Younghee Sohn: Building Up a Market

On 21 May 2019, by Pierre Naquin

Art Busan is incontestably South Korea's second biggest fair, despite a venue outside the capital of this highly centralised country. Its founder and director, Younghee Sohn, talks about the birth of a highly ambitious project.

Younghee Sohn
Courtesy Art Busan

Why did you want to create a fair?
Fairs help to promote the local art ecosystem around a specific moment, and indirectly give it more structure and maturity. This means that regional artists receive greater support, and fairs also act as a vehicle for developing a city's culture and economy (...). In addition, Art Busan is more like an art festival than an event for wealthy collectors. Last year, we received 60,000 visitors in four days.

How has Art Busan developed since its creation?
The company was founded in 2011 and we staged the first fair the following year. At that point we had 90 exhibitors, mainly from Asia. Many more have joined us since then, and we now have 164 participants from 17 countries. This year we are delighted to be hosting some new European galleries, including Almine Rech, Peres Projects and König, which have chosen us for their first steps in Korea.
 

Art Busan 2018
Art Busan 2018Courtesy Art Busan

What are your ambitions?
With its magnificent coastline, Busan is Korea's most popular holiday destination, and the city's economic lifeblood is business tourism. Plans are under way to build a new international airport and expand the port logistics platform, all of which should attract even more international companies, in rather the same way as Hong Kong today. The local government also looks set to build a free port and create a major auction house. On our side, we need to dovetail all these aspects with our constant efforts to attract leading international exhibitors and uphold our reputation as a truly first-class art fair. I also think that there should be far more diversity in the city's museums. I'd like to promote an atmosphere that naturally encourages major entrepreneurs to invest in the creation of new private institutions. In addition, we are cooperating with the Busan tourist office to devise cultural experiences in various districts of the city, and we are planning to launch projects with several international galleries and their artists in partnership with the Busan Biennale.

How is the Korean contemporary art market doing?
Until recently, very few galleries and auction houses were benchmarks for collectors. This is gradually changing, thanks to fairs where art lovers can view and compare thousands of works at reasonable prices. At the same time, we are seeing a substantial increase in the number of Korean collectors with museum quality collections. In the future, the priority for the Korean art market is to expand its scope. It needs to become increasingly stable, and large enough to support its artists and the players representing them in the international scene. This is crucial if Korea is to position itself at the same level as China and Japan on Asia's contemporary stage. It is vital not to hike prices in the short term, but to maintain strong competition and develop influential networks. 

"We are seeing a substantial increase in the number of Korean collectors with museum quality collections. In the future, the priority for the Korean art market is to expand its scope. It needs to become increasingly stable, and large enough to support its artists and the players representing them in the international scene."

Galleries seem to have sprung up like mushrooms over the past few years… 
There are a lot of new galleries opening, but a lot are closing as well. The Korean economy is currently stabilising, with a GDP per head of almost US$40,000. I think we can hope that in the short term, every household will possess at least one art work. With this in view, it's marvellous that new galleries are continuing to emerge. We'll need them. However, it's important that they don't limit themselves to selling alone but keep tabs on the quality as well. In that way, art dealers will be considered reliable and boost their clientele as a result.

What are the main challenges facing Korean galleries?
not to mention the fact that once in the limelight, nothing can stop artists from leaving their original gallery for a bigger one.   

Is there a place for the secondary market in Korea? 
The lion's share of Korean auction houses' turnover comes from the Dansaekhwa movement and antique works: a far cry from the gallery market. In a small market like Korea, it is crucial for galleries to collaborate and not compete with each other unduly. Collectors now have easy access to information, and it's up to them to decide what interests them.

Art Busan 2018
Art Busan 2018Courtesy Art Busan

How do Korean collectors feel about their collections?
In the past, none of them felt at ease exhibiting their collections. The situation has gradually changed, and they are progressively opening up and getting organised into groups. The longest-established collectors are now looking for premises to set up their own museums. The youngest are also the most active: they glean information through every possible channel, take part in foreign events and keep up with talks and discussions about contemporary art.

In the West, collectors are beginning to suffer from "fair fatigue"
The situation isn't very different in Asia, in fact: in a word, there are too many shows! There are around forty fairs each year in Korea alone. So it's crucial for Art Busan to develop programmes and content that make it stand out from other events. Up till now, we have managed this quite successfully. But there is one major difference with Europe, where most of the well-known fairs have a far longer history than ours. In the contemporary art scene, they need to constantly reinvent themselves to attract attention. Today, this long history is a handicap for Western fairs, which have become somewhat stale and lacking in gusto, while in Asia, a great many events and museums are still very recent. The image of an Asian art scene full of novelty piques collectors' curiosity, and makes them want to find out more.

Worth knowing
Art Busan, from 31 May to 2 June,
Bexco, Busan (Korea)
www.artbusankorea.com
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