International Dealers Continue to Expand in Seoul, Casting a Vote of Confidence in South Korea Despite a Market Correction
More galleries are setting up shop in the South Korean capital as Frieze Seoul returns for its second edition.
Portuguese dealer Duarte Sequeira was examining the work of American artist Pieter Schoolwerth while listening to the artist discuss the new pieces in his brand-new gallery space on Sunday afternoon. The crew was still busy with the final set-up, but excitement was already in the air: this is Sequeira’s second space to open in Seoul, South Korea, in just one year.
“I’m ambitious,” the 33-year-old dealer told Artnet News. “I feel like it makes sense to have a second space in Seoul to expand our program. This is also a new opportunity for our artists to show in a different setting.” It is the third space of Duarte Sequeira, which is headquartered in Braga, Portugal, after the gallery opened its first outpost to coincide with the inaugural Frieze Seoul last year.
Despite recent reports of a decline in sales and a market correction, the South Korean capital appears to remain an attractive destination for international dealers of all stripes. On the heels of several blue-chip western galleries’ expansions in the South Korean capital in recent years, White Cube is set to open an outpost in the city during Seoul Art Week.
Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac has also expanded its Seoul space, while Japanese gallery Whitestone unveiled its new premises on September 2. Even Sotheby’s is inaugurating its new premises in the city. While Gagosian has yet to have a permanent space in Seoul, it has just appointed its first full-time director in the country.
Diverse and Engaged Buyers
Sequeira’s new venue is a nearly 2,000-square-foot space that sits on the site of Jung Deok Won, which used to be part of the historic Deoksugung Palace and home to the office of Queen Insu of Joseon dynasty in the 15th century. The building will be the base for the cultural platform Space Sophora, and the gallery will become the exclusive art and curatorial programmer.
The dealer said that he visited South Korea for the first time in May last year for Art Busan and instantly fell in love with the scene. “The collector base is younger, and they approach art collecting very differently from their counterparts in Europe,” he said, noting that his generation of collectors in South Korea seems active and collaborative. “They share what they learn from each other. It’s exciting. There are younger collectors in Europe too, but I don’t see this dynamic there.”
And while the noted rise of a young cohort of collectors buyers in the country has drawn a lot of attention in recent years, the market has more to offer.
“South Korea has always been a very important player in Asia, especially in the secondary market,” noted Yuki Terase, founding partner of Art Intelligence Global. “There are affluent families who have been serious collectors since the 1990s. We’ve always known about this significant purchasing power.”
It seems that the rest of the world found out more recently, in parallel with the country becoming a global pop culture sensation thanks to Hallyu, also known as the “Korean Wave.” But beyond the trendy facade, the country has created a business environment favorable to the art market, according to Terase. There is an increasing availability of English-speaking Korean art professionals, as well as relatively low rent, and an freeport-like setup which makes the market “easier for westerners to approach,” she added, compared to other nations in Asia where art transactions are more regulated, such as Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore.
“I don’t think it’s a hype,” she said.
Enduring a Downturn
The global art market saw a correction take place in the first half of 2023, and South Korea was not exempt; art sales declined significantly in the nation. Data from Artnet’s Price Database shows that local powerhouses K Auction and Seoul Auction offered 66 percent more lots combined in the first six months of 2023 than in the same period of 2022, but the sales total went down by more 56 percent, from $108 million in the first half of 2022 to $47 million in the first half of 2023.
This was in line with the results recently published by the Korea Art Authentication and Appraisal Research Center, which reported that the combined sales of Seoul Auction, K-auction, and Myart Auction were down 47 percent in the first half of 2023 compared to the same period last year. The sell-through rate in the first half of 2023 was 70 percent, down from 80 percent in the same period of 2022.
Compared to the performance of global auction houses, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips, which together had an 18.2 percent decline in sales in the first six months this year, the South Korean market appeared to be more volatile and vulnerable, according to a report in The Korea Herald.
Some international players see this downfall as only temporary. “We have seen the global financial market facing challenges this year and endured art market fluctuations throughout the past decade, however we believe that Seoul is a promising location to showcase our exhibition program, international contemporary artists, and our work with artist estates,” said Wendy Xu, general manager of White Cube, Asia.
The gallery will unveil its new Seoul space in Gangnam district during Seoul Art Week. Spanning 3,230 square feet of exhibition spaces including a private viewing room and offices, the gallery’s second location in Asia after Hong Kong is being led by Jini Yang, White Cube’s Korean representative and director.
The Tokyo-headquartered Whitestone began to search for a space in Seoul in early 2021 and eventually landed on an outpost located in Yongsan district. The new site, which opened ahead of Seoul Art Week, includes with a rooftop garden to showcase sculptures and installations. The opening group show sums up the gallery’s overall sentiment about the nation: it is titled “We Love Korea.”
“We’ve witnessed the rise of a new generation of young collectors who are energetically participating in the art market, bringing their unique perspectives and preferences to their collections,” noted Jiyoung Park, Whitestone’s director of its Seoul operation. She added that in spite of the economic challenges of late that the gallery will focus on its new expansion as part of a “long-term strategy.”
The Paris-, London-, and Salzburg-based Thaddaeus Ropac has also given Seoul a vote of confidence by expanding across an additional floor at its existing gallery space in the South Korean capital, which opened two years ago. “It’s really about the opportunity to able to show more than one artist at a time in Seoul,” the dealer told Artnet News via email. Ropac said that the gallery observed more clients travelling to Seoul from regions like China, Singapore, Thailand, and Singapore since the borders reopened after the pandemic. The gallery is presenting Donald Judd and Joseph Beuys during Seoul Art Week.
He noted that Korean collectors are “extremely sophisticated and knowledgeable and focused,” adding that while the market remains smaller than some other hubs, like Hong Kong, it is still “very solid.”
Bringing Korean Artists to the World
In contrast to the times when international galleries flocked to Hong Kong about a decade ago in order to present their international artists, galleries establishing outposts in Seoul have emphasized their connections with the Korean art world as well as an interest in Korean art, both established and emerging.
Ropac, for example, has been working with Lee Bul for many years and has shown her work in its European galleries many times. He is also adding further Korean artists to its roster, including Korean-Canadian artist Zadie Xa; she will have her first solo with the gallery in Paris in March next year. Korean artist Heemin Chung has joined the gallery; she will present a show at their London space in 2024.
White Cube, on the other hand, is working with Park Seo-Bo on a major solo exhibition in autumn 2024 at the gallery’s upcoming New York space on Madison Avenue that is set to open in October. The gallery is also planning for a local project with a South Korean institution.
Whitestone’s Park noted that the gallery’s founder, Yukio Shiraishi, has a longstanding interest in Korean artists. He showed artists such as Kim Tschang Yeol and Lee Ufan alongside Japanese post-war artists at the inaugural exhibition of Whitestone Art Foundation’s Karuizawa New Art Museum in 2012.
To young Portuguese dealer Sequeira, bringing Korean artists to Europe is also in the pipeline. The gallery currently operates an artist residency program in its Braga site and Sequeira hopes to bring Korean artists to Portugal for this program.
“Aesthetically, Korean art is very pleasing because of the calmness and the material of the work. I’ve had European clients asking me for opinions about Korean artists they have encountered,” Sequeira said. “I’d like to show works that reflect the links to the legacy of Korean culture and inspirations from this part of the world.”
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