Seoul (AFP) – The art world descended on Seoul this week for Frieze Asia’s inaugural edition, as the vibrant South Korean capital looks to position itself as the region’s next art hub.
Previous Frieze fairs have been held in traditional art capitals such as London, Paris and New York, but industry experts say Seoul is the natural choice for the first Asian edition of the prestigious event.
South Korea has become a cultural force in recent years with the global success of the Oscar-winning film Parasite and the Netflix series Squidward, and with K-pop superstars BTS sweeping the Billboard music charts.
“Frieze is looking at cities where culture is highly valued,” Patrick Lee, Frieze Seoul’s founding director, told AFP.
Seoul boasts a rich art scene, he added, with “incredibly talented artists, world-class museums, corporate collections, non-profit organizations, biennales and galleries, making it an ideal place for an art fair.”
The fair also comes at a time when the art world is turning away from Hong Kong – long considered the center of the lucrative Asian art market – due to looming financial and political uncertainty, as well as quarantine restrictions still imposed on visitors.
“Seoul is definitely the most vibrant and exciting market in Asia right now,” said Alice Lung, director of Galerie Perrotin, which opened its second gallery in Seoul last month.
Tim Schneider, art business editor at Artnet News, said the openings of major Western galleries such as Pace, Lehmann Maupin, Perrotin and Thaddeus Ropac, followed by Frieze, confirmed that Seoul had “risen” on the international art scene.
“Frieze Seoul is just the latest confirmation that the demand was here,” he told AFP.
The local art market has seen explosive growth since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with local art fairs seeing record traffic and sales last year.
“When the borders were closed for a while, people focused on watching online,” Galerie Perrotin’s Lung told AFP.
“This has helped Korean artists and galleries grow faster without any physical limitations, attracting new collectors, especially millennials and Gen Z,” she said.
During that time, skyrocketing housing prices prompted many young South Koreans to seek alternative investment options, such as stocks, cryptocurrency and, for some, artwork.
“Many young people have tasted bitter losses from stock and crypto investments, and artwork seemed a safe bet, especially after high-profile success cases,” said Hwang Dal-seung, president of the Korea Gallery Association.
Samsung’s late president Lee Kun-hee left behind numerous antiques and works of art — including works by Claude Monet, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso — reportedly worth two to three trillion won ($1.5-2.2 billion). whose value soared during his decade-long ownership, Huang added.
Schneider said South Korea is a “microcosm of Asia” in terms of the rise of collectors born after 1980, who now wield a strong influence in the market.
“Buyers in this age group and this region are changing the hierarchy of artists who are most in demand internationally, as well as greatly increasing the speed at which artists can move from the emerging level to blue-chip prices and global fame,” he added .
The country’s art market is estimated to be about 532.9 billion won in the first half of 2022, according to a July report by the state-run Korea Arts Management Office – more than in all of 2021.
A fresh approach
Thaddeus Ropak, who opened his gallery in Seoul last year, said South Korea offers a balanced demographic of collectors.
“You have very established collectors who are not too young anymore and who have incredible experience and who have been collecting art for 30 or 40 years and you see the results which I think are quite astonishing in terms of quality,” Ropak told AFP.
“But then you also sense a very fresh new approach to art” from younger collectors, he added.
The Austrian gallerist, who began working with South Korean artists almost two decades ago, said the country’s art scene – artists, curators, collectors – has been “built over generations”.
The arrival of Frieze Seoul will certainly open new doors for the South Korean art market, he said, but it is “also a result of what Seoul has become.”
Schneider added: “Historically, every time an A-class international fair opens up shop in a new city, it simultaneously confirms that the infrastructure of the art market there is sustainable.”
But he rejected declaring Seoul’s rise in the context of Hong Kong’s potential decline.
“I think it is wrong to act as if Asia – a vast continent made up of many countries with unique cultural histories and vast wealth – cannot support two legitimate centers of the art market,” he said.
© 2022 AFP