When Shin Gallery opened on New York’s Lower East Side in 2013, no one believed that its urbane proprietor, Hong Gyu Shin, was only 23 and still at college. Looking back, the South Korean-born art dealer and collector admits it was a risky venture. ‘I knew nothing about selling art,’ he says. ‘I didn’t even know that paintings were supposed to be hung at eye level.’
Seven years later, and the young entrepreneur has become an influential player on the art market, making headlines at auctions and regularly attending art fairs from New York to Miami.
He is the savviest of collectors, possessed of a talent for rediscovering artists who have long been forgotten, often because they are female or from an ethnic minority. More than 70 per cent of the artworks in his collection are by female artists; his Instagram feed includes posts about the self-taught African-American painter Purvis Young (1943-2010), the Polish feminist Natalia LL (b. 1937), and the Danish avant-garde sculptor Sonja Ferlov Mancoba (1911-1984).
In 2015, he opened an experimental project space that he described as a ‘curatorial playground’. In one exhibition, he transformed the space into a massage parlour and showcased work by Rudolf Schwarzkogler (1940-1969), a member of the 1960s Viennese Actionism group, and photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki (b. 1940). Entitled Salon de Mass-age, the project attracted people from across New York City, earning the young gallerist a reputation for exhibiting challenging work.
Much of Shin’s success is down to a formidable work ethic and a voracious desire to educate himself about art. ‘I research extensively and travel all over the world searching for artists who intrigue me,’ he says.
Shin enjoys the detective work and is currently excited by the Italian artist Carla Prina (1911-2008), who founded the Group of Abstractionists of Como in the 1930s. ‘She was friends with Lucio Fontana (1899-1968), and shared a studio with Joan Miró (1893-1983). Her career was largely forgotten because of her wealth and her gender. She paints these vibrant, organic floating forms that deserve to be better known.’
Shin also holds the largest collection of paintings by Gerda Wegener (1885-1940), the wife of the transgender artist Lili Elbe (1882-1931), who was the subject of the Oscar-nominated 2015 film, The Danish Girl. The collector considers her a pioneer. ‘She was such a remarkable and fearless woman,’ he says, ‘and it is wonderful that she is now gaining recognition.’
Over the past 17 years, Shin has built up an eclectic and extensive collection of museum-quality work. ‘I collect things that make me curious,’ he says. He owns an exquisitely beautiful scene of the Tokyo district of Nihonbashi by the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), and his Manhattan apartment is densely packed with paintings by Wegener and Prina, as well as works by contemporary artists Andreas Emenius (b. 1973) and Matthew Wong (1984-2019).
What makes Shin’s collection more surprising still is that he is not from an artistic background. ‘I was born in a small industrial town called Ulsan,’ he says. ‘My parents are self-made and they were dedicated to their business.’
He does, however, remember visiting the Sonje Museum of Contemporary Art in Gyeongju as a child. ‘It has closed now, but in the 1990s it staged exhibitions by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol.’
Shin was 13 when he bought his first artwork at auction, a woodblock print by the 19th-century Japanese painter Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861). ‘It made me want to learn everything about the artist,’ he recalls.
He then began collecting Post-Impressionist and Old Master paintings. After moving to the United States to study, he walked into a gallery in Chelsea by accident. ‘The atmosphere was unwelcoming and the art seemed overpriced. When I asked why a young artist’s work was more expensive than Toulouse-Lautrec, no one could give me an answer.’ He decided he could do better. ‘I knew I could create a strong and diverse gallery programme,’ he says.
Unsurprisingly, this restless energy and ambition has not been restrained by the lockdown. Shin plans to open multiple museums and education centres across the world where students can learn arts management. ‘We need to break down the barriers between the general public and the art market,’ he says. ‘It is still way too conservative.’
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For the time being, however, the dynamic jet-setter is content to be at home in Manhattan. ‘I’ve been working like a crazy person for the past few years,’ he says. ‘This is a very difficult time, but it’s given me an opportunity to stop and reflect on my goals. I’m excited to see what the future has in store.’