On June 20th, Phillips de Pury will mount Korean Eye: Moon Generation, a show of Korean artists that will be on view until July 5th, at its space in The Duke of York’s Barracks in London. The exhibition is sponsored by the Standard Chartered bank but it is the result of David Ciclitira’s efforts which Korean Eye hopes to expand to other venues around the world and repeat annually in London until the 2012 Olympics. Art Market Monitor spoke with him:
Have you been involved in Korea and Korean art for a long time?
No. I actually am a sports promoter.
I promote sports events around the world and I’m the largest promoter of golf tournaments in Asia.
I’ve been a fellow at the Royal College of Arts in London for some time. My wife and I have been giving prizes to students there for 20 odd years.
I went to Korea seriously about three years ago and started to have time on my hands. I realized that the Korean contemporary art scene was pretty vibrant. The artwork itself was as interesting, if not more interesting, than Chinese contemporary, which has gone through a big explosive curve in the last decade.
It seemed to me that Korean work wasn’t very known outside Korea, so I decided to try to do something about it.
There are one or two Korean artists who keep growing. There is also an earlier generation of modern artists, whose prices are rising and their stature is growing.
The idea of this show was to have a snapshot–we’ve got 31 artists, a small show–to begin the process. It’s a long term project. When I went to Korea, there were no real books on Korean contemporary art. It reminded me of Chinese contemporary of 10 years ago.
So what we’re trying to do is create a program where we can create a book next year of Korean artists. We’re looking at extending this program next year into different markets, including the Middle East and Singapore, and ultimately, it would be great to take it to Los Angeles, because there’s a big Korean community there, maybe two million Koreans there.
I’m a collector, this is not something I do as a business, I don’t buy and sell art, there was just such a vibrant community, and everything about Korea is interesting, as well. When you mention Korea to the average person, they probably think about North Korea, they don’t even think about South Korea. If you ask them about Samsung, they probably don’t know it’s Korean. The whole branding of Korea is going through a process, their president has decided he’d like to rebrand his country, so it’s an interesting process. In sporting terms, Korea has had more sporting events than any other nation in the last 20 years, it’s had the World Cup, no other country has had as many events as Korea’s got, but no one really understands that. It’s a quite interesting phenomenon, really.
And the art itself is interesting.
Is a lot of this art from your own collection or other museums?
None of it’s from my collection. It’s all brand new. It’s all for sale. I’ve built up a collection of Korean contemporary in the last two or three years. But I asked a young curator to put the show together, so it’s his choice of artists. I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but when you hire a curator, you let them do it. There’s a very interesting artist, an older gentleman, he’s getting very well-known now, he’s a guy called Hyung Koo Kang who’s had a show in New York and a show in Seoul. He has the one with the blue eyes…they’re not paintings, but lookalike photographic images of Warhol and Da Vinci and people like that.
Hyungkoo Lee is also very famous. So we’ve got some more well-known artists, and there’s a nice young girl called Lee Rim she’s in her twenties, who is a very nice artist. There were more people who have asked about that image than any other images. She’s the most inexpensive and the youngest.
I like helping young people, so helping emerging artists, helping people get a foothold, is part of what it tries to do.
It’s all for sale through Phillips?
Basically, when I started, I had never done this before. Big sport events are difficult, but I’ve been doing it for 20 years. In the world of art, you turn up and people are terribly nice to you, when you’re a collector. They always want to sell you things.
I had no clue on the financial process, but now I have to say, it’s been a pretty steep learning curve, but I know how it all works. They’ve been very helpful, and they have a space in the Duke of York’s Barracks which is what we’re using and we’ve extended it out to the whole floor.
This space in London is the iconic space right now, it has three to four thousand people a day going through the space in 20 days, so we’ll have 60 to 80 thousand people coming through, so that will be good.
You’re not facilitating the sale in any way?
The works are for sale. I’ve bought a few pieces to help out. The interest for me was kicking it off, really. I think that Korean art is underpriced, as a person who buys a lot of art for my own consumption, I feel I’ve been able to buy Korean contemporary art for what I describe as very reasonable prices. But Philips have 2,000 collectors. And we’re supported by the Minister of Culture in Korea.
Who are the artists you’re collecting or think are going to be the leading names?
I bought a piece to start with from Hyung Koo Kang. I like this lady, Lee Rim. I think she’s very good. I bought one from a photographer called Debbie Han, who’s in the show. There’s lots of different artists that I’ve bought from who are actually not in this show. I think there’s an interesting artist, a big guy, Hyung Koo Lee. If they don’t sell that, I’ll buy it. There’s another artist I really like his name is Dongwook Lee. I think he’s very interesting.
I’ve been very fortunate to be sponsored by Standard Chartered. That’s not a bank known to many American people. It’s now Britain’s second-largest bank. It was the only bank that didn’t invest in subprime. It’s in 108 markets around the world. It’s highly profitable. It’s basically a Hong Kong-based business. But it’s the largest single foreign investor in Korea. They bought a major bank there, and it’s a really super bank which supports, locally, art. That’s one of the things that they do. And they’ve been really, really supportive of this project. I have been amazed how much traction we’ve gotten from their involvement. So in this time of recession, they’ve been very helpful and we hopefully get to work together with them in the future to build it in other markets.
Korea seems as sophisticated as Taiwan or Japan, so it should have a similar level of output.
I think Japan is a very, very interesting comparison, because Japanese contemporary art is very strong right now. I think Korea is a little unknown behind it, but you’ve got to understand that it’s got an amazing technical structure in Korea. It’s a fantastically sophisticated marketplace, in many ways more sophisticated than the USA and some parts of Europe.
I’m not an expert, I’m just an amateur collector, but to me, the work is more diverse than the Chinese, and they use different formats. What is really nice is you go to Korea and you meet the artist, it’s the same as meeting artists in any country, they’re all young, and they’re so excited. We’ve paid for four artists to come to be part of this process in London, and I think another six are coming because they want to be there, so apparently it’s going to escalate.
The thing about art, when you’re at the young end, you’re seeing people who really have a mission in life. I’ve been through Tracey Emin and all these people at the beginning of their careers, and you look back, and you’re not there to invest because the person’s going to become a superstar, you’re there to invest to help. You’re lucky if some of the stuff you buy becomes more valuable, that’s part of life.
In Korean contemporary, I think they’ve got such talent, and it’s pretty much not been heard of, really, so this is just a small start.
It seems more polished and sophisticated than Chinese art.
I think the Chinese had a big point to prove 20-odd years ago, with theirown problems, and so does Korea. I think the sophistication in Korea is interesting. I think that Western audiences, yes, there are a couple of artists who appear in shows or auction houses, but I think there’s quite a lot more to come out of the country, really, and the purpose of this whole thing is to help that.
The Hong Kong art fair, every Korean art gallery sold well. They really did well. All the Korean galleries were selling 15-plus pieces. It’s tax-free, everything’s easy to do in Hong Kong. Would you rather be doing your trading there or Shanghai? I think Hong Kong will get stronger and stronger, because it’s a hub for Korea, Japan, India, all these places. You have to go back in history to the Victorian times, that was the time of growth in manufacturing industry, and they supported art. People with the money to support art for the next 10, 20 years will be the Asians, because they will create wealth and they will support their own indigenous art, I’m convinced of it.
What’s your interest in all of this beyond this year?
I’ve got a mission that 2012 is the Olympiad in London, and we’re in a time of recession and everybody’s very stressed, that by the time we get to 2012, it be one of the great Olympic games, because you don’t have to make it a world city, it is a world city. I think we’re very fortunate, because Boris Johnson, he was on the Time 100 most influential people, he came to Korea recently and he popped in to preview the show. He said, “This is great, what we’re trying to do is build this up every year in London until we get to the Olympiad, and this will become Korea’s contribution.” Seoul has been an Olympic city, so there’s been a lot of thought that’s gone into this project, as well as passion.
What I’ve found interesting in this whole learning process is how unsophisticated the art world is, because when you work in major sports events, there are more dates, so much more research, everything is television linked to media values, and art feels amateur when you look at how they do things, and it’s no small wonder that when they need to raise massive money, they find it quite hard.
I was amazed, when I started to look into the valuations of art, that they only seemed to work off auction values, not sale values. If you think of the big auction houses, ultimately they look at each other like children a sweet shop trying to work out how much the sweets are. It’s kind of unsophisticated in that sense.
When I was younger, the average person on the street wasn’t out buying art. Now, one of the most successful shows in London is the affordable art fair. People who are general people now want art on their walls, whatever that art is. The whole thing has changed.
Why I’ve learned so much in a year is that I’ve made mistakes, I’ve understood, I’ve definitely got things wrong, but as I’m going through it, it’s like if I remember the first sports booking 20 years ago, I made a lot of mistakes then.
The reality is that I think there’s a really interesting niche here, because I look at Phillips, for example, their reality is that they’re such a potential great brand extension, and what I’ve done with this is a whole different experiment, other than the fact that I like Korea and Korean art, but we’ve created a brand, registered a brand, we’re going to build this brand with the government, and the bottom line is that this is just the beginning, there’s so much to do.
I worked a long time with UBS, and I have access to all their research, and their research, number one for their clients was golf. Art came in third, I think, classic cars or wine were second. The reality is, it’s out there. I believe the art market goes beyond your top bracket. My people all started saying, “The chairman’s crazy, he’s going to do this,” and they’ve all ended up loving it. “Can I get my bonus in a piece of work?”
The problem with the art world is that they’re a bunch of snobs. The reality is that gallerists make people feel as if they’re not wanted, and I think this is part of the breaking down of what will happen in the next 10 years, more people will want to get involved. In this day and age, if you have money, money will get you through any door, because it’s in short supply.
I’ve found dealing with artists interesting, because whether they’re young or well-known, if you’re lucky in contemporary art, you can actually speak to the person doing the work.
If you’re buying old masters, all you’re doing is buying stuff from a dead guy. With a contemporary artist, you get the joy or the pleasure of speaking to the person, and the reality is that you have access to these people. We’re also living in a celebrity culture. Beckham is a sports brand – he’s the most famous bloke on the planet because he’s a brand. Ultimately, this is what Hirst has managed to do.