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Jiyoung Koo


by Brook S. Mason
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Born in Korea, the private art dealer Jiyoung Koo immigrated to the United States at age nine and since then has shared her interests between Asian and contemporary art. Now she's made the leap from Sotheby's expert to specialist in placing art in high-end hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria Beijing.

How did you segue into luxury hotel projects?

I worked at Sotheby's for ten years, beginning in 1991, as a specialist in both Chinese and Korean art. In 2008, I was appointed managing director of Sotheby's Korea and moved to Seoul, commuting to the firm's New York headquarters. In 2001, I became a private dealer. 

Over the years I worked with everyone from design firms and private clients to museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I've always worked to place artworks in institutional and private collections, so the move to working with hotels was a natural progression.

What was your first hotel project? 

My first collaborative project was in 2006, when I worked with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill on the Lotte Hotel, which is located in the heart of Seoul. There I placed contemporary art and ceramics by Korean artists living in Korea as well as in the USA and Germany. We sourced innovative local textile designs and other accents, even right down to the flowers. That work led to various hotel projects in Asia, including the Lotte World Tower now under construction in Seoul, as well as Bahrain's Four Seasons Hotel, also under construction, and the James Hotel in Miami Beach.

What is your largest project to date?

My largest project to date is the Solair Wilshire in Los Angeles. There I placed 25 artworks, including photographs by the artist Sea Chang Chun.

Are you working with corporations? What artists do well in that context?

We placed contemporary art at the Hong Kong branch of the private equity firm KKR, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts. That was a dream scenario. In a boardroom where negotiating takes place, you don't necessarily want art that overwhelms and distracts from the business at hand. I turned to Korean photographer Bae Bien-U for a single image that measured more than eight feet in length.

We develop and print his photos at Grieger in Dusseldorf, the same studio used by Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth. I have placed work by textile artist Sheila Hicks from the Soho dealer Cristina Grajales. These projects take months, years sometimes, and require patience. It is very different than working with private collectors.

Is the use of contemporary art on the rise, compared to traditional art like period Korean ceramics?

Yes, generally speaking. Period art and reproductions may turn off the discerning traveler. To reinvigorate a dated look, choice contemporary art fits the bill. I have also noticed a related phenomenon. Collectors with classic antique-adorned primary residences in the Northeast have asked me to source and acquire only contemporary art for their second homes located in Florida, California or Colorado. 

Doesn't period art bring up condition issues?

An Edo Period Japanese gold foil screen or a fragile silver gelatin photograph should not be displayed in direct sunlight. But thanks to innovative printing techniques, contemporary photography works well in any number of locations year round. Among the photographers is the Korean-born, Canada-based Park Hongchun. I have absolute confidence that the images will remain in great condition for decades.

From which countries are you sourcing contemporary artists?

Primarily I've been using art from America, Korea and elsewhere in Asia. I work with the ceramic artist Lee In-chin, who is active in Korea, and the potter Song Taesik, whose studio is in New Jersey.

What else is on your project list?

Currently I'm working on the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Beijing, which is scheduled to open in late 2012 or early 2013. We're planning to commission two contemporary Korean artworks for its lobby. Park Jihyun is one of the artists.

BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times and other publications.