Globalization of Korean art

A work of art by Korean artist Kang Il-joong is displayed at ARCO, the international contemporary art fair in Madrid, Feb. 14, 2007. That year, the fair placed special emphasis on South Korean contemporary art.

Challenges facing local contemporary art community

The last two decade has seen the explosion of the Korean wave or “hallyu” around the world. Today, hallyu is a global phenomenon that encompasses every major aspect of Korean culture, including its music (K-pop) and food (hansik). Recent reports note that Korean cultural exports reached over 4.5 trillion won in 2011, growing over 14 percent from the previous year.

While Korean popular culture has taken the world by storm, the globalization of a revered aspect, Korean contemporary art pales in comparison. Korean contemporary art has struggled to globalize after much initial enthusiasm in early 2000s and is in need of new ideas.


The Korean contemporary art market began in the 1980s as the domestic economy grew strongly. During this period, the demand was largely domestic. Korean artists were mostly art professors who studied abroad and their status as professors encouraged sales among local collectors. Relatively few Korean artists were able to show or sell their works to international collectors.

Over the next 20 years, however, the globalization of world economies and the growth of international art events, such as Art Basel, resulted in an expanding global market.

In particular, the rapid development of economies in Asia expedited the growth of the Asian market, making it the largest regional art market in the world in recent years.

Korean contemporary artists Lee U-fan, Chun Kwang-young, Kim Chang-yeol, Kim Dong-yoo, Lee Bul and Suh Do-ho, were able to showcase their works at international art fairs and to sell to international collectors, with North American and European collectors being the largest collectors.

With strong conceptual and visual qualities and a distinct identity, Korean contemporary art began to attract international interest in the early 2000s.

In spite of early enthusiasm, its globalization failed to take off and in recent years, it has largely been overshadowed by the strong international interest in Chinese contemporary art, which according to Sotheby’s accounted for almost 39 percent of the global art market in 2011.

Key challenges facing local art community

The key challenges facing the local art community is a lack of international awareness and market demand among overseas collectors.

A trend in the global art market is in investment, where art is purchased for its potential financial returns rather than its artistic value.

As a result, visually-stunning, large-scale works have become increasingly popular. By creating and presenting large-scale vistas, artists are able to establish their international reputation and create international demand for their work. However, strong institutional sponsorship by government agencies, museums, and even businesses is needed to assist artists in developing these projects.

Unfortunately, unlike K-pop where there has been strong private sector investment and public sector support, Korean contemporary art suffers from a lack of institutional sponsorship.

For example, the biggest challenge for Korean artists invited to international art events is finding financial sponsors for their large-scale works.

While Korean government agencies do provide some financial support — between 15 to 20 million won — this is usually for logistical purposes, and not for production support that is needed to enhance the quality of their work.

Without stronger public sector support or private sector investment, Korean contemporary artists will not be able to create and present large-scale works that will help increase international awareness and demand.

At the market level, the structure and practices of Korean galleries also limit the global potential of Korean contemporary art.

While there are over 500 commercial galleries registered in Korea, industry observers note that no more than 10 galleries account for the majority of sales. As such, only a few large galleries have the capacity to expand globally.

These have traditionally focused on selling artworks to Korean collectors and have developed limited capability to market and sell to international collectors. They have limited access to global distribution channels to foreign galleries or global customers, unlike foreign curators and private collectors, who as opinion leaders have great influence on market demand for Korean contemporary art.

Promoting Korean contemporary art globally

In spite of these key challenges, new ideas for globalizing the Korean contemporary art market can be drawn from the successful globalization of Korean business and popular culture.

From our conversations with local artists, gallery owners, and curators, we offer some suggestions for promoting this globalization.
First, institutional sponsors including Korean government agencies and museums must play a more active role in promoting awareness to international audiences.

Funding support should be directed to promote Korean artists not only in non-commercial art events such as biennales but also commercial ones both locally and internationally.

This will allow the artists to showcase their works to a more international audience, building greater awareness and demand for Korean contemporary art.

In addition, government policies that have been very successful in promoting exports can be duplicated to support the overseas expansion of Korean galleries.

The average cost for a gallery to participate in an international art fair is around 100 million won and is a huge financial investment for most galleries.

Government policies can and should be instituted to assist them to participate and to promote Korean contemporary art at international art fairs. Such financial support and investments are critical in increasing awareness and creating demand both locally and internationally.

While institutional sponsors can be important drivers in the globalization of Korean contemporary art, they must also work closely with the rest of the Korean art community to develop comprehensive and synergistic strategies rather than piecemeal strategies that have plagued past efforts.

Second, Korean galleries should increase their focus on expanding overseas.

Slowing growth in the domestic art market and increased competition from Western galleries entering the robust Asian art market will force Korean galleries to seek overseas representation.

To do so, they must actively expand their networks and establish closer relationships with international museums, galleries, and private collectors.

The art business is one that is based on relationships. It is very important for Korean galleries to build up their network and partnerships in order to more effectively promote and sell local contemporaryart.

The creation of new centers of wealth is opening new art markets. Korean contemporary art with its core strengths in concept and execution should be poised to take advantage of such opportunities and can do so in the future if the art community can work together to overcome the key challenges it is facing right now. <Korea Times/Daniel Chng and Joo Yeon-hwa>

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