Features / Focus

How to Win Global Art Market by Daehyung Lee

posted 02 June 2020

This month, TheArtro presents a special feature series titled “How to Win Global Art Market,” that is essential for Korean Contemporary Art’s competitive stake in the Global Art Market. The series, starting with an article by the curator Daehyung Lee, interviews leading journalists, art consultants and art market and marketing specialists from around the world. Discussions on global art marketing trends and strategies over the past ten years are coupled with expert inputs on institutional support to strengthen the international competitiveness of Korean Contemporary Art. Experts interviewed include Carsten Recksik, the publisher of art magazine ArtReview and ArtReview Asia, Jane Morris, Editor-at-Large of The Art Newspaper, Partner of Futurecity, Sherry Dobbin and Louise Hamlin, founder of Art Market Minds, which is a leading platform for art business conferences. In addition, James Green, Director of theDavid Zwirner, Jagdip Jagpal, Director of India Art Fair, David Field, Freelance cultural communications consultant, and Jesse Ringham, Head of Content at the Serpentine Galleries also accepted our requests for interviews. These privileged insights from the insiders of the global art market surely deserve our undivided attention as Korean art sets sights on broader horizons.

The Essence Lies Outside the Box

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea ⓒ Myun Esik

National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea ⓒ Myung Yishik, Image Provided by MMCA

A museum is a hub where exhibitions, research, seminars, publishing, collecting, promotion, and fundraising take place simultaneously. For this reason, a museum is a miniature version of the art world. And in this sense, if one is able to read a museum’s structural and strategic direction, one can determine the basic flow of the industry. The essential role of a museum is currently shifting from collecting to audience experience, and at the center of this transition is digital technology. Digital technology encourages communal participation at an interpersonal level and, on a broader level, provides the technical conditions for audiences to widen their global outlook. It also acts as a catalyst, facilitating the transfer of curatorship and authorship into the realm of viewer interpretation and participation. Arguably, digital technology has also accelerated the process of reaction and response—the representation and reproduction of reality—turning text into images, images into videos, and videos into three-dimensional virtual reality with ever-increasing speed.

What Korean contemporary art most urgently needs to gain leverage in the global market is support from legitimate art history and art philosophy. The vantage points of history and philosophy need to be accompanied by a mid- to long-term perspective on market competition. There have been countless cases in which art without philosophy—and hence with no story to tell—saw volatile success only to vanish just as quickly. Digital technology has changed everything, from the way we tell a story to the way stories are shared and the perspectives of authors themselves. “How to Win Global Art Market” is a series of interviews that will attempt 1), to read the currents of transition in the art world brought about by digital technology; 2), deliberate on the direction of future strategies; and 3), diagnose what type of institutional support is necessary to strengthen Korean art and art history’s competitive stake in the global market.

The Opportunity Called “Globalization”

Globalism is undoubtedly an opportunity. But it also comes with side effects, empowering the big waves that have already won the size and power game while leaving small local streams to dry up on their own. Ultimately, globalism has solidified the social system under which the winner takes all. Nevertheless, the table is turning with the advancement of digital technology. Changes in the communication environment brought about by qualitative and quantitative growths in digital technology reveal the limits of globalism—its lack of understanding of and respect for locality. As a result, a condition is set for local, unified streams to take on the mainstream—in other words, for the tail to wiggle the body. One by one, IT conglomerates like Google, Facebook, and Amazon that led the rapid growth of the digital technology and communication industries are conquering territories previously occupied by old smokestack industry giants. The small streams, having stretched into the nooks and corners of the globe like a neural network, actively identify and respond to individual demands in different regions in real time, narrowing the gap between the subjects of information production and consumption, and providing links to optimized and personalized services and information. Recently developed application technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain enable the collection and control of information from thousands or millions of small streams, heralding the possible birth of a new form of predator. It is now impossible to survive in the market without alternating flexibly between the mainstream and small streams or without communicating with consumers in real time with a granular, responsive strategy.

Installation view of 《Korean Abstract Art: Kim Whanki and Dansaekhwa》, Powerlong Museum, Shanghai, China, 2018, Photo by Chunho An, Image provided by Kukje Gallery

Installation view of 《Korean Abstract Art: Kim Whanki and Dansaekhwa》, Powerlong Museum, Shanghai, China, 2018, Photo by Chunho An, Image provided by Kukje Gallery

How adept, then, is the Korean art market at responding to our changing times? Compared to other genres of pop culture, for example music and film, Korean contemporary art is relatively under-recognized in the global market for its potential. Only a handful of names like Nam June Paik, Lee Ufan, Kimsooja, Do-ho Suh, and Lee Bul are repeatedly mentioned in international discussions. It is only recently that Korea’s master monochrome painters like Park Seo-bo and Yun Hyong-keun have begun to emerge in the international scene. The former developed recognition through presentations at internationally renowned museums and biennales, and the latter as a result of domestic and overseas galleries joining forces to promote the work. In any case, the common denominator in these examples of success is global solidarity and cooperation. This is why the Korean contemporary art scene needs to contemplate what kinds of strategic partnership it needs to gain leverage in the global market.

In cooperation with Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS), I interviewed eight global opinion leaders to pick their brains about their individual experiences and insight: Carsten Recksik, publisher of ArtReview, a magazine expanding its reach through digital strategies; Jane Morris, editor-at-large at the Art Newspaper, a publication carrying the banner of a traditional art journal; Sherry Dobbin, partner of Futurecity, a cultural strategy consultancy; Louise Hamlin, founder of Art Market Minds, organizer of discourse-leading conferences; James Green, a director at David Zwirner; Jagdip Jagpal, director of India Art Fair, a success model for local art fairs; David Field, freelance cultural communications consultant, a cultural communication company linking New York, London, and Hong Kong; and Jesse Ringham, head of content at Serpentine Galleries, and institution engaging in museum-specific digital strategies. I asked these eight experts: what changes there have been in the global art world in terms of marketing strategy; what caused those changes; what kinds of changes is technology bringing to the art scene and market; and what type of institutional support is needed for Korean art to gain a global competitive edge.

An English Knowledge System for Korean Contemporary Art

『Korean Art from 1953: Collision, Innovation and Interaction』 The Publication is supported by ‘KAMS Publishing Korean Art: Overseas Publication Support Program’ ⓒ Phaidon

Korean Art from 1953: Collision, Innovation and Interaction The Publication is supported by ‘KAMS Publishing Korean Art: Overseas Publication Support Program’ ⓒ Phaidon

The area that has been showing particularly sluggish progress for the past decade or so is the publication in English of materials on Korean contemporary art. Despite this being a crucial initiative emphasized by experts in various fields at multiple academic events, its progress has been less than substantial. Every time the topic of English publication comes up, it is met with questions like “But aren’t national and public museums already publishing a range of exhibition catalogs in English?” and despondent remarks like “There is no market for English-language publications about Korean contemporary art.” Most understand the necessity, but are pessimistic about practicality. Last week, Culture Shock1) reached out from London to tell me about their new in-house publication project for which they’re interested in researching Korean contemporary art, asking me if KAMS, organizing the Publishing Korean Art program (a public contest that began accepting applications on March 12), is a credible institution. Knowing that their clientele has comprised international powerhouses like the Guggenheim, Tate, V&A, and Art Basel, this enquiry was encouraging. It felt as if the opportunity had come to finally break the cycle of administrative opportunism that has limited the beneficiaries of institutional support to those with Korean nationality, and really tackle the actual problem.

Three strategies must be established if Korean art is to construct a new system of knowledge within the global culture and art scene: the first is who will write about what; the second is through which channels this knowledge will be distributed; and the third is how to enable online access to key content.

To elaborate on the three strategies, firstly, anyone should be able to author a publication on Korean art regardless of nationality. Someone with verified influence and expertise would be preferred. In terms of the subject, these publications should not only deal with pure research on Korean art history but also curatorial methodology—they should cover the overall ecosystem of the Korean art scene with expandability in mind. Secondly, a distribution network and strategy are just as important, if not more important, than the content itself. Additional effort is needed for the publications to be present in the bookstores of every metropolitan museum and major art school around the world. They shouldn’t be relegated to knowledge printed on fancy paper that nobody reads. Thirdly, digital access to key content needs to be arranged. Online accessibility will allow Korean art to infuse into the global knowledge system. A simple example is that information on Korean art should be readily available for citation by online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia.

Digital Technology: Transcending Borders

From the Tate and Serpentine Galleries to David Zwirner and Gagosian, museums and commercial galleries alike are fortifying their in-house publication and content production teams. Thanks to digital technology, these institutions are able to deliver messages to new audience pools beyond the limits of space and time, and also to represent voices from the other side of the globe in real time. Digital technology is an absolute condition and the easiest way to create links to new audiences. It seems that consequentially, the traditional publication industry is reducing the size of its editorial staff while museums and galleries are recruiting more, which testifies to the increased importance associated with communication through online content. Social media–based communication requires another level of editorial proficiency. Social media editors must be able to establish an inclusive communication platform that allows even for audiences on the user end to contribute as “editors” or “authors” to provide new content and knowledge in real time. Needless to say, they also need the basic ability to translate abstruse art speak into a more communicable language.

『ekphrasis』 series published by David Zwirner Books. Photo by Kyle Knodell. Courtesy David Zwirner.

ekphrasis series published by David Zwirner Books. Photo by Kyle Knodell. Courtesy David Zwirner.

As search engine optimization (SEO) and algorithms reflecting personal tastes manifestly began to affect the art world, the technical condition for art’s expansion of its parameters has been set. Korea needs to take note of this large-scale shift. A prime example of base expansion as a preparatory measure for market expansion is the Art Genome Project by Artsy.2) This project aims to provide a categorizing and curating service that enables the searching of images and works based on genre, theme, style, design, color, medium, technique, period, and region. This project implies much as an attempt reflecting both an acute diagnosis of the shift in the communication method and a rapid response to that end.

The share of production and distribution taken up by user-driven content in the overall knowledge system is growing rapidly. This calls for the involvement of a new breed of curating experts—those who are not only content-savvy but also able to create contexts in which content can be produced, distributed, and shared. For Korean contemporary art to gain a competitive edge in the market, there needs to be research on Korean contemporary artworks that qualify as content themselves accompanied by: 1), partnerships with neighboring genres; 2), a cooperative network within the industry; and 3), research on contexts such as target nations and markets for partnership that will broaden the parameters within which content can grow.



Here, “content” refers to more than text; the definition needs to be extended to include photographs (Instagram) and videos (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.). Commanding 590 thousand subscribers on YouTube (for reference, ArtReview’s YouTube channel has 40 thousand subscribers), NOWNESS3) is an excellent example of a platform that is maximizing the synergy effect created by multiple content genres—from art, design, fashion, and beauty to music, culture, food, and travel. It also services subtitles in English, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, and Korean to enable many more people in the international community to access and enjoy the content. Supportive projects and institutions following the Publishing Korean Art program by KAMS must update their understanding of this structural context and shift in the ecosystem through constant and real-time monitoring. The key lies in the fact that art market consumers consume not just physical works of art, but also the authentic stories behind the works.

More and more collectors (individuals, enterprises, and state-run institutions) are re-inspecting their identities through artwork collection. For example, founders of recently established startups are interested in historically verified, traditional artworks with solid heritages while time-honored corporations commission experimental and future-oriented works to offset their conservative image. The key for Korean art lies in the role Korea plays in creating powerful stories, a credible knowledge system, and attractive messages. Moreover, a mid- to long-term platform strategy needs to be established to enable the sustainable production of such knowledge and content.

The post-COVID-19 world will witness an intensified conflict between globalism and nationalism. But crises give birth to new markets. At this point in time, when offline events are being converted into online ones, South Korea must seek out its role in the world. There are many who predict that augmented or virtual reality won’t be able to replace the essence of art in its traditional sense, and many of those involved in the traditional art market wish technology would simply serve as another medium rather than becoming a new genre. Those with such a perspective underestimate technology, seeing it simply as an attractive strategy to help viewers experience and study art past the physical restrictions of space and time. But had they experienced Alejandro González Iñárritu’s virtual reality (VR) work Carne y Arena, moved by the story and awed by the level of technical execution, they would have been forced to acknowledge an imminent threat to traditional art. Digital technology, artificial intelligence, robots, virtual reality—somehow, we are already standing right in the middle of the current that is the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We must stay alert to the ways in which patterns of information production, distribution, and consumption are changing. The answer has always been outside of the box known as “the art world.” For South Korea, harboring a wealth of technology-based strategic assets including online platform strategies and digital technology-based hyper-connectivity, a new communicative environment with higher reliance on online and digital technology can be an opportunity. But there simply is no hope for the market—a distorted one in which academia fails to keep pace with the scene and where galleries chasing easy money and overseas “brand-name” artists are the only ones to survive.

Cross-Border Collaboration and Institutional Support for Solidarity

To summarise, the measures for strengthening Korean contemporary art’s competitiveness in the global art market as shared by the eight interviewees are as follows: 1) establishment of an English knowledge system for Korean contemporary art; 2) democratic access to and sharing of information; 3) global solidarity and partnership; 4) sponsorship of global and multinational researchers of Korean contemporary art; 5) institutionalized support of sustainable, mid- to long-term research; 6) collaboration among curators, artists, critics, collectors, galleries, museums, art fairs, auctions, and biennales; and 7) the development of communication strategies that help expand the audiences’ external scope.

The global art market is a place where independent survival without a cooperative system or solidarity is ultimately difficult. It’s a silent battleground across which capital flies like bullets. For art to retain its rightful authenticity and Korean contemporary art to extend its philosophical value into universally communicable stories that then create added value, there is a need for the type of policy support that looks ahead to the next ten years.

The market—the art market in particular—is an extremely complicated and capricious creature, not so different from the human body; it can only function when various elements and organs—brain, heart, liver, lungs, veins, bones, and skin—interact in a meticulous harmony. This makes the market predictable, though to our bafflement, its impulsive behavior often deviates from the mathematical predictions. This is to say that both logic and a logical leap are necessary to comprehend the market. It often dances to vague symbols and metaphors and stops at clear logic and reason. Conflicts and reconciliations unfold within cities and between cities, and among countries and other countries to constantly construct and overthrow institutions. And it is amid this repeated establishment and overturning of institutions that art is conceived.

This is why trust-based mutual agreement is important in building a competitive market structure. The art market converts the abstract and symbolic worth of artworks into tradable economic value, which makes creating a trusting environment extremely important and difficult at the same time. The problem that repeatedly surfaced during the interviews is that overseas understanding of Korean contemporary art is largely limited to a personal and fragmentary level. Monochrome paintings, for example, are recognized in comparison with the more familiar concept of minimalism, rather than an understanding of the larger picture of Korean modern and contemporary art and culture. We must find a solution to this deficiency.

In November 2019, as part of the Beijing Forum, a discussion on institutional measures and cooperation for the revival of East Asian contemporary art was held at Peking University. At this event, I gave a presentation beginning with four questions. 1), how do we define the boundaries of Asia, of East Asia, and of Korea, Japan, and China?; 2), How much universality is required for Asian characteristics to be communicated in the global art world?; 3), Is an Asian identity ultimately possible in this age marked by border-transcending digital communities?; 4), Regardless, what kind of institutional support and solidarity is needed for revival of East Asian art?

The collective answer to these paradoxical questions can be found in answering the fourth question. The key to the problem is Korean contemporary art’s competitiveness in the global market. We need to go beyond the level of supporting a handful of Korean artists. Governmental support needs to be strategized with a sense of purpose as to how inclusive an institution and how inclusive a global solidarity it is seeking to establish and promote. In the process of overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, the global status of South Korea as a brand and as a global leader has risen. This means that Korea’s symbolic value has gone up. To secure a leading position in the field of art, we need to provide pan-national support, welcoming any member of the global community who can add value to Korean contemporary art. Symbolic value is solidified by intercommunication (distribution). And the wider the range of communication, the stronger becomes the power of the value. We must bear in mind: we are still standing in the wave of globalism.


Related Article

How to Win Global Art Market - An Interview with Carsten Recksik
How to Win Global Art Market - An Interview with Jane Morris
How to Win Global Art Market - An Interview with Sherry Dobbin
How to Win Global Art Market - An Interview with Louise Hamlin
How to Win Global Art Market - An Interview with James Green
How to Win Global Art Market - An Interview with Jagdip Jagpal
How to Win Global Art Market - An Interview with David Field
How to Win Global Art Market – An Interview with Jess Ringham

Lee Daehyung

Lee Daehyung is the CEO of Hzone and a trustee of the Nam June Paik Cultural Foundation. The artistic director for the 2017 Venice Biennale, Lee has previously worked for Hyundai Motor Company as its art director. He has research interests in the relationship between humans, art, technology and society in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and is engaged in a variety of global collaborative projects aimed at pushing the boundaries of art. He is currently working on a public art project, involving 22 artists in five cities, and designing a research network of Korean and international curators through 〈Korea Research Fellow 10x10〉.

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