[INTERVIEW] ‘Coexistence of different art hubs across Asia is necessary’: Art Week Tokyo Director

The second edition of Frieze Seoul, held at COEX in southern Seoul from Sept. 6 to 9 attracted more than 70,000 visitors hailing from 36 countries. Courtesy of Lets Studio, Frieze

By Park Han-sol

Following a splashy debut last year, the sophomore edition of Frieze Seoul returned to COEX in September in the ritzy district of Gangnam in the southern part of the capital ― this time, with a larger crowd of art aficionados hailing from all parts of Asia, including mainland China, Hong Kong, Japan and Southeast Asia.

The fair attracted over 70,000 visitors from 36 countries during its four-day run from Sept. 6 to 9, according to the organizer.

Atsuko Ninagawa, co-founder and director of Art Week Tokyo and owner of Tokyo-based Take Ninagawa gallery. Photo by Katsuhiro Saiki / Courtesy of Atsuko Ninagawa

Atsuko Ninagawa, owner and director of Tokyo-based Take Ninagawa gallery, which has participated in the fair two years in a row, said Frieze was a turning point that made the country’s “market side” ― out of its entire art ecosystem ― much more conspicuous in the eyes of international dealers.

“Seoul already has amazing museums, artists and curators, which I knew even before Frieze. But what I didn’t know was that there were so many collectors in Korea. I wasn’t able to see the country’s market side so much before,” the gallerist told The Korea Times in a recent interview.

“After the fair, this became so obvious and visible. This has made Seoul a lot more attractive since there are more ways for us, as galleries from outside of Seoul, to participate (in the market) even without having a space here or being invited by other local institutions.”

She added that one of the noted characteristics of Seoul’s art market scene is the sheer visibility of curious, active collectors in their 20s and 30s.

“They’re eager to learn and spend time learning. They travel around the world and started showing up in global art events like Art Basel in Basel and Hong Kong, which never really happened before. There are not so many young people like that in Singapore, Japan or other countries in Asia.”

Crowded art-fair calendar in Asia

Frieze Seoul is among a handful of newcomers to the rapidly growing art fair scene in Asia, joined by other established and nascent players like Art Basel Hong Kong, Taipei Dangdai, Tokyo Gendai, Art SG in Singapore and India Art Fair. Except for Art Basel Hong Kong, all four events are operated by the Art Assembly, an affiliation of art fairs focused on the Asia-Pacific region.

While concerns have been voiced about the increasingly saturated art calendar in Asia, many industry insiders view this proliferation as a positive sign attesting to the region’s growing significance in the global art market.

Art Basel Hong Kong Director Angelle Siyang-Le, second from left, Frieze Seoul Director Patrick Lee, Tokyo Gendai Director Eri Takane, Taipei Dangdai Co-director Robin Peckham and Lee Jung, vice chairman of Kiaf Seoul’s operating committee and head of Seoul-based Gana Art take part in a panel discussion, “Asia Art Fairs,” at COEX, Sept. 7. Courtesy of KAMS

“Obviously having many major art fairs in Asia signifies the growth in the Asian market,” Angelle Siyang-Le, director of Art Basel Hong Kong, remarked during a panel discussion, “Asia Art Fairs,” Sept. 7, co-hosted by Frieze Seoul, Kiaf Seoul and Korea Arts Management Service (KAMS).

The international art events being organized in different host cities across the continent can point to the distinct locality ― cultural, economic and geographical ― each place offers, she added.

“We all have our very unique offerings, whether it’s from Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, Taipei or Singapore. We all come with very different backgrounds and galleries, institutions and artists.”

And the role of Asian art fairs in activating such local cultural landscape, in addition to their traditional function of stimulating the market, was highlighted by the panelists of the day ― Siyang-Le, Taipei Dangdai Co-director Robin Peckham, Tokyo Gendai Director Eri Takane and Frieze Seoul Director Patrick Lee.

For its second edition, Frieze Seoul expanded its collaboration with major local institutions, namely the Arts Council Korea (ARKO), to boost the city’s grassroots arts and culture scene. A batch of special exhibitions were mounted at 35 non-profit, alternative spaces and Frieze Week 2023 saw late-night gallery openings and soirees across three of the city’s major art districts: Hannam-dong, Cheongdam-dong and Samcheong-dong.

Similarly, during its run this March, Art Basel Hong Kong extended its collaboration with local universities to bring into the spotlight the emerging, regional artistic talents. And for its inaugural edition in July, Tokyo Gendai featured a special section focused on Japanese female creatives, in addition to organizing artist studio visits, Japanese collectors’ living room tours and museum hoppings.

A visitor to Frieze Seoul 2023 looks at paintings and sculptures on view at Seoul-based White Noise’s booth. Courtesy of Lets Studio, Frieze

Ninagawa noted that the proliferation and coexistence of different art hubs operating across Asia ― beyond the more established art center of Hong Kong ― was born out of “necessity.”

“That is what has been taking place in Europe (all this time). That’s how they made this industry bigger and more united. We need that. We were longing for it, but we didn’t have it before,” she said.

“We in Asia, (at some point), realized that we also have our own discourses and that we have enough to show as an industry. And we also came to understand that we ourselves have to create the platform together to nurture the regional art scene and the community. In other words, this growth has to happen within the local power.”

Art Week Tokyo as alternative to art fair

Such an initiative is what led Ninagawa, who is also a longstanding member of the selection committee of Art Basel in Basel, to co-found Art Week Tokyo with Japanese collector and entrepreneur Kazunari Shirai.

Organized as Tokyo’s largest citywide initiative for contemporary art in collaboration with Art Basel, the event is returning for its second full-scale edition from Nov. 2 to 5.

Installation view of “Group show ‘for TZ'” at Nanzuka Underground in Tokyo, held to coincide with Art Week Tokyo 2022 / Courtesy of Art Week Tokyo

Launched as an alternative model to conventional, commercially-oriented art fairs, Art Week Tokyo presents orchestrated programming across 50 participating institutions, galleries and art spaces that are all linked by a free shuttle bus service. This year will also see the debut of a new curated sales platform that spotlights 64 Japanese artists from the postwar to the present.

“Tokyo has been kind of off from the main art scene. It has become quite invisible these days,” Ninagawa said. The country was once regarded as the nation with one of the biggest art-buying activities in the 1980s, but it all came down when the bubble burst in the early 1990s.

“There are many institutions with a very long history, galleries, educational platforms and artist-run spaces (dotting) the city. But, we were all doing things separately. So I thought that we needed to put everything together in one event and set the schedule, so that people would know when to come to Japan,” she added.

“At Art Week Tokyo, we want to showcase what is the most interesting and important — food, architecture, as well as contemporary art ― right now in the city.”

The free shuttle bus service connects all 50 Art Week Tokyo venues dotting the city. Courtesy of Art Week Tokyo

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