How One Gallery Association Made South Korea’s Art Scene the International Star It Is Today

For more than four decades, the Galleries Association of Korea has been instrumental in creating an arts infrastructure in South Korea that has propelled Seoul to become one of the world’s top art capitals.

Western art galleries have been steadily opening outposts there over the past several years and now this week Frieze will launch its first fair in Asia in the capital city. But it is the country’s homegrown talent, with blue-chip powerhouses like Kukje, Hyundai, and PKM, as well as cutting-edge enterprises like P21 and Whistle, that has no doubt played a role in raising South Korea’s profile internationally.

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Now consisting of more than 160 galleries, GAK was founded in 1976 by five local galleries “with the ambition to foster a healthy art market, promote public access and engagement with art, and contribute to the global advancement of culture and arts,” Do Hyung-teh, vice chairman of Kiaf’s operating committee, told ARTnews.

He continued, “Kiaf represents a gateway for cultural exchange between local and international audiences. With over 20 years of history, the fair serves as a unique meeting point that bridges the Korean art scene and the global art market.”

That bridge has been truly instrumental, according to experts in the local and international scene. “Although there are many galleries in Seoul, there are only a handful of galleries who are profitable and internationally recognized,” said Tina Kim, who runs an eponymous gallery in New York that is affiliated with Kukje. “Therefore, the Gallery Association provides support for these galleries to survive. For many years, the gallery association has played a pivotal role in supporting the gallery ecosystem in Korea.”

One of GAK’s most important support systems is now its most closely watched. In 2002, GAK launched the Korea International Art Fair, which has seen over 1,000 international galleries take part over the past two decades. In that time, its exhibitors and the artists they show have only grown more diverse. (GAK also partners with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism to support Korean galleries’ participation in international art fairs.)

“As Korea’s international art fair, Kiaf has broadened the boundaries of the local art scene and market,” said Bo Young Song, vice president of Kukje Gallery, which first participated in Kiaf’s second edition. “It has also helped our gallery foster relationships with various collectors and art enthusiasts both from Korea and abroad. The growing variety represents the development of Kiaf.”

For the 2022 edition, Kiaf has made two major changes to how it operates. First, it chose to partner with Frieze to launch its Seoul fair, which Kiaf sees as a strategic move. “Our partnership with Frieze Seoul will create great synergy with Kiaf and will add even more international dimension to the city’s vibrant art scene,” Do said. “For the past decade or so, we have seen a rise in blue-chip galleries from abroad opening exhibition spaces in Seoul, many of which will also be participating in Frieze Seoul. These galleries have made important contributions to the strength and quality of the Korean art market. We are confident that Frieze Seoul will continue contributing to this positive and dynamic change.”

Kim agreed that the influx of Western dealers has only strength Korean’s art market. “There are some members who are threatened by foreign dealers opening spaces in Korea and several art fairs taking place in Seoul, but in the long run, this will only benefit the Korean art market,” she said. “The market can only be strong when it is open in order to compete in an international market.”

Both fairs launch on the same day and take place on different levels of the Coex Convention & Exhibition Center—and they’ll share a joint admission ticket. This means that visitors to the fairs will be able to see work on view from some 350 local and international galleries, making the combined fairs larger than their two main competitors in Asia, the long-established Art Basel Hong Kong (137 galleries in March 2022) and the forthcoming ART SG (more than 150 galleries in January 2023). “This year’s edition of Kiaf Seoul reinforces the fair’s role as the first and longest-running international art fair in Korea,” Do said.

Additionally, Kiaf is also launching its first satellite fair, Kiaf Plus, which will primarily focus on galleries that have been in business fewer than five years. That’s a sign of the fair’s growing prominence, as many major art fairs have satellite editions that run concurrently with a more blue-chip main one. A highlight of Kiaf Plus will be the debut of an NFT exhibition titled “Bored Apes Golf Club Korea (BAGC Korea),” presented by the metaverse company Altava Group and the NFT platform Etnah.

“We are committed to meeting the ever-changing needs and trends of the international art market,” Do said. “This new satellite fair was conceived to offer younger artists and galleries a platform to present their work within the context of Seoul Art Week and to showcase artworks across a broader range of genres and experimental practices.”

For many dealers, Seoul’s rise has been a long time coming. Song added, “We’ve spent many years promoting Korean and international art by participating in international art fairs abroad, so I am indeed grateful and excited that our ‘homeground,’ Seoul, is on the rise as a global hub for contemporary art.”


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