K-pop, K-drama… K-art. Frieze fair lands in Seoul

Seoul (AFP) – The art world landed in Seoul this week for the inaugural edition of Frieze in Asia, as the vibrant South Korean capital seeks to position itself as the region’s next artistic hub.

Previous Frieze fairs have taken place in traditional arts capitals like London, Paris and New York, but industry experts say Seoul was a natural choice for the first Asian edition of the prestigious event.

South Korea has become a cultural powerhouse in recent years with the worldwide success of the Oscar-winning film ‘Parasite’ and the Netflix series ‘Squid Game’, and with K-pop superstars BTS sweeping the Billboard music charts. .

“Frieze looks to cities where there is a great appreciation for culture,” Patrick Lee, the first director of Frieze Seoul, told AFP.

Seoul has a rich arts scene, he added, with “incredibly talented artists, world-class museums, corporate collections, nonprofits, biennials 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 hub of the lucrative Asian art market – due to looming financial and political uncertainties, as well as quarantine restrictions still imposed on visitors.

“Seoul is definitely the most dynamic and exciting market in Asia at the moment,” said Alice Lung, director of Galerie Perrotin, which opened its second gallery in Seoul last month.

Tim Schneider, art affairs editor of Artnet News, said the openings of major Western galleries like Pace, Lehmann Maupin, Perrotin and Thaddaeus Ropac, followed by Frieze, confirmed that Seoul had “leveled up” on the international art scene.

“Frieze Seoul is just the final confirmation that the demand is there,” he told AFP.

Covid boost

The local art market has seen explosive growth since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with local art fairs seeing record attendance and sales last year.

“When the borders were closed for a while, people focused on online viewing,” Lung of Galerie Perrotin told AFP.

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“It has helped Korean artists and galleries grow faster without any physical limitations, attracting new collectors,” especially Millennials and Gen Z, she said.

Meanwhile, soaring real estate prices have prompted many young South Koreans to seek other investment options, such as stocks, cryptocurrencies and, for some, artwork.

“Many young people have tasted the bitter losses of stock and crypto investments, and artworks have emerged as a safe bet, especially after high-profile success stories,” said Hwang Dal-seung, chairman of the Galleries Association of Korea.

Samsung’s late chairman Lee Kun-hee left behind a treasure trove of antiques and works of art – including works by Claude Monet, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso – worth two to three trillion dollars. won ($1.5 billion to $2.2 billion) whose value had skyrocketed during its decades-long ownership, Hwang added.

Schneider said South Korea was a “microcosm of Asia” in terms of the rise of collectors born after 1980, who now exert a strong influence on the market.

“Buyers in this age group and region have reshaped the hierarchy of the most in-demand artists internationally, while dramatically accelerating the speed at which artists can move from emerging to top-notch prices and world fame,” he added.

The country’s art market was estimated at around 532.9 billion won in the first half of 2022, according to a July report by Korea’s Arts Administration Service, more than for all of 2021.

New approach

Thaddaeus Ropac, who opened his gallery in Seoul last year, said South Korea offers a balanced population of collectors.

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“You have very established collectors who aren’t too young anymore 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 amazing in their quality,” Ropac said. at AFP.

“But then you also feel a very fresh new approach to art” from young collectors, he added.

The Austrian gallerist, who began working with South Korean artists nearly two decades ago, said the country’s art scene – artists, curators, collectors – had been “built up over generations”.

Frieze Seoul’s arrival would certainly open new doors for the South Korean art market, he said, but it’s “also a result of what Seoul has become.”

Schneider added: “Historically, each time an A-level international fair moves to a new city, it simultaneously confirms that the art market infrastructure there is sustainable.”

But he dismissed the framework for Seoul’s rise in terms of Hong Kong’s potential downfall.

“I think it is misguided to act as if Asia – a massive continent made up of many countries with unique cultural histories and enormous wealth – cannot support two legitimate centers of the art market,” said he declared.