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Frieze Week Seoul 2023

How Seoul’s Non-Profit and Independent Spaces Evolved

The curators of this year’s expanded Frieze Film program in Seoul discuss the rise of independent art venues across the city

BY Kim Sung woo AND Sungah Serena Choo in Frieze Seoul , Frieze Week Magazine | 05 SEP 23

How would you differentiate the terms “non-profit”, “not-for-profit” and “alternative” spaces in the context of Seoul?

SSC I would say that the concept of independent space began in the late1990s. At that time, we saw the emergence of “alternative spaces” that looked to question the governance of public and private art museums and commercial galleries. However, these subsequently became part of the establishment, especially when their activities are compared with the approaches of the second and third generations of independent spaces.

BOAN 1942 exterior.
Exterior view of BOAN1942. Courtesy: BOAN1942

In the early to mid-2010s, independent spaces under the banner of sinsaeng gonggan (“new spaces”) emerged that were run by artists and curatorial collectives.Their common ethos was to avoid relying on a funding system. In contrast to the first generation of spaces, their emergence and decline were reflected in the cycle of the rental contract period in Korea. Some of the independent spaces that emerged later look like non-profit or not-for-profit spaces, but they are a mixed bag, with some selling artwork to support themselves, and others running programs for hire. It seems to me that there are very few independent spaces that actually run their own programs with a clear agenda—and those that do really stand out.

KSW It can be said that the history of experimental spaces in Korea begins with “alternative spaces”. It all came about through Korea’s foreign-exchange crisis in the 1990s and the resulting slump in the art market that led to a lack of opportunities for young artists to show their work. In this context, alternative spaces were launched that focused on the experiments and creations of young contemporary artists. Interestingly, the nature of these first-generation alternative spaces spanned two distinct categories: non-mainstream or non-institutional. And their shared primary goal was to strengthen the capability of artists to meet global standards.

How would you describe this scene in Seoul today compared to ten years ago?

SSC I think Seoul a decade ago was very much shaped by artists born in the 1980s, who were still considered to be young artists. In the early to mid-2010s, we saw an explosion of independent spaces and collectives that operated as both studios and exhibition spaces. Furthermore, the last decade has seen the rise of independent curators, as we have built a sense of camaraderie and collaboration with our contemporaries and begun to speak up for ourselves. Through time and persistence, young artists have established themselves over the past decade or so, and they are still shaping the art scene today. Without doubt, in the past ten years Seoul’s art ecosystem, which has been working more flexibly than those of other cities and states since the pandemic, has become more visible internationally. And I think the biggest difference of all is the increased opportunities for young artists—not least due to social media—to achieve recognition internationally.

Mother Offline exhibition view.
'SUJANGGO.basestation', 2022, installation view. Courtesy: MOTHER Offline; photograph: Jeong Soonyoung

KSW Much has changed with this as with everything else. There are many non-profit spaces that have disappeared, and many have revised their identity, and some have been institutionalized. And, since 2010, a number of spaces opened under the name “new space” run by young curators, artists and designers, but have disappeared again now. It was like a movement created by practitioners to survive in the art world. Unlike before, today’s Korean art scene is receiving a lot of attention, the market has grown and various opportunities have arisen. The “alternative” pursued by non-profit has also constantly changed, and it is necessary to think about it again today.

Where do you think this scene is heading?

SSC In the immediate aftermath of COVID-19, and with the inaugural edition of Frieze Seoul last year, we saw major international galleries opening branches here and starting to take an interest in young Korean artists. It has been a bit difficult for the artists to find their place in the commercial arena, but as opportunities have arisen, the scene has been divided into those who are wary and those who actively embrace the conflation of commercial and non-commercial. The same is true of established art institutions. We are in a transitional period, and in the end, I think the way forward is for each area to accommodate the other without being too exclusive, and for the art ecosystem in Seoul to develop synergistically, on a diverse spectrum and to expand internationally.

KSW Still focusing on the outlook for the non-profit scene in particular, the key point is that today, the boundary between non-profit and commercial is becoming blurred. The non-commercial and commercial sectors actively cooperate and embrace each other on a strategic level. So, let me ask a few questions with this in mind:

1. Are the terms “non-profit” or “not-for-profit” or even “alternative space” still valid in today’s art ecosystem?

2. If they are still valid, how can we set the criteria for “non-profit”?

3. How do “non-profit” or “not-for-profit”art spaces address the intrinsic value of art itself within the context of today’s strong art market logic?

4. If “complete” non-profit is no longer possible today in the Korean art scene, can we determine what extended form the “non-mainstream” can take?

5. If the name “non-profit” is not just the literal meaning, but the nature and identity of an art space and its practice, what should be the criteria for today’s “non-profits”?

6. And, if the name “non-profit” is no longer valid in relation to today’s new standards, what can take its place?

Amado Art Space exhibition view.
Hye Kyung,Circulation of the Capital, 2021, bookend, aluminium, neon, marble magnet, 55 × 15 × 120 cm, from 'Material and Being Material', 2021–2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Amado Art Space; photograph: Junyong Cho 

Are there any spaces that specialize in specific mediums like live performances, media or sound?

KSW Alternative Space Loop was one of the first-generation alternative spaces, and has focused on video media-oriented work to date. And, although it is relatively new, Windmill is constructing its identity as a performance-focused project space.

Tell us about some of your favourite spaces.

SSC Project Sarubia is a non-profit independent space that has had its own support program for young artists for a long time. It is one of the few remaining independent art spaces that actively empower artists. It has a more thoughtful approach about how to present traditional media. It also has a self-sustaining structure that allows it to operate through the sale of donated artworks on a yearly basis. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, Amado Art Space is one of the key independent spaces where critical discourse around contemporary Korean art is produced. In addition, N/A, located in Euljiro, has a program that showcases a wide range of genres such as fashion and photography, as well as contemporary art, with exhibitions that introduce an expanded group of emerging and young artists. The exhibition space itself, in the middle of a unique industrial landscape, is an attraction for many visitors. Lastly, Primary Practice, which opened last year in Buam-dong, Jongno-gu, is led by its curatorial approach. It presents its outcomes in various forms—not only exhibitions, but also publications, and programs based on an extended curatorial practice.

KSW Amado Art Space is a non-profit space located in Hannam-dong. It uses a typical residential space from the1970–80s, that is somewhat rundown. It generates critical discourses around today’s Korean art scene, and the dilapidated building itself has been the subject of interesting experiments for artists. Space Willing N Dealing was started as a non-profit, focusing on young artists’ experiments, and also the dialogue between young and old generations. It has now shifted to become commercial, and it is almost the first example of this passage. MUSEUMHEAD is dedicated to perceiving and valuing the physical presence of exhibitions, and it advocates for the experiments of today’s young artists, supporting their practices so they can continue. Lastly, Factory 2, which is one of the oldest independent art spaces. Its predecessor was Gallery Factory and it produces community-based projects centred on various individuals, looking at art from an expanded perspective—so not only fine art, but also design and craft.

Jiyoung Yoo and Juhyun Cho, Cupcake and Chihuahua, 2022, 'Join the team and receive your card', installation view. Courtesy: Insa Art Space

What are the key areas in the city you would highlight for alternative spaces?

SSC The first-generation spaces were based in the metropolitan area and were scattered in Hongdae, Jongno-gu and Jung-gu areas. The next wave of small-scale spaces run by artists and curators have come and gone in low-rent, inaccessible neighbourhoods that haven’t been gentrified yet. Currently, we are seeing spaces being created where visitors can go with ease. They are mainly located in the centre of the city, around Euljiro and Yongsan-gu (Hannam-dong/Itaewon), Yeongdeungpo-gu and Gyeongbokgung Palace.

KSW Seoul’s non-profit spaces are scattered across the city, so it is difficult to choose just one area. Nevertheless, if I had to pick one, I would say the Seochon area. There is a first-generation alternative space, Project Space Sarubia, and there are others with clear identities and interesting characteristics, such as Factory 2 and BOAN1942.

Tell us about the venues you are working with for Frieze Film.

SSC & KSW For this year’s Frieze Film, we want to highlight some iconic locations, which are non-profit and independent, that have been presenting their own programs. For example, Insa Art Space (IAS), with its 20-year history, run by ARKO Art Center, is one of the first-generation independent spaces. Historically, IAS has held a symbolic status within the context of experimental/discursive/alternative practices in Korean contemporary art. As for BOAN1942, it features a café, bookstore, B&B and an exhibition space. Originally used as an accommodation facility for about 60 years between 1942 and 2005, it reopened its space in 2007 and now showcases diverse artistic practices including mixed-media art, site-specific art and art integrated into daily life. Amado Art Space, located in Hannam-dong, maintains the typical form of a residential house from the 1970s and 1980s. Since its opening in 2013 as a non-profit art space, it aims to promote diverse art discourse and criticism based on diversity, breaking away from the conventional white cube format. Lastly, Mother Offline is a multipurpose space that operates as a café during the day and a bar at night. Alongside this, they run an experimental programme of exhibitions, events and DJ nights.

Blue Planet Sea, 2022.
'Blue Planet — Sea',2022, installation view. Courtesy: BOAN1942

What would be your advice for anyone looking to engage with the scene who is visiting Seoul for the first time?

KSW To appreciate the dynamism of Korean contemporary art, I advise visiting the local non-profit and independent art spaces. At the same time as co-curating this year’s Frieze Film program, I’m involved in making a list and map of Korean non-profit/independent spaces with ARKO Art Center on behalf of the fair. During Frieze Week, this list will be available on Frieze’s digital city map, allowing both international and local audiences to explore the lively local art scene in Korea.

Are there any projects or shows you are looking forward to seeing during Frieze Week 2023?

KSW I am particularly excited about Issy Wood’s solo exhibition at Ilmin Museum of Art, Lee Woosung’s solo exhibition at Hakgojae Gallery and Yooyun Yang’s solo exhibition at Primary Practice.

SSC Kim Beom, a highly important contemporary artist in the 1990s, has an exhibition at Leeum Museum of Art—a rare chance to see a solo show of his work. It’ll be a great opportunity for the audience to gain an insight into the contemporary art scene during the 1990s in Seoul.

A Blinding Future, Amado Art Space.
Seo Young Chang, AIR, 2021, from 'A Blinding Future', installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Amado Art Space; photograph: Junyong Cho, SES 

Titled “It was the way of walking through narrative”, Frieze Film 2023 takes place across four non-profit spaces: Amado Art Space and MOTHER Offline, both in Hannam-dong; BOAN1942 in Tongui-dong; and Insa Art Space in Samcheong-don. The program will be on view until 9 September and online at www.frieze.com

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, Seoul 2023 under the headline ‘Independent States'

Main image: Courtesy: BOAN1942

Kim Sung woo is a curator and writer. He launched Primary Practice, a curatorial space in Seoul, in the second half of 2022. He lives in Seoul, Korea.

Sungah Serena Choo is a curator and writer. She is currently a curator at Leeum Museum of Art. She lives in Seoul, Korea.