Two Korean Collectors Appear on the ARTnews Top 200 Collectors List, but It Is Time to Consider “Why” Rather Than “Who”

Left: Portrait of Suh Kyung-bae, Chairman of AMOREPACIFIC Group. ©AMOREPACIFIC.
Right: Portrait of Kim Woong-gi, Chairman of Global SAE-A Group. ©SAE-A.

ARTnews, an American visual-arts magazine, announced its 33rd edition of the Top 200 Collectors on October 5. This year’s list includes two collectors from Korea: Kim Woong-gi, chairman of Global SeAH Group, and Suh Kyung-bae, chairman of Amorepacific Group. While Suh has appeared on the list several times, this is the first year that Kim has been included.

Other South Korean collectors who were on the list were the late Lee Kun-hee, former chairman of Samsung Group; Hong Ra-hee, former director of the Leeum Museum of Art; Philip Jeon, chairman of the Paradise Group; Choi Yoon Jung, chairman of the Paradise Cultural Foundation; Kim Chang-il, chairman of the Arario Group and founder of the Arario Gallery and Museum; and Hyun-Sook Lee, founder of the Kukje Gallery.

Portrait of Suh Kyung-bae, Chairman of AMOREPACIFIC Group. ©AMOREPACIFIC.
Portrait of Suh Kyung-bae, Chairman of AMOREPACIFIC Group. ©AMOREPACIFIC.

Suh Kyung-bae of Amorepacific was listed for his collection of international and Korean contemporary art and traditional Korean art.

Since 1979, Amorepacific Group, a beauty and cosmetics company, has operated an art museum dedicated to the study and exhibition of Korean art. The programs held at the museum aimed to “improve the status of Korean women’s culture and promote the excellence of Korean culture across the world,” according to Chairman Suh. 

In 2005, the company held an exhibition on the culture of Korean women in Japan, and in 2008, the group donated $300,000 to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to open a “Women’s Quarter” in the Korean Gallery. From 2011 through 2015, Suh contributed to promoting Korean contemporary art by donating $200,000 annually to LACMA for the purchase of contemporary artworks of Korean descent. This year, Suh has taken the lead in opening OSULLOC Tea House, one of Amorepacific’s brands, at Pace Gallery’s Seoul branch.

Portrait of Kim Woong-gi, Chairman of Global SAE-A Group. ©SAE-A.

Kim Woong-gi of Global SeAH Group was listed for collecting modern and contemporary Korean art. SeAH Group is a global company established in 1986 and has approximately ten affiliates that satisfy the basic elements of human life, such as food, shelter, and clothing.

Not much is known about Kim’s collection, but he is known to have an extensive collection of Korean modern and contemporary art as well as works by Yayoi Kusama.

He opened an exhibition space called S2A in the Gangnam district in July 2022. S2A aims to “continue to showcase modern and contemporary masterpieces and to discover and introduce young and promising artists from both home and abroad.” The inaugural exhibition at S2A introduced the Japanese conceptual artist Yayoi Kusama.

Kim appeared in the art world in July of this year when he won the lot for Kim Whanki’s blue abstract painting Universe 5-IV-71 #200 (1971) at Christie’s Hong Kong in November 2019. Fetched at HK $88 million (approximately 13.2 billion KRW), the artwork was the first of Korean work to surpass 10 billion KRW. No other artwork by a Korean artist has surpassed this record yet. The work will be unveiled at S2A’s second exhibition beginning on October 14.

Since 1990, ARTnews has been releasing the list of the most active and influential collectors of the year by collecting the opinions of art world insiders, including curators, art dealers, advisors, and auction specialists.

Not only are the selected art collectors those who have purchased significant artworks from world-renowned galleries, auction houses, or art fairs, but they are also those who have contributed positively to the development of the art world by sponsoring programs such as exhibitions and residencies, commissioning artists for new works, and playing key roles in various art institutions.

The ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list may not be an objective indicator, but it can serve as a barometer for catching the changing trends and values in art collecting.

In Korea, local experts have been mentioning the influx of young collectors, thanks to the art investment craze in the country. Particularly after 2020, media outlets have been reporting on the remarkable growth in the Korean art market with the general public’s participation in collecting artworks.

This change has brought a positive result shrinking the gap between art and the general public. But most of this news is mainly focused on “money,” overlooking what an art collection means other than being a good investment.

What art collection means for the development of the Korean art world, the context in which existing collections are considered important or should be supplemented, and the global trend in art collecting are not yet widely discussed in the Korean art scene.

Trends in art collections have changed over time. When ARTnews first began the Top 200 Collectors list about thirty years ago, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings took the lead in the art market, but now this has changed to a more global and diverse reach.

The global trend in art collecting has increasingly shifted toward promoting historically overlooked artists, particularly women and artists of color, according to ARTnews. This change is reflected not only in artists but also in collectors.

Denise Gardner and her husband Gary, whose names were added to the list for the first time this year, are a prime example. In 2021, Denise became the first Black woman to serve on the board of a museum in the United States. She is the chair of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Gardners mentioned in ARTnews that they have paid close attention to “how we continue to ensure that world-class artists from a wide variety of geographies and identities are recognized and included in the canon of art history.”

This trend was already prevalent prior to 2019. In a December 2019 ARTnews article, Sara Friedlander, head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, mentioned this major shift in art collecting: “Collectors across the board are looking for something new that is also of great quality—in concert with what’s happening curatorially in museums and scholarly gallery shows,” particularly shifting “from simply dead white men to artists of color and women.”

Taking notice of understanding the multifaceted collections of these collectors and their values will add to filling in the blanks in art history.

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