Art Scene: Seoul
Soo Choi runs not one but two major art galleries on opposite sides of the Han River in Seoul. Since 2017, she has been hosting venturesome shows by Korean artists like Hyungkoo Lee and Haneyl Choi at P21, a pair of handsome, raw spaces nearby each other in the city’s Itaewon area. And since last year, she has also been guiding the new Seoul outpost of Berlin’s König Galerie in luxe Cheongdam-dong. Before undertaking these endeavours, she cut her teeth working for the veteran dealer Park Ryu Sook, who happens to be her mother. Her experience is vast, so I am grateful that she was willing to take the time to talk with me about the state of the fast-changing art scene in the South Korean capital.
ANDREW RUSSETH: How would you describe the state of the Seoul art world right now?
SOO CHOI: A lot has changed in the last couple of years. There are many more museums, corporate institutions, and a lot of non-profits, or artist-run spaces, and also a growing number of galleries. So it’s a very saturated market, and the scene is very, very active. There’s a lot going on. I can’t even get my head around everything that is going on.
AR: Despite the growing number of galleries, it feels like there are still not a ton that focus on untested emerging artists. Is that fair to say?
SC: There are more now, but when I started, I don’t think a lot of galleries saw an opportunity to work with emerging artists, or even mid-career Korean artists that are not necessarily selling in the market. I wanted to give them more visibility, and to go back to artists that had been overlooked. In the beginning, I didn’t even intend to do a program focused on emerging artists. My hero artist is Choi Jeong Hwa, and I wanted to show mid-career artists like him and promote them internationally. Because even some of these established figures here, they don’t have a market internationally. Trying to change that was my aspiration in the beginning. But it’s still very challenging. Now it’s prime time to grab all the attention from the international art scene, but there’s really a lot to be done. I get to meet a lot of young talents. I want to pick out the best so that they will survive after ten, twenty years – so they can leave a mark.
AR: As you’re alluding to, there is a huge array of artist-run spaces in Seoul, but these places often come and go quickly. Where does that network come from? My understanding is that government funding plays a part in keeping it active?
SC: That is part of it. But then, also, it is because commercial galleries won’t necessarily pick up and support many young artists. These artist-run spaces rent out their space occasionally for shows, so that they can sustain themselves, but I don’t think it’s the most sustainable business model. Ultimately, artists have to find galleries. But that hasn’t happened in Korea.
We have a short history of a commercial gallery sector here, starting from around the late 1970s. These galleries started from scratch, without having any experience internationally. Maybe for that reason, I don’t think there are many cases where the establishment of an artist’s career was centred around one gallery. Now, major galleries like Kukje and Hyundai are on the trajectory of following the international model of managing artists, sponsoring them, and having closer relationships. That’s a very recent development. It’s very challenging on the gallery’s end, because you continuously have to convince the artists to trust you. I still find it challenging to convince artists to give us their full trust.
AR: It seems tough being a young artist in Korea. My sense is that many who are ambitious have one leg here and one leg in another city abroad, as well.
SC: I think to have that breakthrough internationally, still, having a base outside of Korea increases the chances of that happening. Otherwise, being exported out of Korea is not as likely.
AR: What kinds of difficulties do the galleries face right now?
SC: One is the relationship with artists, as I mentioned, but that is not only an issue here. The biggest difficulty is making a breakthrough in the Korean art market. We need to focus more on Korean artists, and invest in emerging and mid-career artists that are critically acclaimed, but the market is very skewed towards particular people that are doing well at auction. Some young artists are really, really hot in the market, but they are unknown in the art scene, while other great, serious artists are undervalued. That can be very frustrating. But that is also a trend happening globally.
It’s been four years since I opened P21, and I’ve been supporting these talents that I believe are great. But they don’t necessarily have a market. I try to sell, and I sell, but they don’t have the recognition they need in the market. So now it’s my job to figure out how to make them hot.
AR: There’s also been an influx of foreign dealers coming to town – Thaddaeus Ropac and Gladstone just opened, and Pace and Lehmann Maupin just dramatically expanded. There are all sorts of rumours about others coming. This has happened quickly. What other big, recent changes are you seeing?
SC: There’s so much more attention and so much money, it’s crazy. We had a golden period in 2007, 2008 – but that was when I was just starting to work, so I don’t have a memory from the market point of view. A lot of people compare this time to that period, but still, they say it’s different now, it’s stronger, it’s going to last. But I think there’s so much hype that, naturally, some of it is going to go down.
But on a positive note, it’s good that people in Seoul have much more awareness of art now. People are much more interested in going to museums and galleries. Before, it was very challenging to bring in people. We think it’s very easygoing and casual, and anyone can come – there’s no fee – but people saw it as very intimidating and difficult. Now there’s no issue.
AR: What do you and your Korean colleagues make of the international dealers coming in?
SC: König is established in Europe, but still, we are a lot smaller than many of these mega galleries. The things we sell, they’re not super expensive compared to the blue-chip artists that other galleries, like Pace and Ropac, are selling. Sometimes I get scared with all this competition.
On the other hand, if it means the size, and the sophistication, of the Korean market grows, and there is more attention for Korean artists, it will be a plus. As Korean galleries, we really need to step up, because international galleries are also looking at Korean artists. As Korean galleries, we need to have more of an identity. There are strengths that the Korean galleries have over the international galleries – we speak the language and we’ve been here. That’s actually why I wanted to open a gallery in Seoul. Because what am I going to do, open a space in New York, London? I mean, who is going to care about Korean artists? But now I think it’s the right time for Korean art. All of us really need to focus and grab the opportunity.
Find Part II HERE.
SOO CHOI is a gallerist based in Seoul.
ANDREW RUSSETH is a writer based in Seoul.