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Interest in South Korea's art market exploded with the arrival of Frieze Seoul in 2022. Established in 2012, Art Busan offers a different experience down south, where the destination is half the draw.

How Art Busan Built a Lasting Fair in ‘the Miami of Korea’

Busan. Courtesy Art Busan Ltd.

Korean fair Art Busan returns to BEXCO from 10-12 May, with a VIP opening on 9 May.

Established in 2012 by Younghee Sohn, the fair is now directed by her son, Seokho Brian Jeong. We asked him what makes the fair so unique, and why he added art and design fair Define Seoul to his portfolio in November last year.

We're speaking in Hong Kong during Art Basel, the biggest art fair in the region. As the director of a rival fair, what do you make of it?

I was happy-slash-jealous to see how the art community here is holding hands really tightly with the government. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong really knew the meaning of the arts scene in Hong Kong, why it's important, why it's relevant to the whole economy and the whole city.

Art Busan director Seokho Brian Jeong.

Art Busan director Seokho Brian Jeong. Courtesy Art Busan Ltd.

What makes Art Busan different from the fair here, and in other cities?

There was a recent article by Bloomberg that described Busan as 'the Miami of South Korea'. It's the branding that we've been emphasising forever, really. Busan is historically important because it's the only city in Korea that wasn't destroyed a single bit during the Korean War. It has one of the five largest ports in the world, even bigger than Hong Kong, and seven beautiful beaches. It's one of the most famous holiday destinations, not just among Koreans, but in Asia, so it became a really good excuse for art professionals and art lovers to have a fun week.

Who comes to the fair?

We receive about 50,000 visitors, and what's most amazing about them is that 70% come from outside Busan. People don't just come for one or two days, they explore the city, and our VIP programme mixes art collecting with exploring the city as a holiday destination.

Art Busan.

Art Busan. Courtesy Art Busan Ltd.

What can you tell us about this year's fair?

We have 129 galleries from 20 countries, a little bit reduced from the peak, when we had 190. In the last five editions, we've kept the number of participants to around 130 to 140 to improve the overall quality of the gallery programme and provide larger booth sizes, up to 160 square metres.

We've been thinking really hard about what our role is and should be for the next 10 years. So the founding vision was to broaden and expand the art infrastructure and opportunities for people in the greater Busan region, who previously had to travel to Seoul.

Because we're not only in Busan, but located within Asia, artists from the region are going to be one of the core exhibitions at the fair this year. Another special exhibition is called Connect—where artists can exhibit outside the booths.

Define: Seoul.

Define: Seoul. Courtesy Art Busan Ltd.

Building on Art Busan, you launched art and design fair Define: Seoul in the city in November last year. It featured 25 exhibitors, including galleries such as Whitestone, Kukje, and PKM, along with design studios and brand booths. The fair's location is Seongsu-dong. What appeals to you about that neighbourhood?

Seongsu-dong has Seoul's most expensive residential areas and a lot of factories, auto repairing shops that are turning into art and culture centres. It has over 50 brand popups and flagship store events each week throughout the year. It's quite dynamic, like Brooklyn in New York City.

Why show art and design together?

We thought it may be the right moment to present something new, both for us and also for the market. There are almost 80 art fairs in Korea but no collectible design fairs like you'd see in Europe and America, in part because unlike contemporary art, there's no tax incentives for collectible designs. The logistics and cost make things difficult, but I love a challenge, just like how my mother founded Art Busan when everyone said it's not going to work.

There was more interest than we anticipated from European institutions, embassies, and their design studios. Whenever I talked to them, the common message was that they had a strong interest in Korea, but they couldn't find the right platform.

Define: Seoul.

Define: Seoul. Courtesy Art Busan Ltd.

For Korean collectors too, and for me personally, it's been difficult to find unique pieces. Whenever I see a famous collector's home in a magazine or on TV, their art collection reflects their personal taste. But then when you look at the furniture and design that completes the space, you know that these items are expensive, but you can't tell if they really reflect who they are. By combining art and design, and presenting them in different settings, we wanted to bring new inspirations to audiences.

Also, we believed that Korean designs deserve a lot more attention. They have great potential to expand globally when presented the right way at the right time. The long-term goal of Define is to launch outside of Korea.

Did you collect any designs from the fair?

I was fortunate to find and collect a beautiful baby blue Broken Bench by Gufram and NY Snarkitecture studio (founded by Daniel Arsham and Alex Mustonen) from Novalis Art & Design. Apart from this piece, I was also happy to discover oak tables by bcmtco exhibited by Thomas Park, and lighting by an Italian studio called Giopato & Coombes. Giopato and Coombes received literally 50 inquiries, a lot more than they had anticipated, and they are now looking into opening up a branch space in Korea.

What's next for Define: Seoul?

Last year we showcased 25 participants. This year we will double the size to 50. We will again have three venues but they are each bigger than the ones we used last year. We are putting our all in to impress the art and design world more than we did with the inaugural edition. —[O]

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