There are many contemporary art collectors who specialize in a single medium or style or coterie of artists. Higgin Kim, the president of the Byucksan Engineering and Construction Company in South Korea, is not that kind of collector. “I don’t care about art stories and a scholastic approach,” he says in his sprawling office above Seoul’s Guro district, when asked to define his tastes. “I just want to enjoy my life.”
The 400 works spread across Byucksan’s headquarters in the Pan-Pacific Building suggest a man with boundless curiosity and a zest for new ideas. There is a Nam June Paik robot sculpture assembled from television monitors and other technological devices; an amber glass horse by Shin Sang-ho (next to a window, to catch the sunlight); an intricate spider’s web – like a tangle of ropes suspended in a box – by Tomás Saraceno. (“What the hell is that?” was Kim’s reaction when he saw the latter at Art Basel.) A hologram of James Turrell hangs behind his receptionist’s desk and behind his own. finds a Yoko Ono Plexiglas edition with a small text saying “I LOVE U”.
Wearing his signature bow tie with a beige suit, Kim, 76, looks like an erudite gentleman, even an Indiana Jones-esque adventurer. He is erudite and soft-spoken, which lends some intrigue to his talk of the hard-working construction industry. “People are really tough,” he says, “so I want to share art. Art works like a tenderizer. As classical music plays in the background, he jokes about some of Byucksan’s 1,200 employees discussing, with some exasperation, how he’s forcing the culture on them, with lectures and ‘points’ employees can spend to attend cultural events. “Once in a while we teach them about paintings and classical music and things like that,” he says.
There is a rich recent history of South Korean conglomerates spending heavily on art in Seoul as part of their philanthropic activities. Samsung has its Leeum and Ho-Am museums in the capital region, filled with ancient Korean materials and global contemporaries; beauty empire Amorepacific opened a David Chipperfield-designed headquarters and museum in 2017; the energy company ST International joined forces with Herzog & de Meuron for its own premises last year.
Kim took a different approach. The art is his, not Byucksan’s, and he decided not to make it a dedicated home. “I have already designed the museum twice. I have land to build a museum. But maintaining a museum is very expensive. Some who have gone down this path have had financial problems and had to offload art. “You can’t do that,” he said. “You have to learn from history and from other countries.”
Kim’s story spans post-World War II Korea. He was born in Seoul in January 1946, just months after the country’s liberation from Japan, and in 1948 his father started the company, before the family fled to Busan during the Korean War. They moved back to Seoul when Kim was 10; later he attended Miami University in Ohio. After compulsory military service, he worked for the family business and found his way to Saudi Arabia in 1973 for a dozen years. “There I made my first million dollars,” Kim says. “I was 31 years old. Nothing to spend it on. There was nothing there. He spent half his time working for arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi’s Triad International, dealing with Asian investment and trade affairs, he says.
Back in 1985 in Seoul and in the family business, Kim began amassing an art collection with his wife, Sohyung Lee Kim, although Khashoggi’s love of opulence doesn’t seem to have rubbed off on him. “Within the limits of the budget, you have to find the best,” he tells me. “That’s the principle of the collection.” They focused on contemporary art because the exorbitant prices of Impressionism and Modernism seemed beyond their reach. (“I could sell that,” 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 numbers over 1,000 works. While Kim is open to trade, he only sold once, when a relentless dealer convinced him to part ways with one Anselm Kiefer. By contrast, Kim sold a number of affiliates while struggling to stay afloat during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. “I was so stupid,” he says. “We knew it was coming. I did nothing about it. And I didn’t know what that meant. I thought it was someone else’s problem.
Even years after their purchase, many works continue to have a deep resonance for him. An early purchase, a Salvador Dalí print of the crucifixion, “never bores” Kim. (“I was born a Christian, I never missed Sundays,” he says.) After the death of his first wife, he began seeing his current wife, art dealer Ihn Yang Kim, there. is 12 years old, while serving on the steering committee of the Korea International Art Fair (which is taking place alongside Frieze Seoul next week). She sold him a James Casebere photograph and a Liam Gillick mural hanging in a conference room. “I was dating my wife, so I had to buy art from her gallery,” he says. “It has also helped our collections.”
When he’s not thinking about art, there are philanthropic and community projects to keep him busy. For example, he lends three rare instruments – two violins (including a 1683 Stradivarius) and a cello – to the Sejong Soloists ensemble in Manhattan. “I don’t have a talent for painting or playing other instruments or singing, but I really enjoy their profession,” he says, and supporting artists has its perks. “It’s fun talking to them. Today, it’s another way to meet young people.
Kim has given an art-buying budget to his son, who works in Byucksan, and his son’s wife, an artist, and their recent acquisitions include a radiant fruit still life by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans which hangs near elevators. “I try not to buy,” Kim says, a hint of mischief in her voice. “It’s difficult.”