Celebrities’ influence on the Korean art scene

Picture of RM in gallery

A photo of RM at the “Kwon Jin Kyu Centennial: Angel of Atelier” exhibition held at SeMA in March and posted by the singer on his Instagram account with the caption “Rest in Peace” in Korean. Kun is known to have committed suicide at the age of 51 (RM’s Instagram account)

Lee Hwa Rang, a 26-year-old resident of Seoul, considered herself “totally illiterate” when it comes to art. That, before she became a fan of rapper Kim Nam-joon, or RM from BTS, a well-known art collector, and began taking what fans call an “RM Tour” – visiting museums and galleries he frequented.

“I started going to exhibitions last year. At first, I was curious what it would have been like to see those artworks,” he told me. “I thought art had nothing to do with me at all, and it’s something very refined people enjoy. But RM dispelled that prejudice for me,” she said, adding that she now enjoys art.

Among the galleries I’ve visited recently are those of painter Lee Kyu-tae, painter Kim Ji-won, American artist Alex Katz, and pioneering Korean sculptor Kwon Jin-kyu (1922-1973). The exhibition “Kwon Jin Kyu Centennial: Angel of Atelier” at the Seoul Museum of Art that ran until Sunday included “The Horse,” a 45cm-high terracotta sculpture created in the mid-1960s. This piece was shown on loan from RM, and has gone viral among fans.

We have seen many young people come to the museum recently. As for the Kwon Jin-kyu exhibition, it was visited by those who remember the artist, as well as young people who saw RM’s photo taken at the museum on his social media,” said Han Hee-jin who organized the show.

“The influence of celebrities is massive,” she said. “I heard that they (young visitors) visited the exhibition after the K-pop star and admired the works and artists.”

“The Horse” by sculptor Kwon Jin-kyu is on display at the Seoul Museum of Art. The piece is on loan from RM of BTS. (SeMA)

Celebrity influence in the art industry plays a large role in the South Korean art market, which is growing at an unprecedented rate and expected to exceed 1 trillion won ($790 million) this year. It is not surprising that you meet celebrities at major art galleries such as Kyiv Seoul or Art Busan. Boy group BTS, actor Jun Ji-hyun, actor Yoo Ah-in, K-pop stars Kwon Ji-yong, better known as G-Dragon, and Choi Seung-hyun, or TOP, were previously present.

“In the past, celebrities would come to see art at art fairs or art fairs, but now many of them are starting to buy artwork,” said one art fair in Seoul.

Driven by celebrity tastes

The art market in Korea has captured international attention, especially in terms of its growth potential. The business-friendly environment, geographical advantages and a growing younger generation of enthusiastic collectors make Korea an attractive market.

While the influence of celebrities in the art industry has generated positive effects in general, particularly in attracting young people interested in art, a sudden focus on specific artists is not necessarily a purely positive development for the art market.

While the collecting culture is slowly maturing, most people here still tend to rely on art dealers, art gallery makers or those “thought to have more sophisticated tastes,” such as celebrities. In this way, people strive to make sure they have a “good taste” or a “profitable choice,” according to those in the art industry familiar with the subject.

“Most of the circumstances, marketing businesses or artists take advantage of art dealers by mentioning celebrities who have bought their work,” said Wu Chung-woo, director of Hakjujae Gallery, a major gallery located in central Seoul. “There are certainly many good effects thanks to K-pop stars and celebrities, but there are also side effects.”

After TV shows show paintings or sculptures displayed in celebrity homes, galleries are filled with inquiries about the artists and their works, asking if they can get the same works, several opponents told The Korea Herald. They said that the prices of the works of some artists rose remarkably in the secondary market after watching them on TV, refusing to mention the names of the artists in such cases.

“Actually, this is not good for artists. Some are targeted by collectors with investment-paid money, using ‘speculative money.’ While their work is being sold at a high price in the auction market, the profits seldom go to the artists, but to the sellers,” Wu said.

Gallery Shilla, a 30-year-old gallery based in Daegu and Seoul, has run a project called “Why Do We Compromise Our Taste?” At the 2022 Korea Galleries Art Fair in March. Lee Joon-yub, a Seoul branch manager and son of gallery founder Lee Kwang-ho, put up a banner in the exhibition booth that read, “Celebrities are not allowed in, art lovers are welcome.” He also distributed questionnaires to determine whether visitors were influenced by the tastes of celebrities.

Gallery Shilla's booth at the Korea Art Exhibition 2022 (Shilla Gallery)

Gallery Shilla’s booth at the Korea Art Exhibition 2022 (Shilla Gallery)

He told me, “The influence of celebs is strong in the art market. For galleries like us who cannot take advantage of celebrities in our sales, the unique and solid taste of each collector is of great importance, which will ultimately make the art market ‘healthier’.”

“Art is not an industrial commodity, it is all about one’s preferences and tastes. The influence of celebrities may help sales growth, but that does not necessarily mean that the quality of the market is improving. The survey showed that many people do not have enough time to study, so it is easier for them to follow celebrities when Buy business.

Of the 266 responses to the survey obtained by The Korea Herald – “I’m not sure about my taste yet,” “I need more knowledge about art to know what I like best. It (celebrity pick) is one way to explore my taste,” and “We making choices based on what others desire rather than what I like.”

Park Young-taek, an art critic and professor of art sciences at Kyung Gi University, said that having some knowledge about the artist and the works should precede the purchase to avoid being affected by the temporary popularity of the works in the art market. He pointed out that the price of the works should reflect the artistic value of the work and the technical concept that distinguishes it from other works, not just the investment value.

I recommend at least extracting some information about the artist from art magazines, articles or art critics before purchasing works. Also check if the artists have held exhibitions in museums.

Written by Park Yuna ([email protected])