Safia Dickersbach and Jong Hyo Cheong
This is an artfacts.net interview with Mr Jong Hyo Cheong, the director of the Galleries Association of Korea which organizes the KIAF art fair in Seoul.
AfN: Hello Mr. Cheong. How are you doing?
Mr. Cheong: Fine, but tired.
AfN: So Mr. Cheong, please introduce yourself a little bit to us. I want to make sure people in Europe and abroad know who you are. What is your background, and how did you end up being the director of this fair?
Mr. Cheong: I originally majored in painting and then went to Japan for the Master's course. After my graduation I was working as a curator and founded a gallery there. The gallery was opened about 3 years ago. It has presented young artists from Korea, China, and Japan. Meanwhile, I was offered the job of executive director at the Japan Art Forum, an NGO, along with the gallery's management. Then I merged the gallery with the Japan Art Forum and went back to Korea afterwards.
AfN: It must be a big difference in terms of responsibility and work schedule between what you did before and what you're doing now.
Mr. Cheong: It is different in some kind of ways but certain aspects are similar as well. My gallery participated in the KIAF 2002 in Busan, in the same year when I founded the gallery, and I also participated in 2003, the next year. Having an alternative trait, the gallery was hard to be operated in Japan and couldn't help the artists financially. I took part in the KIAF 2002 and 2003 in order to solve those problems, and to increase the gallery's potential circle of clients. I couldn't join in the fair in 2004. Later, when I was combining the gallery's management with the position of director of the Japan Art Forum, I was approached to take over the task of running KIAF in Korea. It was about 3 years ago that I accepted the offer and started to work.
One of the main reasons that influenced me to take this job was not only the fact that I wasn't much aware of the art situation in Korea but also the fact that the art fair hadn't been successfully established yet, which I could recognize from the limited participation in the art fair. These points made me determined to set about a prime art fair in Korea.
AfN: Mr. Cheong, the KIAF art fair was established in 2002 by the Galleries Association of Korea - why?
Mr. Cheong: I knew about KIAF very well, although I wasn't involved in it at that time; I had taken part in the fair a few times. There is no doubt that the galleries had been very active in the Korean art market until 1995 or so. For example, the majority of offices you can see now in the Insa-dong area used to be galleries back then. Therefore, there were no auctions or art fairs to be found. The Seoul Art Fair, which has been held for 26 years, is not a truly international art fair since only the members of the Galleries Association of Korea are qualified to join in. Seoul Auction started from 1998, so it wasn't held at that time either.Then, in 1996 and 1997, Korea was under the IMF system, which caused a breakdown of the Korean art market as well as of the Korean economy as a whole. A large number of galleries were shut down in the time until 2000 as a result. Hence, only a few galleries could participate in international art fairs such as Art Cologne in Germany or FIAC in France, as part of the Galleries Association of Korea's efforts to find the methods for revitalising both the economy and the art market. Through that experience, the association believed that an art fair should be established in Korea as well, and the Seoul Auction was going on steadily since 1998 along with that idea. Eventually, the Galleries Association of Korea inaugurated KIAF with the major galleries in Korea, which are all members of the association, to revive the stagnant Korean art market.
AfN: The KIAF art fair is surrounded by other Asian fairs like Art Taipei, SH Contemporary, Art Beijing, Art Singapore. Do you see these events as a threat to the KIAF?
Mr. Cheong: It can exert good and bad influences to KIAF, but I think it's mostly positive. I am content because KIAF received good reviews saying that it excelled in quality and size, compared to the art fairs in Asia such as Art Singapore, Shanghai Art Fair, CIGE in China, Art Beijing, Art Fair Tokyo and others. It is said that SH Contemporary and Hong Kong Art Fair could be serious competitors to KIAF. I don't think that these fairs can be compared to KIAF at all since the approaches, the artworks and the programmes for the art scene - both the collectors, and the public - are very different and diverse from each other. And as those two art fairs in China are made by foreign directors, KIAF in Korea can even be considered to be more stable in the long run.
AfN: The KIAF shows around 200 galleries, 2007 it was around 190, 2006 around 150. The top 10 art fairs in the world have on average 170 galleries. Where is your limit?
Mr. Cheong: If we applied the same form as last year, the number of galleries this year would have been 240, not 218 like now. The reason why we reduced the number is because KIAF has to improve in quality, not quantity from now on. Thus, the smallest unit of booths last year was eliminated, and the 2nd biggest unit of booths replaced them instead. Regarding the limit, it is probably the number of about 200 which we reached. The number of galleries is likely to even decrease next year, at least it should decrease rather than increase. That means raising the quality of the fair in terms of the contents, not the size, increasing the number of good galleries showing good works - that is the assignment given to us.
AfN: This year there are two biennials in Busan and Gwangju and the KIAF at the same time. How is your relation to these events?
Mr. Cheong: The main reason for changing the date of KIAF from May last year to September this year was the hope to exchange synergetic effects with the Gwangju and Busan Biennales. We couldn't try much since it was the very first time. We, however, exchanged advertisements and marketing [strategies] with Busan, along with the promotion of the emerging programme, '3 for VIP', which is for visitors coming to Art Taipei, Shanghai Art Fair and KIAF. Exchanges of the programme or the contents of the fair will likely be done next year. Because of the rumours about the Gwanju Biennale organising its own art fair, KIAF preferred not to start the promotion with it from the beginning.
AfN: 2008 is a bad year for the financial system in the world. The KIAF is now over. How was your feeling about business? Is the Korean art world affected by the turmoil in the financial system?
Mr Cheong: We assume that purchases have reduced slightly this year. But we take it for granted that a bad economic condition has a damaging effect not only on KIAF but also on all other art fairs - it's the world of art. What is good about KIAF is, however, we have seen a growing number of new emerging collectors over the past two years. The fact that we are still maintaining the same number of visitors as that of last year shows that public interest in such collections and art has remained unchanged even with a relative economic depression, and so we should say the number of new collectors, who started off last year, is even growing. In addition to that, the number of ordinary guests has increased whereas student guests have dwindled compared to last year. Also, the number of foreign guests has considerably increased compared to last year, so we are sure that the number of KIAF visitors with actual and deep interest is increasing annually.
AfN: Do you think there is still room for the art market to grow? And if yes, which sectors of the art market have the biggest opportunities in your opinion?
Mr Cheong: The art market in Korea has grown until the end of last year, when it reached a peak. This year, it then turned into a slight decrease. I don't think that it's falling into a steep decline; the development proves instead that those buyers and investors last year were mostly unacquainted with art. You can see how the artistic standard of the buyers has noticeably improved if you have a look at the tendency to actual sales after the last KIAF in September. Last year, people rather purchased works which they considered fashionable, this year, the best-selling ones were of relatively higher quality.
On the basis of this standard change, we anticipate that the art market will continue to prosper. In fact the market of carving art has shown a weak tendency so far in Korea while that of the painting art has been relatively strong. Photography art, which has not been widely approved of, also began to gain wider approval. It is our understanding that the carving art will possibly experience a renaissance depending on what sort of works the artists will come out with, after they have viewed the painting-oriented art market now. Another prominent market is the oriental painting market. There is still room for improvement although many techniques and subjects in Western painting were already introduced to oriental painting; thus it may lead to open up a new genre of art by enhancing quality of its arts.
AfN: There are only 2 fairs worldwide that have a guest country. That is KIAF and ARCO. What can you expect about 2009 especially having India coming to KIAF?
Artfacts.Net at KIAF 2008
Mr. Cheong: To illustrate, Switzerland, the guest country for the KIAF 2008, is acknowledged for its leading role in the world's art market through Art Basel. However, what the Swiss art is like or what influences it, is not very well known, which made us invite them this year. The Asian art market has a similar story. The world thinks of the Chinese art market if people are referring in general to the Asian art market, despite the fact that China, Japan and Korea form the Asian art market. In this context, and considering the size and the vision of the market, Indian art needs to be revisited, and we decided to choose it for next year. We will give intensive attention to the potential and the different forms of Indian art at KIAF.
With regard to the form of presentation, we will choose either a featured exhibition or a forum. We are going to have a thorough research concerning the art market in India after wrapping up KIAF 2008. It's true that there are not a lot of professional art journals or galleries in India, but we will recruit curators directly, hoping to make this an opportunity to bring as many artworks as possible from unknown talented artists who are not connected to the galleries yet. Considering how major galleries in Japan came to the fair, and considering the plans to present Chinese art in a different way next year, and if India succeeds as a guest country - KIAF will be able to transform into the art fair which can present the main galleries and artists of Asia.
There were no galleries in the Chinese art market in the beginning, but the foreign galleries began the business at some point, even before the Chinese galleries became active themselves. That's why the Chinese art market is dynamic nowadays. Likewise, in India, galleries don't have a system for the art market. Thus, employing a professional curator to contact the artists directly can lead galleries to connect to the artists after they have seen, felt and valued Indian art at KIAF.
AfN: Dear Mr. Cheong, thank you for this interview.
Mr. Cheong: Thank you.
Interview: Safia Dickersbach