Seoul is fast becoming a major hub for Asian contemporary art. Much like Tokyo, galleries in Seoul have a strong gallery culture of supporting local talents, which gives it a vibrant and exciting emerging art scene. Not just great in content, the galleries and museums in Seoul are equally beautiful on the outside, with many of them engaging award-winning architects to design their spaces. Korea is more than just kimchi, K-pop and Hallyu culture, and this guide is here to prove it!
Like most major cities in Asia, Seoul has an efficient and clean subway system so GETTING AROUND should not be a problem. Although the Seoul Metro is the best way to get around and avoid traffic jams, you can also hail a cab or get an Uber very easily. Fares are affordable compared to Tokyo with the going rate being about KRW 1000 per kilometer travelled.
One of the biggest art fairs in Korea is the Korean International Art Fair, which happens around the September period. It is recommended that you GO around this time if you’re looking to check out the art scene in Seoul, as most galleries will have a booth at the fair. Other good times to go are during the months with milder weather, which are from March to May and September to November. Winters in Seoul do get very cold with snowfall, so it is recommended to avoid the beginning and end year periods.
Seoul has a wide variety of places to STAY, much like most major cities. You can find major hotel chains in the city, but also more interesting accommodation options - like staying in a traditional Korean wooden house, known as a ‘Hanok’ - on Airbnb. A cool boutique hotel in the neighbourhood of Gwanak-gu (Seocho-gu) is Karashy Boutique Hotel that features monochrome interiors.
COMMERCIAL GALLERIES - SAMCHEONG DISTRICT
One of the oldest and most major local galleries in Korea is Kukje Gallery (54 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu Seoul, 110-200) featuring three separate spaces in one compound. Founded in 1982 by Hyun-Sook Lee, the gallery sprung on to art scene in 2003, when video artist Bill Viola and Anish Kapoor both held solo shows in the gallery. Represented artists include both major Korean and international names like Park Seo-Bo, Kimsooja, Roni Horn and Haegue Yang. The building itself is an icon, designed by SO-IL and featuring a mesh blanket of over 500,000 steel links draped over a concrete structure.
PKM Gallery (40 Samcheong-ro 7-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, 03049) is a mainstay in the Samcheong district and for good reason: founder Park Kyung Mee commissioned the Korean Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001. The gallery has a strong international presence achieved through a heavy art fair schedule, as well as a roster of international and local heavyweights such as Olafur Eliasson, Carsten Holler, Lee Bul and Lee Kangso.
Founded by Grace K.H. Kong in 2005, Gallery K.O.N.G (#157-78 Samcheong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul, 110-230) is located in the main art district of Seoul. The gallery represents mainly an international group of contemporary artists, from local artists Lee Jae-Hyo and Bahk Seon Ghi, to Gregory Scott and Bernard Faucon. Gallery K.O.N.G is known for its focus on contemporary artists working in the medium of photography, with its first exhibition in 2005 having been by American photographer Joel Meyerowitz.
Opened by president of Hyundai Hwarang, Ms. Park Myung-ja set up Gallery Hyundai (A 14 Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul 110-190) with mission of promoting Korean modern art within the international arena. Many influential artists that have shaped the face of Korean modern art made their debuts through Gallery Hyundai such as Lee Ufan, Nam June Paik and Park Seobo. The gallery now showcases both Korean and international artists.
COMMERCIAL GALLERIES - GANGNAM DISTRICT
Situated in the prime district of Gangnam, Gallery Koo (211 Nature Poem, 461 Apgujeong-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, 06011) is a young gallery set up by Nayoon Koo, seeking to showcase both emerging and established Korean artists. Artists on their roster include Hayoung Kim, JinHee Kim and SeungWon Park.
Designed like a traditional residential house, Lee Eugean Gallery’s (17 Apgujeong-ro 77 Gil Gangnam-gu Seoul) entrance has a set of stairs leading to the entrance. Representing both Korean and international mid-career artists, Lee Eugean is a treasure trove of new discoveries!
An icon in the prime district of Gangnam, Gallery Yeh’s (Shinsa-dong 18, Apgujeong-ro 12-gil, Gangnamgu, Seoul) extraordinary award-winning façade is a product of Korean architect Jang Yoon-gyoo. Established in 1978, the gallery has a central role in advocating for Korean artists on the international art platform, showing artists like Chonghak Kim, Sangho Shin, Insun CHoi and Wonsook Kim, at international fairs.
COMMERCIAL GALLERIES - GANGNAM DISTRICT
Leehan Gallery (9, Jahamun-ro, 12-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, 03043) was first established in Daegu, which is considered the birthplace of Dansaekhwa, a minimalistic Korean art movement. Founder Hye Ryung Ahn has since expanded Leeahn Gallery to Seoul as well, showing exhibitions by Nam June Paik, Kang So Lee, Dong Youb Lee, and Tchunmo Nam, alongside other major international artists.
Gana Art (28, Pyeongchang 30-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul) is located near Bukhan Mountain and was one of the first major art galleries established in Korea. Designed and built by French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the gallery paints an arresting scene along the sloping hill it is situated on. Since the 1980s, Gana Art has played an important role in rapidly developing art scene with exhibitions by major artists Richard Pettibone, Mark Quinn and Ron Arad, among many others.
With outlets in Cheonan and Seoul, as well as Shanghai, Arario Gallery (84 Bukchon-ro 5-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, 03053) is a must-visit for anyone interested in contemporary art. Set up by millionaire gallerist Kim Chang-il. Setting up the Seoul outpost in 2014, Arario Gallery made its mark in the artsy neighbourhood with a solo exhibition of artist In-bae Kim. Its roster reads as a who’s-who of the Korean contemporary art world with names like Osang Gown, Choi Byungso and Park Youngsook, but also artists like Subodh Gupta, Eko Nugroho, Geraldine Javier and Leslie de Chavez.
One and J. Gallery (31-14 Bukchon-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul, 110-260) is known being one of the first galleries to dedicate its focus on young contemporary Korean artists. Managed by Won Jae Park (co-founder and managing director) and Patrick Lee, the gallery is dedicated to growing the careers of mid-career artists. The gallery features an interesting split level gallery, that gives viewers a variety of vantage points to view the works from various perspectives.
One of the newest gallery spaces in the Perrotin family is their ”office showroom” in Seoul (1F, 5 Palpan-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul). The space includes a bookshop that will display the editions and books printed by the gallery, as well as a small exhibition space. Its debut exhibition French artist Laurent Grasso, followed by KAWS.
Gallery Factory (15 Jahamun-ro, 10-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul) opened in 2002 as an exhibition space and art shop dedicated to the experimental work of up-and-coming artists based in Korea. Originally known as Factory Arts & Crafts, Gallery Factory was set up in 2002 by Bora Hong. Since it changed its name in 2005, the gallery has invested greatly in audience participation through a wide variety of activities.
Since its establishment in 1999, Artside Gallery (33 Tongui-dong Jongro-gu Seoul, 110-040) has focused on showcasing Chinese avant-garde artists such as Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, and Zeng Fanzhi in Korea. Today, the gallery is dedicated to presenting works by some of the most significant Korean and international contemporary artists.
OTHER COMMERCIAL GALLERIES
One of the great places to find smaller flight-friendly works that could also double as unique souvenirs is Gallery Huue (343 Samil-daero Jung-gu, Seoul, 04538), selling Korean contemporary art alongside craft objects. Initially trading as Art On Gallery, which opened in 2010, the gallery also has an outpost in Singapore. A trip to Gallery Huue is always an opportunity to discover lesser known, but nonetheless masterful artists and craftsmen.
INDEPENDENT & NON-PROFIT INSTITUTIONS
SongEun Art Space (6 Apgujeong-ro 75-gil, Cheongdam-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, 06011) is a cutting edge non-profit in the chic district of Gangnam. Showcasing both Korean and international contemporary artists, the gallery has previously worked with overseas collectors like François Pinault and Tom Tandio to showcase art from around the world.
A non-profit gallery, Project Space SARUBIA (B1, 4, Jahamun-ro 16-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, 03043) is dedicated to supporting experimental art in various areas of fine art, architecture, music, dance and film. It was set up in 1999, at the former site of the SARUBIA Coffee Shop, which used to be an important artists’ haunt. Selected through an application process, SARUBIA devotes itself to pioneering new concepts and practices, and incubating the talents of undiscovered artists.
As famous as the private museum itself is Leeum Samsung Museum of Art’s (60-16 Itaewon-ro 55-gil, Yongsan-gu, Seoul) director, Hong Ra Hee, wife of Samsung chair Lee Kun Hee. The museum itself is designed by celebrated architects Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas, perfectly capturing the collection’s own connection between past and present. The museum itself it demarcated into three distinct sections dedicated to traditional Korean traditional art, international contemporary art and special exhibition, which have included solo exhibitions by Nam June Paik, Anish Kapoor and Mark Rothko.
Located behind Deoksugung Palace is the Seoul Museum of Art, also known as SeMA (61, Deoksugung-gil, Jung-gu Seoul, 04515). The building of the Seosomun Annex is the former Supreme Courthouse of Korea. SeMA primarily showcase local Korean artists, but the museum also works with foreign museums for special exhibitions like the ‘Media City Seoul’ Biennale. Also part of SeMA is the Buk Seoul Museum of Art (1238 Dongil-ro, Nowon-gu, Seoul 01783) designed by Samoo Architects & Engineers. Located in the North-East part of Seoul, Buk Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) features exhibitions that intersect all artistic areas including architecture, film, music, fashion, craft, design and more.
The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul (30 Samcheong-ro, Sogyeok-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul) opened since 1969, MMCA focuses on introducing global contemporary art. Costing US$230 million to construct, the building adopted the madang (yard) concept, which integrates the exterior and interior of the building to the surrounding environment, serving as an event and public leisure space. It also has outposts in Gwacheon and Deoksugung, Korea, which showcases modern art from Korea and overseas, as well as various genres of visual arts such as architecture, design, and crafts.
Also known as Horim Museum Sinsa is the Horim Art Centre (651-23 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu, Seoul) is a privately-run art museum in Korea. Comprised of three buildings designe by Tehje Architecture Office, the museum specialises in antique and modern art. It is useful to note that admission to the Horim Museum is free on the last Thursday of every month.
Kumho Museum (18, Samcheong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul) was initially built in 1989 by the Kumho Asiana Group and rebuilt in 1996 by Korean architect Kim Tae-Su. Kumho Museum is known for their support of young artists in Korea, often exhibiting new contemporary art. It is located other institutions like the MMCA and National Folk Museum.