While North Korean art is making a bid for attention in Vienna, in South Korea, where I just spent a week at the UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education, the art world is showing remarkable vigor. This peninsular country of 60 million, one-fifth the size of France, is the real miracle of Asia. It suffers from few of the chronic structural weaknesses of Japan, or the social and environmental ills of China or India, or the artificiality and overreach of newly rich Gulf nations. It’s the Switzerland of the East. And art is a key part of the equation.
There is no shortage of science-fiction-like mega-projects here, including the Global City of Saemangeum, to be built on the world’s largest reclaimed land mass behind a 33 km sea dyke, the world’s longest, which was just completed after 19 years of effort. But this is no Dubai. I asked a government official in the ancient city of Jeonju, which hosted my group in a bid to become a UNESCO Creative City, what’s the goal for South Korea in the years ahead. He said, “to get to between 5th and 10th in GDP in the world.” He didn’t mean per capita.
Underlying South Korea’s epic success, of course, is the most comprehensive public education effort in its hemisphere, and possibly the world. South Koreans are simply obsessed with learning, and the results are plain to see. Korea’s literate, world-wise population is, among other positive traits, deeply interested in the arts. This is probably the only place in the world where Bach can be heard in the bathrooms at a highway rest stop.
Here’s the most impressive thing about South Korea: It seems to have found a balance between warp-speed development and respect for local identity. As part of this balancing act, the state is extremely generous to local art. Seoul alone installs more than one thousand public art works a year. Historic sites are preserved and documented meticulously. Local governments are building creative complexes for artists where they can live, create, and interact for six months at a time. Arts patronage is considered obligatory for big firms and wealthy business clans, for reasons of both national pride and marketing. There is no interest in the wholesale franchising of Euro-American culture here. The country is open to foreign influences—Seoul’s top Zagat restaurant is Italian, the pastries of choice are French, Starbucks is ubiquitous, and women are as label conscious as anywhere—but the country has avoided drowning in globalization.
All this is reflected in Seoul’s vast and varied network of art institutions. The astonishing Leeum museum, in the Hannam-dong district, is a private collection run by the Samsung Cultural Foundation. It is without doubt one of the most advanced museums in the world. Its three wings, designed by Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel, and Rem Koolhaas, are devoted, respectively, to traditional Korean art and artifacts, a world-class selection of Western art, and a state-of-the art educational and media complex “to express the future of art and culture.” It makes a pilgrimage to Seoul worthwhile all by itself. There are many privately operated museums and Kunsthalles around Seoul. Among the most acclaimed is ArtSonje Center, which was hosting an exhibition by Kim Beom when I visited the space with its influential curator, Sunjung Kim, a leading advocate of Korean art. Many Korean artists do not have or seek gallery representation, the curator explained. Spaces like Sonje provide exposure while allowing them to stay free of commercial pressures.
Seoul has four major commercial gallery neighborhoods, along with several other smaller clusters—altogether perhaps as many as 400 galleries. With their crisp interior design, museum-quality lighting, and handsome publications, they exude sophistication. Music is piped into some spaces and prices at even some of the more advanced galleries are calculated by picture size. Although some art experts complained that Korean collectors don’t have a strong eye for contemporary art yet, prices, by all accounts, are robust. After a severe slowdown in the crisis years, red dots abound. Some of the larger galleries opened chic restaurants during the downturn to diversify their businesses. Now they use them to host clients.
The most striking fact about Seoul’s galleries is their devotion to local artists. A few plainly commercial spaces exhibit A-list American and European brand names. But the majority of dealers promote Koreans. Kukje and PKM are the largest galleries, familiar to visitors of international art fairs. Several top galleries—notably Hyundai, Gana Art, and Arario—are working on a Gagosianesque scale. Hyundai boasts two locations, each one capable of hosting multiple exhibitions, as well as project spaces for emerging artists. Hyundai and Gana Art also operate auction houses, which seem to be doing brisk business.
In the picturesque neighborhood of Samchong-dong, a web of winding streets and alleys between two palace complexes in the north end of Seoul, a smattering of super-sophisticated galleries have opened in new and refurbished buildings. It’s a kind of mini Chelsea, only with smarter spaces and a setting that reminds of the more scenic precincts of Los Angeles. During my visit, all the galleries were showing Korean artists. Their owners and employees, their architects and designers, and the exhibited artists themselves are all clearly steeped in the aesthetic and institutional approaches of the West. But they are addressing their own issues, in their own language. And they are just getting started.
Not all is perfect, of course. There will be growing pains. Some corporate foundations have been accused of corruption. Recent conflicts over institutional appointments remind of the pitfalls of a government-run cultural sector. And in a conformist nation where cars, with few exceptions, come only in black, white or grey, confrontational artists have a hard time fitting in. Even so, over the next few years, as its massive investments into education and infrastructure bear fruit, expect South Korea to command more and more of our attention.