Without further ado: Seoul welcomes Frieze
Aug 29, 2022
With the upcoming inauguration of Frieze Seoul in early September, the city is getting much global attention from art professionals. Those who were present at the last edition of KIAF Seoul or Frieze London, both held in October 2021, might remember the video-connection between the two fairs and the consequent announcement of the arrival of Frieze in Seoul, which left all of us intrigued, excited, and some concerned.
For some, it might seem that the popularity of South Korean art and culture is a recent phenomenon, but the country is a well rooted cultural hub with a rich history in art, music, movies, and theater. So it is not surprising that commercial aspects of contemporary art are deservedly following suit of the already well established and robust art scene.
In recent years, major international galleries such as König, Thaddaeus Ropac, Peres Projects, and Gladstone have opened their branches. Galleries who were already historically present, such as Perrotin, Pace, or Lehmann Maupin, have expanded with additional venues, or relocated in larger spaces. The upcoming advent of Frieze in Seoul could be seen as the sum of manifestation and resonance of both local and international factors.
With only a few days until the opening of the fair, for those who were previously familiar with the Korean art ecosystem, the arrival of Frieze may seem a long-time coming, yet for those who are new to Seoul's potential on a global scale, there might be a couple of questions hanging in the air. To start, one may want to ask, "why Seoul?".
"A vibrant creative energy permeates the city. You can see it in film, fashion, music, cuisine, design and, of course, art. It runs deep. If you’re visiting Seoul for the first time, you’ll be surprised by the strength of the cultural infrastructure and inspired by the enormous pool of talent that exists almost everywhere you look. Seoul is incredibly safe, has an amazing history, impeccable service, fantastic coffee, a huge drinking culture, and it’s efficient and resourceful."
Patrick Lee, the director of Frieze Seoul (on what distinguishes Seoul from other cities)
As mentioned earlier, Seoul’s art ecology was not created overnight, but has been cultivated for an extensive period. Part of this journey is owed to the government policy on arts and culture that started to establish from the late 1980s in line with the rapid economic growth. Initially, the movie and music industry benefited a significant amount from both internal funding and external exportation, which led to an incredible development. In parallel, the government consistently found exchange exhibition programs in global museums, aiming to increase displays in relation to Korea; for instance, collaborating with institutions such as the British Museum to match its Asian counterparts.
At the same time, several efforts were made in developing policies to increase the role and promotion of cultural heritage, museums, and cultural institutions, both private and public, not leaving aside alternative spaces or residencies that have strong foundations. Major corporations have increasingly invested into the art sector; Hyundai Motor Company operates Hyundai Motorstudio, which often presents exhibitions by media artists, as well as works in partnership with MMCA (National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) in Korea and Tate museums in the UK; Samsung Group supports and fosters national and international art through Samsung Foundation of Culture, with established art funding, programs, collections, residencies, and museums (Leeum Museum of Art and Ho-Am Art Museum) that have now gained a pivotal place amongst the global excellence; and Doosan Group runs Doosan Art Center, which includes Doosan Gallery for exhibitions and programs such as residencies and curator workshops.
Additionally, Seoul has a long history of well established alternative spaces run by artists and curators. Korea’s first generation alternative space, Alternative Space LOOP opened in 1999 to support and promote experimental artists and it continues to engage with social issues through artistic processes and practices. Artspace Boan 1942 is another alternative space, where artists can experiment with site-specific projects with the historical building that used to be a place for rest but also an inspiration for many artists, poets, and writers.
A non-for-profit public arts and culture foundation, Korea Arts Management Service is also a huge contributing factor to flourishing art and culture in the country. The organization has been supporting artists and international exchanges through much needed funding since 2006. Affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of Korea, the foundation vitalizes the international exchange of Korean contemporary art and bridges the gap between Korean and the international art market.
South Korea’s continued investment in both preserving traditional and nurturing new art forms is without a doubt an essential factor why Seoul provides a fertile ground for the flourishing Asian art market now. Decades of policies, investments and strategies have led to the global influence of the Korean culture represented today.
Another major factor for why the first Asian edition of Frieze is happening in Seoul is that emerging collectors in Korea are making new aesthetic choices (directing through pop, witty, and uncanny works, as well as the emergence of the art toy trend) and the rising importance of Instagram, an attentive eye on the market, as well as collector's associations to share information and learn together. There is a strong will to increase and share knowledge from collectors who generally don't have an art education or expertise, with associations such as ReArt Collector and Sotheby’s Institute of Art offering a series of lecture programs and activities around collecting contemporary art. One of Korea’s leading banks, KEB Hana Bank also offers art programs of different capacities in partnership with a major auction house, Seoul Auction.
The Korean art scene, when it comes to collecting, is one of a kind, and it has gained tremendous interest because of the unique dynamics. Whereas this may seem very different from other ways of collecting and judging works, it is at the same time able to generate new stimuli for a global market that becomes always more redundant and saturated.
Perhaps the real question is whether or not this envelopment can be sustainable in the long-run as some fear the explosion of a bubble, or the over-saturation of a market which, despite continuously growing, is still relatively small; others are extremely positive and confident in endless possibilities. This aspect remains an open interrogative, one that we may be able to answer after we see how the arrival of Frieze might influence, change, consolidate, or serve the current ecosystem. One certainty is that historically Korea has a resilient, fast-adapting and opportunity-chasing nature, one that contains all the prerogatives to dive fully into this new opportunity.
Hopefully, as Korea openly welcomes a new international art audience, the global market will welcome, and re-discover the interesting reality represented by Korean artists. As the many exhibitions of Korean artists at the 59th Venice Biennale have demonstrated, altogether with the upcoming V&A exhibition on Korea’s global impact on the creative industries, and LACMA's upcoming presentation of Korean masters, we might be on the right path as a leading protagonist in international art and culture.
The article has been written in collaboration with Valentina Buzzi, a contributing writer for eazel magazine.
If you are looking to see more than the fairs this week, we have made a selection of exhibitions here - Beyond commercial: must-visit exhibitions in Seoul now.