“For foreign galleries wanting to come to Seoul, our main strengths are the purchasing power of our art lovers and our infrastructure,” says Oh Se-hoon, the mayor of Seoul.
Speaking on the opening day of the second edition of Frieze Seoul earlier this week, Oh was quick to point out South Korea’s economic clout as the tenth largest economy in the world, also nodding to the country’s vibrant cultural history and established network of collectors and private museums.
Oh, a member of the country’s conservative People Power Party, cites the biggest difference between the art market in Seoul and others around the world “is that young people are very interested in buying art”. He adds: “Young people in their 20s, 30s and 40s are truly interested in—and invested in—enjoying art in Seoul. That is the real energy behind this trend.”
Hong Kong’s crown
Ten years ago, there was another trend: all eyes were on Hong Kong as the global art market’s “next big thing”. The Swiss franchise Art Basel launched a fair in the city, taking over from the local fair ART Hong Kong, and mega dealers began to eye up the prospect of accessing billionaires based on Mainland China. Since then, the Chinese market (including Hong Kong) has dramatically expanded, not only in terms of value but also its infrastructure of galleries and private museums.
However, dogged in recent years by growing censorship from Beijing and tight Covid restrictions, Hong Kong’s pre-eminent position is said to be slipping. As Won Jae Park, the director of Seoul's ONE and J Gallery, puts it: “Hong Kong is not what it used to be, but everybody knows that Asia is happening. We need to have an anchor somewhere and it seems like people have found Seoul to be the best place for that—at least for the time being.”
Frieze Seoul sales
Despite Seoul’s clear ascendancy, however, the Korean market is still in its nascent stages, at least in terms of monetary value. Sales at Frieze Seoul this week have largely been made around the $100,000-$200,000 mark. Very few seven-figure sums were reported; those to breach that level include a 2018 painting by Nicholas Party, which sold to a private South Korean collector for $1.25m at Hauser & Wirth, a Rosemarie Trockel work on at Sprüth Magers for €1.3m, and a new Georg Baselitz painting which sold to an Asian collector for €1.2m at Thaddaeus Ropac gallery. The Austrian dealer, who says Frieze Seoul “has moved up a gear since last year”, also sold a 1988 Donald Judd “stack” exhibited at his Seoul gallery to a Korean collector for $3m. An imposing Jeff Koons Gazing Ball sculpture from 2004, on Robilant + Voena's stand for $3.6m, had yet to find a home by the end of the second day.
Many lower- and mid-tier galleries are playing a longer game. By the end of the second day, Taipei’s TKG+ gallery had sold five paintings by the Thai artist Mit Jai Inn, two installations by Joyce Ho and five paintings by Chiu Chen-Hung (both from Taiwan) for a total of $150,000.
Director Shelly Wu says the gallery will “definitely not” recoup the cost of doing the fair—her experimental programme focuses on video and photography by emerging and mid-career artists. She adds: “Our intention in doing international fairs is to present talents from the region to international audiences, so we not only look at the sales results, but also exposure of the artists to museums and institutions, which we have been doing quite well. This is the case for many mid-scale galleries.”
There is a distinctly more Asian feel to the makeup of the fair this year; around 40% of galleries are from the region and 58% of galleries have a presence in Asia in the shape of a gallery or office. Several dealers and advisers observed fewer American buyers on the ground and even fewer Europeans than last year, though collectors from Southeast Asia and China are making up for those shortfalls, having been prevented from travelling in 2022 due to Covid restrictions. As Matt Carey-Williams, the director of MCW Fine Arts, puts it: “The fair felt buzzy and animated on the opening day, though there were not as many international visitors as last year. I noticed an adjustment in material: much more primary market than secondary market. The fair has energised the primary market side of things in Korea in a big way.”
Patrick Lee, the director of Frieze Seoul, confirms there are 93 international museum representatives in town this week, including individual curators and directors, though larger patron groups are thinner on the ground compared with last year. US institutions in attendance include the Aspen Art Museum, The Bass, the Hammer Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; while those from China and Hong Kong include M+, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art and the Pingshan Art Museum, in Shenzhen.
Lee is acutely aware of the need to keep attracting such individuals and groups to South Korea. “Frieze Seoul is much smaller than Art Basel Hong Kong, but there’s overlap in terms of the audience, we’re targeting similar people,” he says. “For this fair to succeed, it’s got to be greater than Seoul. It’s got to be global.” As with the other Frieze art fair franchises, the organisation has successfully collaborated with other events taking place during in Seoul this week including Kiaf art fair, Seoul Fashion Week and the Seoul Mediacity Biennale.
One of the perennial problems for the global fair circuit is overcrowding. Lee acknowledges the clash with The Armory Show in New York, which runs concurrently to Frieze Seoul, is “less than ideal”. Now that Frieze has acquired the US fair, the director hopes there is a chance of separating the two events by a few weeks.
In the meantime, Western galleries and auction houses are making their presence felt in Seoul. This month alone sees the arrival of Sotheby’s and White Cube, who join heavyweights such as Lehmann Maupin, one of the first Western galleries to set up shop in the South Korean capital; Thaddaeus Ropac, which this year has expanded its footprint to enable the gallery to show two artists at once; and Pace, which enlarged its space a year ago.
Pace’s president Samanthe Rubell declined to comment on rumours that the gallery is looking to leave its H Queens building in Hong Kong, saying: “Despite setbacks, the Hong Kong market is still extremely vibrant. Hong Kong remains the most international city in Asia attracting collectors and curators from all over the world. We are absolutely committed to continuing to operate our gallery in Hong Kong.” According to a spokeswoman, “programming continues” at the gallery's H Queens space.
Gagosian, too, is dipping is toe in the water. Last month, the gallery appointed Jiyoung Lee to lead the gallery’s operations in South Korea. Nick Simunovic, Gagosian’s senior director in Asia, says “all options are being evaluated” when it comes to opening a permanent gallery in Seoul.
At the fair, Gagosian had sold much of its booth in advance, primarily to Asian clients—though not exclusively Korean collectors, according to Simunovic. With a focus on the gallery’s primary market, prices range from $100,000 to “a few million dollars” for a Jonas Wood painting. He describes the market in Korea as “sophisticated and opinionated” and believes pitting Seoul against Hong Kong is a “false dichotomy”. Though he notes there are obvious advantages of doing business in Hong Kong, namely it being a trade free zone and its central location at a cross roads in Asia.
South Korean market slowdown
After a boom year in 2022, during which the South Korean market reached a record 1 trillion won ($782m), according to Korea Arts Management Service, the auction market in the first half of 2023 is reportedly down by 9.9%, with sales of high-end works particularly affected, probably due to increased interest rates.
Dealers say a correction was needed. As Jason Haam of the eponymous Seoul gallery puts it: “2022 was lava, it was way too hot.” He says the beginning of this year was “quiet”, but that “businesses is slowly picking up”. At Frieze Seoul, “there’s been a substantial increase in demand in the market”, with “clients deciding on purchases on the spot”. During the opening day he sold a painting by the 26-year-old Seoul-based artist Moka Lee, which she finished the morning the fair opened, to a Korean collector for $55,000.
Won Jae Park thinks South Korea’s market slowdown can be attributed to the poor health of the global economy. “Everything is slowing down,” he says. “It was a similar situation in 2008, right before Lehman Brothers collapsed. Everything was happening, and then all of a sudden, everything was gone. What I find different this time is people are really interested in learning what contemporary art is. There are many smaller collector groups organising art talks and educational programmes, they are really trying to learn the Western narrative of how we are where we are now, and also trying to figure out what we should do as Koreans—to either adapt or participate in this global event.”
As Mayor Oh Se-hoon notes, younger buyers are certainly fuelling the excitement in the contemporary art scene. According to Jane Yoon, Sotheby’s managing director in Korea, collectors under the age of 50 now account for around 80% of sales at the Seoul outpost of the auction house. Whether they will stay the course is another question. As Park puts it: “Things are changing fast. I’m sure some of them will fall away and lose interest. It’s a long process becoming a collector, but the growing interest is a good step.”
Carey-Williams also points out that South Korea’s market still remains largely domestic and in the hands of a few. “It’s a local market that has become very big and confident. But that handful of big collectors who can spend $10m on a painting is still a handful.”