Art dealer matches clients, artworks - Korea Herald 7.5
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This is the tenth in a 10-part series on prominent art galleries in Korea. –Ed

Considering that art is a form of therapy, a therapist could not be a more perfect candidate for a switch to art dealing. Jang Dong-jo, founder and director of The Columns Gallery in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, is one.

He started his career as a therapist and counselor for psychiatric patients at Rockwell Continuing Treatment Center in Brooklyn in 1988 after studying special education and rehabilitation counseling at New York University graduate school.

“My father founded Chungryangni Mental Hospital and my brother is currently the director there. Our house used to be right next to the hospital, so my heart always went out to the patients in my youth. My original dream was to become a professional in social welfare and patient treatment who can help patients better adjust to the society,” said Jang.

But the concern for psychiatric patients was not the only influence from Jang‘s father. His father, also an art collector, often took him to museums and galleries and Jang developed a love for art. Jang naturally headed to galleries in New York too, whenever he had time.

“Seeing the cutting-edge contemporary arts there, I had the urge to study them more professionally. So I started taking fine art appraisal courses at NYU every evening after work and began my own collection with the money I earned through part time therapy works,” he said.

“I bought some prints by Andy Warhol and David Hockney and witnessed their prices double in less than six months! I sold them and bought more expensive works that I’d always wanted. Realizing that art also brings back money, my interest expanded to art dealing, auctions and art fairs. My hobby started to get professionalized.”

In 1994, the time was tough for the New York art scene but luck was on Jang‘s side. He found an empty gallery in SOHO which the former owner had left behind, right across the street from the gallery owned by the legendary American dealer Leo Castelli, and opened his own.

Yes, it was almost an impossible task for an Asian therapist, who had never stepped foot in New York before 1983 or specialized in arts, to begin an art business at that time. But the amazing network of artists, gallerists and collectors he built during his NYU and gallery hopping days was all he had and all he needed, it turned out.

“It is true that galleries are all about networks. I learned a lot about running art businesses from people I met at fine art appraisal courses and also at parties. They were interested in me because I was the only Asian in most gatherings and they seemed to be comfortable talking to me once they knew that I was not someone from their world but an innocent therapist simply interested in art. My counseling experiences as a therapist helped a lot in making discussions, too. I’m sure that only if this were not an interview, I could have you tell me everything about yourself in less than 30 minutes,” said Jang with a chuckle.

His first exhibition was on George Segal. He could not exhibit Segal’s new works because the artist was already contracted with a prominent gallery but a close collector lent him his collection of Segal’s old works.

The artist himself visited Jang’s gallery on the opening day, curious to see that a young Korean man is holding an exhibition with his old works. Words spread that Segal paid a personal visit there and Jang’s “InKhan Gallery” jumped to fame.

One successful exhibition led to many others, such as shows on Arman, with whom he became friends over a couple games of Baduk, Jesus Rafael Soto and Bill Thompson.

Despite the success, however, Jang decided to return to Korea in 1999, when Korea was suffering from a severe economic crisis.

“Something told me that it was time to go back and that it was then or never. It was a hard time but I thought that if I made it in New York, I could do it again in Korea,” said Jang.

Before opening The Columns Gallery in 2005, he tried out many things like Space Kitchen, a cultural complex he ran in Hannam-dong for a year in 1999, and the “Art Metro” project which he conducted for four years.

For the “Art Metro” project, Jang transformed two carriages of Subway Line No. 6 and No. 7 into a moving art museum with help from many young artists. The passenger occupancy rate shot up more than 25 percent during the project period.

Jang finally opened The Columns gallery in Cheongdam-dong in 2005. He had spent all his savings on the “Art Metro” project so he had to take out a loan. The Korean art market luckily boomed in 2006 and 2007, getting him ready for 2008 when the market practically collapsed.

“If there is a good time, there is a bad time. I don’t understand big galleries that are reluctant to hold exhibitions during bad times, afraid of small losses, although they probably earned a fortune during the boom days. Galleries are also meant to give back to society. I hired staff and held exhibitions every month despite losses in 2008,” said Jang.

The steady exhibitions attracted regular visitors and Jang’s gallery soon took root. Jang’s talent in expanding connections proved itself once again as some of Korea’s established artists like Chun Kwang-young contracted with The Columns, based on their acquaintance. The gallery moved to its current location in Sinsa-dong in April.

“I am not interested in buying big buildings, growing the gallery into a big enterprise or launching branches abroad. I am thankful that I have this great space to hold high-quality exhibitions and hope it can keep on going,” said Jang.

“I don’t sell works to anybody. I only sell them when I find a perfect owner for the works after I conduct long talks with the clients s to find out his or her character, aesthetic values and future plans. Without deep considerations like this, the artwork could lose its vitality like trees that cannot adjust to a new environment,” he added.

The gallery is currently holding an exhibition on Michael Wesely, a German photographer. For more information on the exhibition or on the gallery, call (02) 3442-6301 or visit www.columns.co.kr.



By Park Min-young  (claire@heraldm.com)
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