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Art Collectors Who Have Greatly Influenced the Korean Contemporary Art Scene

A work of art builds value and meaning through the intersection of the interest formed by various participants in the art market.

Galleries identify potentially gifted artists and act as artists’ agents, promoting their creative skills. Curators contextualize the work to different audiences, academics and institutions such as art museums research the historical value of artworks and artists. 

Installation view of the "MMCA Lee Kun-hee Collection Masterpieces of Korean Art." July 21, 2021 through April 13, 2022. Courtesy of the MMCA.

Art collectors are also vital participants in this pool. Their purchase of art stimulates the art market, of course, but some goes even further and show great initiative in building a collection, and occasionally add another chapter to art history by discovering works that are sometimes overlooked in the mainstream art world.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, best known as the founder of New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931, had a great desire to support and collect new American art during the time when European art was more popular. Beginning with her collection, the Whitney Museum of Art has established itself as an institution that plays an important role in modern and contemporary American art.

"Sensation," Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection installed at the Brooklyn Museum October 2, 1999 through January 9, 2000. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

A more recent example of a collector who has had significant influence in the art world can be found in the British advertising magnate Charles Saatchi. Sensation, an exhibition of the collection of contemporary art owned by Saatchi, included many works by Young British Artists (YBAs) such as Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. As the show has traveled from London to Berlin and New York, it has attracted much attention, introducing a broader public to YBAs and creating various discourses surrounding their artworks.

Such stories of passionate art collectors taking on significant roles in the contemporary art scene are found in Korea as well.

The late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee with his wife Hong Ra-hee. Photo by Shin-young Park. ©The Korea Economic Daily.

First, there is the widely known Lee Kun-hee Collection, which was donated to the government last year. The collection was built by the late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee and his wife Hong Ra-hee, the former director of the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art. The so-called “donation of the century,” in terms of its size and value, is a collection of 23,181 works spanning from antiquities to contemporary art.

A total of 1,488 artworks, including the works of modern Korean artists such as Kim Whanki, Park Sookeun, and Lee Jungseop, as well as works by internationally renowned artists such as Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko, are currently housed at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA). The importance of the Samsung family’s donation lies in the fact that it has elevated the size and artistic and historical value of the national collection, as the MMCA lacks the funds to purchase such masterpieces.

Kim Chang-il ⓒ HeraldPOP.
Kim Chang-il. Arario Group ⓒ HeraldPOP.

Kim Chang-il, chairman of Arario Group, is a self-made businessman who has developed Cheonan City’s terminal bus station into a cultural complex, but he is now better known as an art collector than an entrepreneur. He has been included in ArtReview’s ‘Power 100,’ the annual ranking of the most influential people in art, several times and, in 2016, he was ranked 49th in ARTnews’ ‘Top 200 Collectors’ list, surpassing the Samsung couple.

An artist himself, running three art galleries and four art museums in Korea, Kim has a collection of about 4,000 contemporary artworks. His chief contribution to the contemporary Korean art scene, though, was developing a system through which commercial art galleries and artists should collaborate. Most of the exhibitions were held with unwritten agreements, making it difficult for artists to properly promote their works in the art market. Kim was a collector who realized this void in the Korean art scene and began to sign artist-gallery representation agreements with some emerging contemporary Korean artists. He especially played a major part in promoting and introducing young, potential contemporary Asian artists to the global art market.

Phillip Jeon & Choi Yoon-jeong
Phillip Chun & Choi Yoon-jung, Paradise Group. ©Paradise Group.

Most recently, Jeon Philip, chairman of the South Korean hotel chain the Paradise Group, and Choi Yoon Jung, chairman of the Paradise Culture Foundation, emerged as the most influential collectors in Korea. The duo were the only Koreans to be named in ARTnews ‘Top 200 Collector’ list announced last October.

The group’s collection of about 3,500 pieces is placed throughout Paradise City as well as in Paradise Art Space, a gallery space in the resort. While many works by famous international artists like Damien Hirst, Yayoi Kusama, and Alessandro Mendini are present in its collection, 90% of the collection is by Korean artists.

The group’s collection played a key role in promoting contemporary Korean artists when the resort opened in 2017. 2017 was when Samsung’s Leeum Museum of Art, the largest private art museum in Korea, closed its doors, and the local art market stagnated. Some market players saw that the opening of Paradise City and its collection had kept the art market from falling into a steep depression.

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