The Art of Showing Off

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The Art of Showing Off

Behind almost every big accomplishment is a story that began with a personal quest. Galerie Bhak, one of Korea's most influential art houses, owes its existence to the childhood dream of its founder, Bhak Young-duk, to sail around the world. Bhak, 45, first set out to achieve that dream by working as a designer for a shipbuilding company. But at age 29 he took four months off to travel around the United States and Europe, where he ended up in museums most days from dawn to dusk. Moved by the experiences, he chose a different career path upon his return, putting his circumnavigational dreams on hold: He began working at his older sister's gallery, Gallery Hyundai in Sagan-dong.

He proceeded to work as a curator at his sister's gallery for 13 years, mainly handling young Korean artists and contemporary Korean works. Then, in 1993, he opened Galerie Bhak in southern Seoul's posh district of Cheongdam-dong.

Galerie Bhak's two-story building reveals an impressive modern design throughout its 660 square meters of indoor exhibition space and 330 square meters of outdoor space. On the gallery's yearly calendar are more than 20 exhibitions both in Korea and abroad, as well as exchanges with many galleries in Europe to introduce and promote Korean artists internationally. Galerie Bhak has participated in art fairs in Hong Kong, Miami, Chicago, Cologne and Paris. Of the four most prestigious art fairs in the world - Art Basel, Art Cologne, Art Chicago and San Francisco International Art Exposition - Mr. Bhak focuses mostly on Chicago. "Art Chicago is the oldest art fair in the United States, but is the most commercially active of the big fairs," Mr. Bhak told the Joong-Ang Ilbo English Edition.

When Mr. Bhak began participating in the international fairs, he rarely sold any works. "We were just showing the works, that's all," he said. For commercial success he needed a firmer grasp on what good art was and practical sales strategies. One strategy he hit on was to build trust over time. "We continued to go back and people remembered us and paid more attention," he said. "That's when we began to sell a few small pieces. Foreigners in general preferred smaller paintings, in contrast to Koreans who wanted large works to impress others."

Mr. Bhak said he believes that the competitive strengths Korean artists pack abroad are their originality and the lower prices they charge. "In Korea, art lovers buy works based on the artist's name," he explained. "But to do well abroad, the focus need not be on the artist or his nationality; instead, the workmanship and originality of the artist is the key - and of course the price has to be right." In general, Mr. Bhak said, $10,000 is the lower end of the range in which quality can be assured. The devaluation of the Korean won in recent years has made Korean art works more competitive, especially if bought in Korea. For example, a Korean painting that costs $16,000 overseas typically sells for 16 million won (about $12,600) in Korea.

The trust factor played a key role in Mr. Bhak's answer to what good art is. "When a painting is presented," he said, "ordinary people often have a hard time discerning the quality of the art work. That's when the role of a credible gallery curator becomes important."

Discovering and then nurturing a young, promising artist is akin to setting sail on a long voyage, the way Mr. Bhak tells it. When he sees an artist with potential, Mr. Bhak takes an active part in developing his talent and styles that collectors can relate to. He helps the artist acquire marketing and stylistic sensibilities, and insists that steady communication be maintained among the artist, curator and collectors. To keep such relations strong, he chooses few but top-notch artists.

Mr. Bhak's main assistant is the curator Jung Hoon, who joined Galerie Bhak three years ago. They now represent leading Korean artists like Paik Nam June, Cho Sung-mook, Kim Chang-young, Kim Chang-yeol, Ham Sup, and Toh Yun-hee, as well as the French artist Francois Morellet and the American twins Mike and Doug Starn. To discover local talent, the two curators have been holding annual contests since 1995 to draw in budding art geniuses. They said that Korean artists' real talent lies in their superb workmanship and strong images. Also, they hope to open a Galerie Bhak branch in New York or Chicago soon.

Did Mr. Bhak ever take that sailing trip? "No, now I fly everywhere."


by Inēs Cho

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