In 2022, the size of the Korean art market exceeded 1 trillion KRW (Korean won) for the first time ever. Last week, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST) and the Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS) announced that the Korean art market had reached 1.0377 trillion KRW (approximately $833 million) in 2022. The market has shown rapid growth since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic; its size was 384.9 billion KRW (approximately $390 million) in 2020, then doubled to 922.3 billion KRW (approximately $740 million) in 2021. It turned out that the art fair market contributed the most to the rapid growth of the total sales volume.
Yet, according to market watchers, the Korean art market entered a period of slow growth in the second half of the year. Due to a decline in liquidity brought on by the economic downturn and rising interest rates, the bubble in the art market began to burst.
The auction market was the first area to show signs of shrinking. The MCST reported that auction sales decreased by 30.9%, from 338.4 billion KRW in 2021 to 233.5 billion KRW in 2022. The Korea Art Price Appraisal Association (KAPAA) reported that the total amount of the auction market sales in the third quarter of 2022 was less than half of that of 2021; the total sales amount in the third quarter of 2021 was 95.3 billion KRW, and 43.9 billion KRW in 2022.
The slow growth is not just observed in the auction market. The results of the Daegu International Art Fair (DIAF), which was held at the end of November, were less than anticipated. In 2021, the fair reached its highest sales of 9.8 billion KRW (approximately $8 million), while in 2022, sales decreased by 2.3 billion KRW to 7.5 billion KRW (approximately $6 million).
In an interview conducted by reporter Choi Seung-hee of the Kookje News regarding the Busan International Gallery Art Fair (BAMA) held by the Busan Gallery Association every March, Yoo Yeongsook, president of the Busan Gallery Association, stated, “More than 70 galleries were eliminated this year due to the high number of applications, but it is true that the number of applications has decreased somewhat compared to the previous year. In 2021, competition for large booths was fierce, but in 2022, more galleries prefer small booths.”
Market watchers believe that this plateau is primarily due to the exit of newly entered younger collectors, who are the major buyers of ultra-contemporary artworks. In an interview with a Korean news company Newspim, Jeong Joon-mo, CEO of the KAPAA, said, “The ultra-contemporary Korean artworks were able to make huge profits in a short period of time, but as the risks of investing in these artworks are increasing, it is time to refrain from vague expectations about these works.”
Experts predicted that internationally renowned artists, larger galleries, and art fairs with a solid foundation would be relatively recession-resistant to the economic situation, but lesser-known artists, smaller galleries, and art fairs are expected to be significantly more affected.
However, it is hard to simply say that the Korean art market is in decline because it has entered a low growth phase. In an interview with the Kookje News, a gallery curator in Busan said, “The works of popular artists will still sell well this year, and there are already many inquiries. Existing collectors will likely continue investing in art as the real estate market is sluggish.”
In addition, Younghee Sohn, the founding director of Art Busan, mentioned, “I haven’t felt an evident undercurrent yet. As the Korean art market is drawing much attention, more than 300 galleries applied for Art Busan this year, including 100 overseas galleries.” The 2022 edition of Art Busan featured thirty-three overseas galleries. The 2023 edition will be held in May.
The second edition of Frieze Seoul is expected to receive more attention this year, as it will be held with a greater understanding of the Korean art market ecosystem. Furthermore, as COVID-19 travel restrictions loosen, more collectors from neighboring countries are expected to visit the fair this year.
Due to the fact that commercial art galleries are sensitive to changes in the art market, it is worthwhile to examine them as a predictor of the future prospects of the Korean art market. In the second half of last year, Perrotin, a gallery based in Paris, became the first foreign gallery to operate two branches in Seoul. And German-based Peres Project, which opened its first Asian branch in the Shilla Hotel Arcade in Seoul during the first half of last year, plans to move to the Samcheong-dong area in the first half of this year.
Two major biennales and numerous museum exhibitions introducing Korean art are among the exhibitions scheduled for this year that are expected to sustain the art world’s interest in the Korean art world.
The 14th edition of the Gwangju Biennale, one of the largest biennales in Asia, will be held from April 7 to July 9 under the title Soft and Weak Like Water. The upcoming event will be led by Sook-Kyung Lee, senior curator of International Art and head of the Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational at Tate Modern. Lee’s appointment as the Biennale’s artistic director has garnered significant attention in Korea, as it is the first time in 15 years that a Korean has held the position.
Lee has worked in major art institutions in Korea and abroad, gaining a deep understanding of the major discourses of the Korean and international art worlds. Her experience and knowledge are expected to bring about a variety of works that can reflect the unique characteristics of the Gwangju Biennale as well as universal values that people from all over the world can sympathize with and support. The 2023 Gwangju Biennale will feature around 80 artists from 30 countries worldwide, including around 40 new works, many of which will be introduced for the first time in Korea.
In the second half of the year, the 12th Seoul Media City Biennale, organized by the Seoul Museum of Art, will be held in September. Rachel Rakes, who is currently a film programmer at Lincoln Center in New York, has been appointed as the artistic director of the upcoming Biennale.
This year, historically significant Korean art movements will also be introduced at various international institutions. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) has announced that one of its main goals for 2023 is to broaden the discourse on Korean art through touring exhibitions and co-hosting various programs in cooperation with overseas institutions.
The MMCA and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York jointly curated the exhibition The Avant-Garde: Experimental Art in South Korea in the 1960s–70s. From May to July of this year, this large-scale exhibition will travel from the MMCA’s Seoul branch to the Guggenheim Museum in New York and then to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. It will feature more than 100 artworks and archival materials by 26 artists representing Korean avant-garde art, including Kang Kukjin (1939–1992), Lee Kun-Yong (b. 1942), and Choi Byungso (b. 1943).
In addition, the special exhibition of the Korean polychrome painting Prayer for Life, which was held at the MMCA Gwacheon last year, will be reorganized in cooperation with the San Diego Museum of Art, the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and the Korean Culture and Information Service and will be held at the San Diego Museum of Art from October 2023 to February 2024.
Prayer for Life at the MMCA Gwacheon exhibited around eighty works by sixty artists, all of which were colored paintings. The exhibition combined various Korean paintings, such as folk paintings, court paintings, religious paintings, and documentary paintings from 19th- and 20th-century Korean art history, as well as contemporary Korean art that inherits the subject, method, and materials of these paintings.
In addition, the DNA: Dynamic & Alive Korean Art exhibition, which combines traditional Korean art with modern and contemporary works, will be presented at the National Art Museum of China (NAMoC) from November 2023 to February 2024.