work was exhibited in public, a determining factor in the escalation of prices for contemporary art.

C.I. Kim is confident that customers visiting the Arario Department store will love the Hirst so much that it will encourage them to go shopping and visit the museum.

Other works collected by Mr Kim include a massive sculpture by the French artist Arman, who worked for 40 days to stack and weld hundreds of truck wheel axles into a great metal tower.

Tracey Emin is another favourite; Mr Kim owns five of her works, which is not surprising in view of the collector’s great love for found objects and the work of Marcel Duchamp. But there are only a few works, he says, he would never sell, Polke’s “The hunters”, Hirst’s “Hymn” and “Reflection” by Antony Gormley. Everyone else’s is expendable.

The magnate’s life philosophy defines his collecting zeal. “As a businessman, I want the customer to see my art and the art of others and be rewarded with pleasure,” he told The Art Newspaper. In his office suite he points to one of many slogans that decorate his walls, “We can’t take advantage of a new opportunity unless we take care of long overdue homework first.”

Framed notes on the wall come from the artists themselves. Sam Taylor Wood writes, “When is my show? What a beautiful museum—I look forward to seeing it in the flesh.” Marc Quinn limits himself to: “Mr Kim Rules OK”, and Damien Hirst to: “It [Hymn] looks great. It’s a strange world”.

“My dream,” Mr Kim explained to The Art Newspaper, “is to provide the customer with what he or she wants, but constantly to raise the consumer’s expectation, to encourage them to dream.”

Cheonan looks to be transformed yet further by Mr Kim who is planning to build a new art gallery over seven floors and an art shop, both to be designed by the Korean architect, Lee Jong-Hwan.

“It looks great”, says Damien Hirst of the installation of his “Hymn” (above) in the entrance to a department store in Cheonan, South Korea. Mr Kim (left) says he paid Gagosian Gallery in New York $2 million for the work in 2001. Charles Saatchi, the London-based collector and advertising mogul, is said to have bought his edition of the sculpture for £1 million from White Cube in London

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Where did all the Britart go?'