I said it once, and I am going to say it again. Seoul is such an incredible city!
Whether you like music, art, architecture, fashion, food, or anything else, it has something for everyone. But since we are mostly interested in art, I decided to put together this brief guide to Seoul’s contemporary art scene.
Bear in mind that I have only visited Seoul once, so I am not saying this is in any way a comprehensive guide to the city. Rather, it is a small list that you can use as a starting point to plan your trip and explore the city. Because, believe me, there is a lot more than this to discover.
So, without any further ado, here are my suggestions.
This is where you are going to spend the most time. Or at least that’s what I did. A brief guide to contemporary art in Seoul cannot start from anywhere else. This area is so full of museums and galleries that I ended up spending 3 whole days here, just walking around, popping into galleries or visiting exhibitions. And it was well worth the time!
The dong (Korean for neighborhood) is home to the enchanting Bukchon Hanok Village, an area that still hosts traditional Korean Hanok houses. Many of them are now shops or super nice cafes, so this is the perfect place to rest and sip a coffee while wandering around. The museums and galleries around this area are mainly located between Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Hanok Village, especially along Samcheong-ro also called “gallery street”, with some outposts right outside this area, in the equally vibrant Hyoja-dong.
This neighborhood has some of the most interesting galleries I have ever visited in my life. Galleries in Seoul are not just exhibition spaces or white cubes, but the buildings themselves are pieces of art.
In this area, you can find well established Korean galleries, such as Gallery Hyundai, PKM Gallery, Kukje Gallery, Hakgojae Gallery, Arario Gallery. But also international galleries, such as the Seoul branch of Galerie Perrotin. At the same time, around the neighborhood, you can spot smaller galleries that display works by emerging and mid-career artists.
What should you expect from this area? Quite frankly, anything. Bigger galleries work with established Korean and international artists, and here you will find large scale artworks and installations, as well as museum-like exhibitions of extremely high quality. Smaller galleries display a wide range of different mediums and artists and the area is great if you are looking to deepen your knowledge of Korean artists.
Make sure to walk around and keep your eyes open. Bigger galleries are quite easy to spot since they are usually hosted in shiny new buildings, but smaller galleries are often times housed in narrow side streets and alleys. Not everyone speaks English fluently, but try and talk to as many people as possible: when I was there, just gallery hopping around the area, I met a lot of interesting artists and I was introduced to a lot of great art.
Just like galleries, museums around Samcheong-dong are hands down some of the most fascinating I have ever visited. Here you can find bigger museums, such as MMCA Seoul or Arario Museum in Space, as well as smaller ones, such as the lovely Ilmin Museum of Art. Head over to this article to find out more about my favorite museums in Seoul.
Itaewon & Hannam-dong
After Samcheong-dong, it’s time to move to another great area for contemporary art in Seoul. Hannam-dong and Itaewon are mostly famous for the night clubs (the latter) and the K-pop idols houses (the former), but they have far more to offer.
I spent there a couple of days, mostly because museums are pretty big and they take time to visit, but you can easily do both neighborhoods in one day. You can just walk around from one place to the other, as I did, or you should take a taxi. The area has fewer subway stations and it’s easier to get around with a taxi.
Getting off at Hangangjin station, you can easily walk to one of my favorite museums in Seoul, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art. Read more about the museum here. On your way to the museum, pay a visit to the Seoul branch of Pace Gallery. The gallery is not that easy to spot, but it has some pretty interesting exhibitions with International artists from the gallery’s roster. The gallery is located a few steps from the much easier to spot Yongsan Crafts Museum, on the upper level of an office building.
Not too far from Itaewon, head over to the affluent Hannam-dong area to find a few more interesting spaces for contemporary art in Seoul. Hannam-dong is fancier than Itaewon, with it’s classy and expensive houses and high-end inhabitants. Here though, you will find nice small galleries and museums, with an eye on emerging artists and younger visitors.
The first place I visited was Gana Art Hannam, a project space of Gana Art gallery located in this area. Another gallery I particularly liked was Various Small Fires. The gallery, originally from Los Angeles, has a location on Dokseodang-ro, where they exhibit international artists from their roster. You can pair the visit with two other spaces nearby, D Museum and D Project Space, located just steps away from Various Small Fires gallery.
Part of the Daelim Museum, D Museum and D Project Space are targeted directly to a younger audience, with solo and group exhibitions dedicated to photography, graphic, new media, and digital art. Together with exhibitions, the museum offers a rich calendar of workshops, activities, and interactive programs and also hosts a cafe, making it the perfect spot to take some great photos for your ‘gram’.
Lastly, a guide to Seoul and its contemporary art scene wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Gangnam. It is arguably the most famous neighborhood in Seoul, thanks to Psy and his Gangnam Style (which, FYI, has a statue right next to the subway station). But if I have to be honest, it is not as interesting as other places.
Sure it is loud, expensive, perhaps a little kitsch, and it definitely has a lot of cool things to do and see, but when it comes to contemporary art in Seoul there are better places. Nonetheless, I spotted here a couple of galleries I really enjoyed.
The first one is Lee Eugean Gallery, on Apgujeong-ro. I visited the gallery one morning and had the chance to meet both the gallery owner and the artist exhibited at the time. The gallery is located in the gallerist’s family house, a beautiful building in a residential area. The architecture is great and the spaces were renovated to host the exhibitions, which span both inside and outside in the beautiful garden. The gallerist is an amazing woman, which took some time to walk me through the exhibition and introduced me to the artist. We spoke at length about the house, the gallery and the artists they represent, as well as their rich program of workshops called The Art Club. Definitely pay a visit if you are in the area and you want to escape the madness to immerse yourself in a peaceful and relaxing environment.
The other place I particularly loved in Gangnam was SongEun Art Space. It is a bigger exhibition venue and foundation, active since 1989 to promote and support young up and coming Korean artists. The foundation first launched the SongEun ArtCube and the SongEun ArtAward and later in 2010 they finally opened the Art Space.
It is dedicated to promoting contemporary art and artists. Together with Korean artists, they aim at fostering the contemporary art scene in Seoul presenting exhibitions by international artists who have not yet shown in Korea. All exhibitions are free and the building also has a cafe and a restaurant. The exhibition I visited there was a well-designed group exhibition of artists nominated for their annual prize. It was well worth a visit, especially to discover interesting emerging Korean artists.