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The art world landed in Seoul this week for the inaugural edition of Frieze in Asia, as the vibrant South Korean capital aims to position itself as the region’s next arts center.
Frieze’s previous fairs have taken place in traditional art capitals such as London, Paris and New York, but industry experts say Seoul was a natural fit for the first Asian edition of the prestigious event.
South Korea has emerged as a cultural powerhouse in recent years with the global success of the Oscar-winning film “Parasite” and Netflix series “Squid Game”, and with K-pop superstars BTS topping the music charts. by Billboard.
“Frieze looks to cities where there is a great appreciation of culture,” Patrick Lee, the inaugural director of Frieze Seoul, told AFP.
Seoul boasts a rich art scene, he added, with “incredibly talented artists, world-class museums, corporate collections, non-profit organizations, biennials and galleries, making it an ideal venue for an art fair.”
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The fair also takes place at a time when the art world is moving 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.
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“Seoul is definitely Asia’s most vibrant and exciting market for now,” said Alice Lung, director of Galerie Perrotin, which opened its second gallery in Seoul last month.
Tim Schneider, art business editor of Artnet News, said that the openings of major western galleries such as Pace, Lehmann Maupin, Perrotin and Thaddaeus Ropac, followed by Frieze, confirmed that Seoul has “risen to the level” on the international art scene.
“Frieze Seoul is just the final confirmation that the request was here,” he told AFP.
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The local art market has seen explosive growth since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with local art fairs posting record numbers in foot traffic and sales last year.
“When the borders were closed for a while, people focused on viewing online,” Galerie Perrotin’s Lung told AFP.
“This has helped Korean artists and galleries grow faster without any physical limitations, bringing in new collectors,” especially millennials and Generation Z, he said.
During this time, skyrocketing house prices have prompted many South Koreans to seek alternative investment options, such as stocks, cryptocurrency and, for some, works of art.
“Many young people have suffered bitter losses from investments in stocks and cryptocurrencies, and works of art have appeared to be a safe bet, especially after high-profile success stories,” said Hwang Dal-seung, president of the Galleries Association of Korea.
The late Samsung president Lee Kun-hee left behind a treasure trove of 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) that had skyrocketed during its ten-year ownership, Hwang added.
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Schneider said South Korea is 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 which artists are most in demand internationally, as well as significantly increasing the speed at which artists can move from emerging level to blue chip prices and global fame.” , He added.
The country’s art market is estimated to be worth about 532.9 billion won in the first half of 2022, according to a July report from the Korea Arts Administration Service, more than the whole of 2021.
Thaddaeus Ropac, who opened his Seoul gallery last year, said South Korea offers a balanced demographics of collectors.
“You have very established collectors who are not too young anymore and who have an 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 its quality,” Ropac told AFP.
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“But then you also feel a very fresh new approach to art” from younger collectors, he added.
The Austrian gallery owner, who began working with South Korean artists nearly two decades ago, said the country’s art scene – artists, curators, collectors – has been “built for generations”.
The arrival of Frieze Seoul would certainly have opened new doors for the South Korean art market, he said, but it was “also the result of what Seoul has become”.
Schneider added: “Historically, every time an A-level international fair opens a store in a new city, it simultaneously confirms that the art market infrastructure is sustainable.”
But he rejected the framing of Seoul’s rise in terms of Hong Kong’s potential downfall.
“I think it is misleading to act as if Asia, a huge continent made up of numerous countries with unique cultural histories and enormous wealth, could not support two legitimate centers of the art market,” he said.
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