With the closing of the year 2020, the Artro presents special features to re-examine the various issues that have appeared in the Korean contemporary art scene over the past ten years from 2010. In the second article, Somi Sim explores the alternative trend in the Korean art market in the 2010s. She focuses on the alternative art scene which has been constructed by the autonomous movements among the artists. They tried to overcome the domestic financial crisis—followed after the global financial crisis— that came right after the short-lived Korean art market boom in the 2000s. The article presents the possibility of a new market by probing the artists’ self-organized movements progressed for survival outside the sturdy art market including art fairs and auction houses and examining the cooperation between the public and private that have supported the movements.
When examining the peripheries of the Korean art market over the last ten years, the emergence and development of an alternative art market cannot be missed. In 2020 alone, fourteen projects were carried out under the Visual Artists Market scheme, which was organized by the Korean Arts Management System (KAMS) to tackle the difficulties facing creators, and to support alternative practices outside the mainstream art market. When taking into consideration independent, business-affiliated, and regional events supported by public funds, there are more than 20 small to medium-sized alternative art fairs held every year.
One might expect that the robustness of the domestic art scene would be highlighted in this alternative environment. Ironically, however, these artist-driven events reveal the financial struggles of artists, the issue of sustainability within the creative industries and the exclusive nature of the existing art world. This article examines the development of the alternative art markets that have emerged outside the scope of the existing domestic art market in the last decade, and the changes to the art ecosystem stirred by this development.
Post-bubble: Artists’ Struggle to Survive and New Spaces
The 2008 global financial crisis had a clear impact on the Korean art market, bringing about a relatively lengthy period of stagnation. The slump in the domestic art market was also worsened by the sudden boom of the preceding two years; a bizarre period of commercializing art for purely investment value, cut off from aesthetic evaluation. This investment bubble, which burst in 2008, led to the temporary or permanent closure of several galleries and deepened the financial crisis in the art world.
This situation demanded a fundamental reexamination of the ecosystem of galleries and artists, and highlighted contradictions and errors in the structure of the market. The neoliberal crisis faced by Korean society in the late 2000s revealed the intrinsic flaws of the art scene, as well as problems embedded within the structure of the art market and galleries. The survival, labor, and welfare of artists had been overlooked in a growth-oriented society, yet these issues began to rise to the surface as the reality of economic decline spread across society. Public debates arose surrounding the working conditions and sustainable earning of artists, and these events led to the enactment of the Artist Welfare law in 2011, and the establishment of the Korea Artists Welfare Foundation in 2012.
In addition the Art Workers Gathering, a group which created public forums for the establishment of systems regarding artist’s fees and welfare, was formed in 2013 under the leadership of artists. This move was in line with the ‘Youth Generation’ discourse of the time, which had simmered at the forefront of Korean society since early 2010. The growing youth discourse was centered around representing the changing perspective of the younger generation, who had to struggle under poor working conditions with low wages and precarious work. This movement attracted policy changes by openly discussing the real-life crises faced by young people in their 20s and 30s who were confronted with severe socio-economic instability. Examples of these policy responses included Youth Hub, to support young workers and artists, which was launched by the Seoul Metropolitan Government in 2013, and the establishment of cultural foundations affiliated with local governments (including Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi) between 2016 and 2018.
However, the creation of such support policies is only ever a temporary solution to the difficulties of working as an artist, and there is a limit to how much the inertia of the art-world can be improved upon. The creators' crisis is also deeply related to the polarization phenomenon, which draws a line between profit and non-profit across the art scene. Various alternative spaces advocating for non-profit practices emerged between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, and the rift between these organizations and the world of art markets and galleries has only deepened over time. This polarization has divided artistic practices into exhibitions on the one hand, and sales on the other, and in a situation where work is not distributed, artists have had to rely on short-term, part-time work and unstable employment situations in order to make a living. This situation has been a major barrier for young artists entering the art world since 2010.
Efforts to create a self-reliant environment outside of established systems can be witnessed through the self-organizing movements of young artists in 2013. Artists who were recent graduates or who were struggling in their early-career gathered to create new exhibition spaces that combined various functions such as studios, galleries, and offices. The artist-run spaces, which had previously gone by the names of self-sustaining spaces, young artists' spaces, and new independent platforms, began to be called "new spaces" as they were identified as a trend in the art scene around 2015. The crisis of creators living in an uncertain age led to the idea of a platform that mediates production, distribution, and consumption based on artist-led initiatives.
Development of the Alternative Art Market through the collaboration of Private and Public Sectors
The efforts of creators to promote the idea of the alternative art market was bolstered by the KAMS's Visual Artists Market, which was designed to support artists who were having difficulties entering the more-established art scene. It was at this time that 《GOODS》(2015) was introduced; signaling an alternative route for art distribution, the art event hosted 80 artists from 15 new spaces, and was designed to break down stereotypes of commercial distribution, and to attempt to form a platform for the distribution of outputs derived from their artistic practices. 《GOODS》 was a one-off event in 2015, but it heralded various possibilities for the dissemination of artists' products and creations across many types of media, including moving images, non-material work, performances, publications and records, as well as opening up a market for cultural consumers in their 20s–40s who consume new experiments in contemporary art. The success of the event later led to the emergence of new, alternative platforms that went beyond the boundaries of the conventional art world.
In the following years, a new perspective on the formats and processes of art market was sought after, and a diversified platform was suggested. For example, 《The Scrap》 (2016–2018 in Seoul, 2019 in Hong Kong) challenged the conventional methods of purchasing photography; 《Perform》 (2016–present) aimed to create a platform to share and distribute non-material art; 《Pack》 (2017–present) transformed a cube into an exhibition space for small-scale artworks; 《TasteView》 (2017–2018) inspired by Japanese subculture store Mandarake, and 《Union Art Fair》 (2016–present) that has consistently located new art collectors and sales opportunities with the participation of more than a hundred artists every year. Such events are not always publicly funded. 《Unlimited Edition》 (2009–present), an art fair which began as an independent publication market near Hongik University in 2009, is a successful example of an expanding platform that connects independent publication creators and consumers, combining private and public funds through fundraising, collaboration, and sponsorship.
Such artist-driven art markets can be compared to the small, independent, experimental art fairs abroad, aptly named ‘satellite fairs’, which spring up in large cities at the same time as the more famous shows. In Basel, New York, London and Paris, alternative art fairs have evolved to direct attention towards up-and-coming artists during Art Basel, the Armory Show, FIAC and Frieze; during Art Basel, for example, satellite fairs such as Liste, VOLTA, Solo Project and Scope Art Show take place simultaneously. Art Basel collaborates with some of them, organically connecting the emerging market and the more established scene. Art Basel provides a tour bus to the satellite art fairs for collectors so that they can encounter new aesthetic experiments. For relatively new galleries, participating in satellite art fairs provides the opportunity to expand their networks of collectors, veteran galleries, curators, and critics as well as to promote their artists.
Korean independent art markets can be seen as similar in form to the satellite art fairs overseas. However, the former differs from the latter due to the lack of contact with the established art market, and in the way that the Korean fairs proclaim their independence as a platform outside of the mainstream art structures. This separation from the established art market is emphasized deliberately in the way that these fairs have sought new areas of communication, away from the narrowness of the art world, and have pioneered a self-reliant environment in the face of the commercialized art trade. In this respect, the self-organizing system of the artist-led art fairs and their role as a platform for early-career artists bear more resemblance to the Parisian event ‘Jeune Création’; both an annual art event established in Paris in 1949 and a group of artists who have served to create a key artist platform in France. Jeune Création has selected young and emerging art graduates through open-calls, and has hosted an annual showcase of their works. As a well-known space for buying and selling artworks, similar to the Parisian salons of the past, for many young artists it provides the first opportunity to ever sell their work.
A Self-organizing Movement in Uncertain Times
Looking back on the history of artist-led art events since 2015, they can be seen to avoid the authority, stereotypes, systems, organizations and valuation of the established art market, and instead effectively create a new system of production and distribution that has perhaps never been discussed in the art market before. The nationwide expansion of such art fairs virtually confronts the innate failings of the art ecosystem and the severity of the crisis that artists find themselves in, where they must organize events themselves in order to survive. At this time, independent, artist-run art fairs are gaining momentum, responding flexibly to the art ecosystem, social context, cultural urban regeneration, and the local economy.
The features of the art market can be summarized in a few points. First of all, the artist-run event is not simply a place to buy and sell works, but rather a space through which to challenge the norms of art production and consumption, and to shift the perceptions of both creators and consumers. This challenge and shift is still on-going through differentiating art fairs from the established art market, expanding solidarity with new creators, conceptually challenging the commercialization of art, and fighting for the right of artists to earn a living wage. In seeking out a self-reliant operating model that does not follow the system of the established art market, the art fairs give audiences the experience of consuming art while simultaneously leading them to participate in the platform.
A second key feature is the advancement and growth potential of events not centered in the capital. It is quite significant that the early art fairs, which were centered around the Seoul metropolitan area, are now gradually spreading to more diverse areas. The success of non-metropolitan art fairs has an impact on the distinct polarization between Seoul and other regions, and leads to new creative environments for young artists and new organizations. In 2020 the Visual Artists Market, which spread to Busan, Gapyeong, Cheongju, Damyang, Daegu, Jeonju, Suncheon, and Chungju, served as a bridge between cultural consumers and creators in the Seoul metropolitan area and the local communities. 《Becoming a Collector: Suncheon Art Fair(Becoming a Collector: Suncheon Art Fair)》 in 2020, which initially began in Yeonhui-dong, Seoul in 2017 but which later focused on creative resources and urban regeneration in Suncheon; 《NEW WAVE OF LOCAL ARTS–Gwangju》 in Yanglim History and Cultural Village, Gwangju; Atrium Jeonju in Jeonju Hanok Village; 《ArtHARA Art Fair》 held simultaneously in Seoul and Chungju; 《LogArt Jamijigo》 held at the Cultural Factory C in Cheongju, and 《Art Interview Fair》 in Daegu. These events highlight the symbiotic relationships between the city, culture, heritage and local artists, and connect local resources with creative platforms and local artists. The challenges of regional artists expose the gap between the government-led urban and cultural regeneration policies and the experience of contemporary artists. The art fairs seek to create alternative ecosystems that connect and circulate resources to inspire the creation of art.
Finally, in the midst of social paralysis, the flexible platform of alternative art markets and artist networks have been a driving force behind efforts to overcome the Covid-19 crisis this year. With a number of larger art fairs postponed, canceled, or replaced with online events around the world, all 14 events of the Visual Artists Market took place in the meatspace, and an online platform was set up to provide an alternative audience experience. There were various attempts to mediate digital and meatspace consumer experiences utilizing VR, AR, and subscription services. For example, 《ArtHARA Art Fair》, 《Artirum Jeonju》, and 《Suncheon Art Fair》 created a venue in digital space with VR technology, 《Grimdosi》 synchronized the venue and their application using AR technology, and 《BGA》 incubated collectors through mobile-based art subscription services. While large-scale established art fairs were unable to respond quickly, the above events responded flexibly to the crisis and limitations by establishing small, self-organizing platforms where creators and audiences could communicate. As such, the development of alternative art markets closely reflects the changing times and mediates the deepening gap between the online and the offline, capital and regional cities, creators and consumers, and between regions. The diversification of alternative art markets can adapt to support the creative environment of artists even in uncertain times, and will be more closely related to our society as a solidarity movement.
Somi Sim is an independent curator, art critic and researcher based in Seoul and Paris. Her curatorial practice explores across the interdisciplinary fields of contemporary art and urbanism with focus on urban interventions. Her major exhibitions include: REAL-Real City (Arko Art Center, Seoul, 2019), Ring Ring Belt (Donuimun Open Creative Village, Seoul, 2018), Micro City Lab (Various urban interventions, Seoul, 2016). She served as the artistic director of 2018 Gyeonggido Public Arts Project: Ring Ring Belt by Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation and received the 11th Lee Dong Seok Prize for Curatorial Practice in 2018. She is an editorial board member of journal of cultural theories, ‘Culture/Science.’