Jason Haam didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a gallery owner. In fact, before 2015, the 31-year-old Korean art dealer, who graduated with an engineering degree from Cornell University, didn’t know or care much about art and its market.
Now his eponymous Seoul gallery, founded in 2018, is just one of eight to take part in both Kiaf and the first Frieze Seoul this week. Among Korean galleries, Jason Haam is unique for working exclusively with artists who live outside the country, almost all of whom have no Korean heritage. In four years, he organized 17 shows by foreign artists, including the first exhibitions in Seoul of Sarah Lucas and the German painter Daniel Sinsel. In what is perhaps the gallery’s biggest coup to date, it opened the first solo exhibition of Swiss commercial darling Urs Fischer in Seoul last week (Fischer has previously exhibited at the Gwangju Biennale).
Going from virtual unknown to serious player in one of Asia’s hottest contemporary art scenes in four years is no small feat, and Haam admits to having had a head start in his artistic career. Both her father, a prominent Seoul dermatologist, and her mother are collectors, primarily of 20th-century Korean modernists. When Haam was 23, they helped him buy his first work, a Yoshitomo Nara print from Pace.
“My first foray into the art business was to sell works to friends of my parents. I used my unusual degree of access to find high-level works and get a commission. It was a good sum money for my early twenties,” he says. “At that time, I had no idea what it was like to work with artists. I had no idea about contracts or consignments. I was definitely in it for the money.”
Quickly, this secondary hustle turned into a real passion, which Haam spent so much time on that he decided to quit his job and open a space in the affluent neighborhood of Seongbuk-Dong, in the north of the city. .
Jason Haam Gallery’s programming is centered around painting and offers many of its artists their first solo exhibitions in East Asia. As to why he chose to depict mostly foreigners, Haam explains that his studies in Switzerland and then his university studies in the United States encouraged him to “look beyond nationality” when considering art: “I wanted it to be a global company from the start, and never just sell to Koreans or show works from just one country.” On a more practical level, he also sensed a growing appetite for Western work among Korea’s wealthy and ambitious young collectors – the same trend that convinced Frieze to plant his flag in Seoul.
But at the heart of the gallerist, he says, is a fascination and deep respect for artists. Indeed, Haam wants to serve as a course correction for the professional behavior he has noticed at a number of other dealers in the country. “There aren’t many good galleries in Korea, from a business ethics point of view. Art hasn’t been lucrative for a very long time here, and sometimes gallery owners feel like they have need to make ends meet, then they’re not doing the right things,” he says. “I stick to a set of rules and don’t deviate from them. I pay artists on time and I’m transparent with my clients. It’s as simple as that.”
While Haam admits he had to shed a reputation as someone who just dealt with his parents’ friends, he adds that he also experienced many of the struggles of a young gallery owner. As any dealer can attest, getting started is a risky and unstable business and until last year he says the gallery “haemorrhaged money” and ran out of steam on “loans multiple”. Media attention to his program was “non-existent” and he sold a total of three works in the first 10 fairs he attended, including Art Busan, Daegu Art Fair, Art Brussels and Seattle Art fair. To support his business, he continued to sell 20th century works on the secondary market, which he was unwilling to do, as he felt it “diluted his attention” from his growing love for art. contemporary.
Part of his current success, says Haam, can be attributed to the tutelage of key figures in the art world, chief among them Sadie Coles, whom he wrote to early in his career asking for advice. . To her surprise, the London gallery owner responded by sending one of her directors to visit her space in Seoul, then arranging for him to show Sarah Lucas’ work in 2019.
“Sadie and I have very similar ideas about how to deal with artists and how to run a business. I learned a lot from her,” says Haam. The two exhibitions of Daniel Sinsel and Urs Fischer, which appear on the lists of the Coles Gallery, were also organized with his help. The Fischer exhibit is somewhat unusual in that it focuses solely on his new paintings (Fischer has sculptures on the Coles and Haam booths at Frieze Seoul). But it will be a good way for Coles to test the market for these works in Seoul without having to open a physical space herself, while also benefiting a young gallery owner.
A combined case of good fortune, good ethics, good friends and now good timing, Haam is at the forefront of the new wave of the Korean art world. Many Frieze visitors will hear its name for the first time, but it’s unlikely to be the last time they’ll hear it, with sales from the early days of the fair suggesting Seoul is here to stay.
“I didn’t expect Seoul to explode like this. Yes, there are great institutions and taxes are low, but I moved here because this is my home,” Haam said. He underscores the significance of Frieze’s arrival by comparing the Seoul fair to the “Olympics of his generation” (the city hosted the international event in 1988). Capitalizing on new international interest in his program, Haam says he intends to open new spaces in Seoul, adding that an overseas location is “not out of the question,” as long as it serves its artists.
Not that making money isn’t a top priority yet. When asked what his end goal for the gallery is, he clearly states, “I want to be rich and my staff to be rich. I want to show great art and make a lot of money doing it.”
• Urs Fischer: Pink engine, Jason Haam, until October 18