What I Buy and Why: Philanthropist Dow Kim Started Collecting 25 Years Ago With a Marc Chagall Painting and Hasn’t Looked Back
The collector just finished a visit to Frieze Seoul, where he did not leave empty-handed.
Dow Kim’s collecting journey began in the 1990s with a “stroke of luck,” he said. A finance executive living in Tokyo, he got a call from a colleague with the news that a Japanese art institution was selling a number of paintings. Before he knew it, he had bought an original Marc Chagall.
His tastes have evolved since then, now incorporating Asian and Western contemporary art. And, collecting has become an integral part of his life, as the semi-retired private investor hits the international art fairs, pops up at auctions as both buyer and seller, and makes studio visits to hone that all-important rapport with artists.
He served as a trustee of the Asia Society from 2006 to 2009 and, in 2018, founded the Dow Kim Family Foundation to promote philanthropic activities around Korean leadership, education, and the arts in the U.S. The goal is to “empower the lives of underserved and under-resourced Korean Americans,” he explained. Currently, the foundation financially supports four nonprofit organizations and is a sponsor of the exhibition “Only the Young: Experimental Art in Korea, 1960s–70s” at the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York. Running now through January 7, 2024, it’s the first North American museum exhibition dedicated to Korean experimental art known as silheom misul.
Kim’s collecting got a boost when he attended the inaugural edition of Frieze Seoul last year. “It’s great to see Korea emerging as a significant art center,” he said. “Many Koreans and Korean Americans are starting their own journeys in collecting.” That led to a repeat visit this year—and he did not leave empty-handed, as he describes below.
On an apparent collecting tear (11 purchases in the last year alone), Dow Kim spoke with Artnet News about some of his prized pieces, what acquisitions he hopes are in his future, and the Chagall that started it all.
What was your first purchase?
Like many occurrences in life, it was happenstance that led to the purchase of my first significant painting in 1997. At that time, I didn’t know much about the art market but was aware of big name artists, such as Monet, Picasso, Renoir, and Chagall. I was living in Tokyo back then when a colleague alerted me that a seller was looking to unload a number of paintings, including works by Picasso and Chagall. Through that opportunity, and with no previous experience in buying original art, I dove in and bought a classic 1965 Chagall oil painting, Les fiancés à l’horloge.
What was your most recent purchase?
My most recent purchases were at Frieze and Kiaf Seoul 2023. I acquired an oil painting by Paulo Nimer Pjota—a new artist for me—at Frieze, and a painting by Yulia Iosilzon at Kiaf. I first came across Yulia’s works last year at Carvalho Park gallery’s booth at Kiaf, and fell in love with her works so much so that I’ve acquired four more paintings since then. Beautifully undulating, calligraphic lines are a signature feature of Yulia’s dreamlike compositions.
Tell us about a favorite work in your collection.
That’s a difficult question for me to answer, as most of the paintings I have are favorites. My favorite painting may change week to week depending on my perception and mood. But I do have a sentimental favorite—a painting by George Condo, Two Figures with Face Masks (2020). I consider the painting, made during Covid, to be historic—the title of the painting says it all. During the middle of the pandemic, an art advisor contacted me to ask if I was interested in a Condo that was going to be shown at Kiaf 2020. I was excited when it was offered to me because I had been looking to acquire a Condo painting for some time. When I saw the photos of the painting, I fell in love with it instantly and bought it without seeing it in person. That was the beginning of acquiring Condo paintings. I’ve acquired two additional works in acrylic pantings since that time. No one paints like Condo, and his paintings are instantly recognizable. I find him to be unparalleled in his ability to mismatch different styles, balance neo-Cubism, and layer nuanced human consciousness in his paintings. Yet he is able to seamlessly bring all these elements together in creating powerful compositions.
Which works or artists are you hoping to add to your collection this year?
I’ve already acquired 11 oil and acrylic paintings this year by Ed Clark, Joel Mesler, Ferrari Sheppard, Aya Takano, Yulia Iosilzon, Paulo Nimer Pjota, and Zio Ziegler. I would like to acquire another acrylic or oil painting by one of the blue-chip artists I already have in my collection, if I can find a very good one.
At first glance of the aforementioned list of artists, one may think that I collect art randomly. But that’s not the case at all. I’m very interested in collecting different styles of paintings by many artists, because that’s what makes the collecting experience both exciting and satisfying. And in general, I take a common approach to acquiring a painting. First, I have to really like it and be able to enjoy looking at it on a wall every day. I always ask my daughters for second and third opinions before any purchases. Second, I try to identify artists whose works are instantly recognizable, unique, and timeless (i.e., you know a Picasso painting, a Kusama painting, or a Condo painting when you see it). And third, once I identify the artists I want to collect, I try to acquire what I consider to be their best works, if I can find and afford them.
I tend to collect wide and deep since it’s my goal to build a meaningfully diversified portfolio of exciting artworks. As an example, as mentioned previously, one of the artists I collect is George Condo. Over several years, I managed to acquire three of his oil/acrylic paintings. This is what I mean by ‘deep.’ At the same time, I have more than 25 artists in my collection. And this is what I mean by ‘wide.’ My current collection includes works by both blue-chip and emerging artists: Lee Krasner, Yayoi Kusama, Nicolas Party, Ha Chong Hyun, Robert Nava, Maria Berrio, Timothy Curtis, Christopher Le Brun, and others.
What is the most valuable work of art that you own?
I consider my entire art collection to be valuable to me overall, because surrounding myself with them really helps me to live a satisfying and enriching artful life. But if I had to choose one, I think it would be between the Lee Krasner and Nicolas Party paintings.
Where do you buy art most frequently?
Nowadays, most of my acquisitions are from galleries. Out of the 11 paintings I acquired this year, only two were bought at auctions; the rest were acquired from galleries directly or at art fairs. I now have direct buying relationships with 12 galleries, which is helpful.
I try to attend most art fairs in New York, such as Frieze, the Armory Show, and TEFAF. I also attend Frieze Seoul and Art Basel Miami every year. And depending on my travel schedule, I try to attend other major art fairs, such as Frieze London and Art Basel in Switzerland and Hong Kong. I find the major fairs to be excellent venues for establishing and building new relationships with various galleries. I also find it relatively easier for me to acquire new artworks at art fairs, because many of the galleries still sell primary artworks on a first come, first served basis.
Social media is another source. It is a great way to stay current on art news, connect with galleries, and identify interesting artists. In my case, I’ve used Instagram to my advantage for the above purposes and found the overall experience to be very positive. In fact, I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with several galleries over Instagram to acquire primary paintings.
Is there a work you regret purchasing?
I’ve made my share of mistakes along the way. The biggest mistake was paying a very high price for an emerging/mid-career artist at an auction whose primary price was a lot lower. Although I really love the artwork, that artist has lost some shine in the secondary market. Such is part of my art collecting experience and the risk of chasing a hot artist in the secondary market.
What work do you have hanging above your sofa? What about in your bathroom?
Whenever I acquire a significant painting, I usually hang it first in my living room above the sofa to appreciate and enjoy. Last year, I was fortunate enough to acquire a large oil painting by Robert Nava, Chemical Shark (2022), from a gallery. I think only Nava can present a shark in such a colorful, bold, and powerful image using his own distinct style. I love the overall composition and scale of the painting. Love it or hate it. I love it!
This year, hanging above my sofa is an Ed Clark painting titled Green Top (Vétheuil), which I acquired earlier this year. Executed in 1967, the work was created during his yearlong stay at Joan Mitchell’s house in Vétheuil, France. This work has Clark’s characteristic broad, powerful brushstrokes and radiant colors on a large-scale canvas. I absolutely love this painting.
Hanging in my bathroom is Pablo Picasso’s aquatint Bon-a-Tirer (1963). I acquired this work in 1999 while living in Tokyo.
What is the most impractical work of art you own?
I don’t have anything against sculptures (in fact, I have a handful of them), but for me personally, it has to be a large-scale sculpture that I acquired from a gallery in 2009. It’s in storage. I simply can’t find enough space to place it. For more than a decade, I’ve been acquiring only oil or acrylic paintings on canvas. They last forever, I can just hang them on a wall, and they are easy to store.
What work do you wish you had bought when you had the chance?
I wish I had bought a Joan Mitchell painting back in 2007–2010 when I had the chance. I didn’t pull the trigger and also lost out on couple of bidding situations at auctions. I loved her works then, and I love her works even more today. I did manage to acquire a Lee Krasner relatively early on, when I bought an oil painting at an auction in 2006. I acquired a total of three Krasner oil paintings by 2019, but I currently have only one left. Joan Mitchell and Lee Krasner are my absolute favorite Abstract Expressionist artists.
One artist’s works I really wanted to acquire but couldn’t was Matthew Wong, circa 2017–18. I loved his large-format paintings but just couldn’t acquire his primary works from a gallery because I had no buying relationship with it. The rest is history. Wong’s artworks are now among the most sought-after nowadays, and still beautiful and mesmerizing to look at. I took some comfort in knowing that at least I can trust my eyes in identifying great artists and beautiful artworks.
If you could steal one work of art without getting caught, what would it be?
The Kiss (1908) by Gustav Klimt. So beautiful and timeless.
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