Discovering lesser-known spaces frequently provides a unique thrill. Just as people seek out unique cafes and restaurants, art enthusiasts also seek out distinctive art spaces. In this article, we’ll take a look at the background of alternative spaces in Seoul.
Discovering lesser-known spaces frequently provides a unique thrill. Recognizing this appeal, various media outlets often highlight distinct places such as coffee shops, wine bars, and restaurants. While these establishments might not be mainstream, they possess a special charm that sets them apart. In the realm of art, while renowned galleries and museums capture attention, other spaces cherished by art enthusiasts might remain less accessible to the broader public.
This past September, the Frieze Film program took a different approach. Curators Kim Sung woo and Sungah Serena Choo selected unconventional spaces across Seoul to showcase various video artworks.
Following the inception of Frieze Seoul in 2022, a prominent question posed by the international art community centered on the ideal locations to truly grasp the essence of Korea’s vibrant art scene.
Essentially, the art domain in Korea can be divided into three main areas: the commercial side, focusing on profitability; the non-commercial sector, which includes art museums; and the independent venues and collectives. These independent groups often take a different route compared to the standard commercial and authoritative methods of major galleries and museums.
To spotlight these independent spaces, which are essential to the Korean art scene yet not easily accessible to both international and local art lovers, Kim Sung woo and Sungah Serena Choo chose to exhibit video works at four venues in September: Boan1942 in Tongui-dong, Insa Art Space in Samcheong-dong, Amado Art Space, and Mother Offline in Hannam-dong. Although several independent spaces in South Korea have been in existence for over a decade, the curators carefully selected these four locations, considering the routes of Frieze’s visitors.
Insa Art Space, established in 2000, is among the pioneers of alternative spaces in Korea, alongside Alternative Space Loop and Project Space SARUBIA DABANG. Boan1942 was founded in 2007, followed by Amado Art Space in 2013, and more recently, in 2022, Mother Offline emerged as a versatile cultural space, integrating a cafe and bar setting with art exhibitions and performances.
These independent organizations and spaces, distinct from conventional museums and galleries, are referred to as “alternative spaces” or “New Alternative Art Spaces (신생공간, Sinsenggonggan),” depending on their founding period and background. Characteristically, these venues presented a break from the pristine “white cube” aesthetic dominant in large-scale galleries and museums.
The concept of alternative spaces originated in New York during the late 1960s, gaining prominence in the 1980s. These small-scale nonprofit organizations played a significant role in spreading experimental, video, performance, and conceptual art, as well as pluralism, which faced reluctance from traditional art museums, artists’ associations, and commercial galleries.
In the context of South Korea, the wave for such alternative spaces gained traction toward the end of the 1990s, particularly during the financial crisis in 1997. At that time, the art market, which had thrived amid the economic boom, experienced a severe downturn. Consequently, galleries became hesitant to showcase the works of young emerging artists due to unpredictable sales performances, diminishing their exhibition opportunities. In response to this situation and to offer support to these artists, alternative spaces were established.
Alternative spaces typically stand out for their non-mainstream and non-institutional characteristics. Many such spaces have been venues for experimental and conceptual artworks. Although the managers of these spaces varied, they frequently provided platforms for independent curators and organizers whose visions diverged from the usual exhibition programming found in traditional art museums or galleries.
Additionally, during the same period when these alternative spaces were first emerging, South Korea also witnessed the repurposing of previously unused or neglected areas, such as deserted schools, transforming them into creative hubs. Today, some alternative spaces, such as the Loop, continue to thrive, having expanded to new locations, while Project Space SARUBIA DABANG still utilizes its underground coffee shop space for art displays.
Spaces that appeared in the 2010s possess distinct attributes compared to the earlier alternative spaces and are often referred to as “Sinsenggonggan” or “New Alternative Art Spaces.” These emerging new spaces, predominantly led by individuals born in the 1980s, emerged in response to the financial crisis of 2008 and its socio-political context, including the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations (2008–2016), the “Hell Joseon” phenomenon, meaning that “(South) Korea is a hellish, hopeless society,” the concept of “Passion Pay,” and the instability of youth employment.
While the preceding generation of alternative spaces benefited from governmental support, Sinsenggonggan emerged during a phase of diminished government assistance, with a stronger emphasis on art sales.
Consequently, sinsenggonggans are characterized by their affordable rent, minimal facilities, and the groups’ efforts to minimize costs while generating income. A significant number of these venues also manage cafes or bars as a means of financial support. While distinguishing between traditional alternative spaces and sinsenggonggans might be nuanced, a notable feature of the latter is their use of venues that were not originally intended for art exhibitions, a choice often influenced by the terms of their lease agreements. Unfortunately, a majority of spaces that were active in Seoul from 2014 to 2016, a period marked by heightened discussions about these new venues, are no longer in existence.
Another boom period for the Korean art market is passing, experts say. The hosting of Frieze Seoul is expected to change the landscape of the Korean contemporary art scene once again, as numerous international galleries enter the city and contemporary art becomes more popular among the younger generation. It will be interesting to see what new spaces will emerge as a result of these changes.