SEOUL — One recent afternoon in the vibrant Itaewon neighborhood, art types trickled into a four-story building that the Berlin and Paris gallery Esther Schipper had just unveiled as a showroom, to catch an interactive performance by the artist Tino Sehgal. It involved a girl, in character, delivering a short monologue and addressing questions to her audience. At one point, she turned to an artist on hand and asked, “Would you rather feel too busy or not busy enough?” Not a fair question: Anyone trying to keep up with art in this art-mad city hardly has a choice.
New museums are opening, foreign galleries are alighting and corporations are plowing money into contemporary art. Frieze opened a fair here in September, some 120 exhibitors strong, and the international art world flew in. At Samsung’s palatial Leeum Museum of Art, “Squid Game” stars and visiting museum curators watched the K-pop girl group Kep1er. At a club in the industrial Euljiro neighborhood, the artist Haegue Yang hosted a blowout that lasted into the early morning. Finally, after cautious pandemic management, this metropolitan area of 26 million — that’s half the country’s population in an area the size of Connecticut — felt gloriously alive.
Amid the action, one young gallery worker told me he was proud that Frieze, which has editions in London, New York and Los Angeles, had picked South Korea instead of rival Japan for its first fair in Asia. And the Seoul-born art dealer, Jason Haam, 32, enthused in an interview, “It’s kind of like the World Cup or Olympics coming into this country.” It is an exhilarating moment for art and a complicated one, as everyone navigates rapid changes, sizes up the newcomers and angles for position, as economic fears loom.
“I think it was long overdue that people recognized Seoul, Korea, as an art hub,” said Emma Son, the senior director at Lehmann Maupin’s gallery here. She has been in Seoul’s gallery sector for more than two decades and was sitting in her office, next to a painting by the midcareer Korean artist Keunmin Lee, who channels body horror in virtuosic near-abstractions. Lehmann Maupin, which also has New York and London branches, moved into its elegant two-floor space this year, after opening a smaller showroom in 2017. Pace has also expanded dramatically, and Perrotin just added a second space. Almost 300 galleries were counted in Seoul in a 2020 survey by the Korea Arts Management Service, a government agency.
A dealer invasion is underway. In March, Tang Contemporary Art (Bangkok, Beijing, Hong Kong) moved into a capacious exhibition hall in the ultrawealthy Cheongdam area. In April, Peres Projects, a talent-spotting outfit in Berlin and Milan, grabbed a shop in the ritzy Shilla Hotel; it is now prepping a gallery in Samcheong, the preserve of mainstays like Hyundai and PKM. That same month, Gladstone (three New York galleries, one in Brussels) also landed in Cheongdam, where König (Berlin, London) set up in 2021 on the upper floors of an MCM store.
The collector base in South Korea “is big, but it’s not as …….