There are many contemporary art collectors who specialize in just one medium or style or clique of artists. Higgin Kim, the chairman of Byucksan Engineering and Construction Company in South Korea, is not such a collector. “I’m not interested in art history and a scholastic approach,” he says in his spacious office high above Seoul’s Guro district, when asked to define his tastes. “I just want to enjoy my life.”
The 400 works scattered throughout Byucksan’s Pan-Pacific headquarters suggest a man of boundless curiosity and a thirst for new ideas. There is a robotic sculpture by Nam June Paik composed of television monitors and other technological devices; an amber glass horse by Shin Sang-ho (next to a window to catch sunlight); an intricate spider web – like a tangle of rope suspended in a box – by Tomás Saraceno. (“What the hell is that?” was Kim’s reaction when he saw the latter at Art Basel.) Behind his reception desk hangs a hologram of James Turrell and behind his is a plexiglass edition of Yoko Ono with a small caption, “I LOVE U.”
Kim, 76, wears his signature bow tie with a brown suit and looks like a gentleman scholar or maybe even an Indiana Jones-esque adventurer. He is erudite and soft-spoken, which lends his lecture on the cutthroat construction industry a certain allure. “People are really rough,” he says, “so I want to share artwork. The art works like a tenderizer.” With classical music playing in the background, he jokes about some of Byucksan’s 1,200 employees discussing, with a certain desperation, how he’s pushing the culture on them, with lectures and “points” that the employees can spend on visiting cultural events. “Sometimes we teach them about painting and classical music and things like that,” he says.
There is a rich recent history of South Korean conglomerates spending heavily on arts in Seoul as part of their philanthropic activities. Samsung has its Leeum and Ho-Am museums in the capital region filled with ancient Korean and global contemporary material; beauty empire Amorepacific opened a David Chipperfield-designed headquarters and museum in 2017; The energy company ST International decided last year to have its own place with Herzog & de Meuron.
Kim took a different path. The art is entirely his own, not Byucksan’s, and he has opted against building it a home of his own. “I have already designed the museum twice. I have a piece of land to build a museum. But running a museum is very expensive.” Some who have taken this route have had financial problems and had to sell art. “It doesn’t work,” he says. “You have to learn from history and from other countries.”
Kim’s own story spans Korea after World War II. Born in Seoul in January 1946, just months after the country’s liberation from Japan, his father founded the company in 1948 before the family fled to Busan during the Korean War. They returned to Seoul when Kim was 10 years old; later he attended Miami University in Ohio. After military service, he worked for the family business and found his way to Saudi Arabia in 1973 for around a dozen years. “That’s where I made my first million dollars,” says Kim. “I was 31. Nothing to spend it on. There was nothing there.” He said half of his time there was working for arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi’s Triad International, running Asia’s investment and trade business, he says.
Returning to Seoul and the family business in 1985, Kim began building an art collection with his wife Sohyung Lee Kim, though Khashoggi’s love of opulence doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on him. “Within budget, you have to find the best,” he tells me. “That’s the principle of the collection.” They focused on contemporary art because the sky-high prices of Impressionism and Modernism seemed out of their reach. (“I could sell this,” he says, pointing to the art on the walls, “and buy a piece.”)
His approach was to buy one or two pieces a month, and the collection now totals more than 1,000 works. While open to bartering, Kim has only sold once when a relentless dealer convinced him to part ways with an Anselm Kiefer. In contrast, Kim sold a number of subsidiaries while struggling to stay afloat in the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. “I was so stupid,” he says. “We knew it was coming. I haven’t done anything about it. And I didn’t know what it meant. I thought it was someone else’s problem.”
Many works still have a deep resonance for him years after their purchase. An early purchase, a print of Salvador Dalí’s Crucifixion, never “bores” Kim. (“I was born a Christian and I never missed Sunday,” he says.) After his first wife died, he began dating his now-wife, the art dealer Ihn Yang Kim, 12 years ago while he was on the steering committee of the Korea was International Art Fair (which runs parallel to Frieze Seoul next week). She sold him a photograph of James Casebere and a mural by Liam Gillick hanging in a conference room. “I was with my wife, so I had to buy some artwork from her gallery,” he says. “It has also helped our collections.”
When he’s not thinking about art, there are philanthropic and community projects that keep him busy. For example, he lends three rare instruments—two violins (one a 1683 Stradivarius) and a cello—to Manhattan’s Sejong Soloists Ensemble. “I don’t have talent for painting, playing different instruments or singing, but I really appreciate their professions,” he says, and supporting artists has advantages. “It’s fun to talk to them. Now it’s a different way of meeting young people.”
Kim has provided a budget for his son, who works at Byucksan, and his son’s wife, an artist, to buy art. “I try not to buy anything,” Kim says with a hint of mischievousness in her voice. “It’s tough.”