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Lee Kun-hee Collection

Hong Ra-hee: Chief architect of Samsung Group’s art initiative

Apr 30, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

The late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee with his wife Hong Ra-hee
The late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee with his wife Hong Ra-hee

Samsung Group founder Lee Byung-chul was known to be one of the most avid collectors of Korean antiques.

Among his vast collection of priceless cultural treasures, Gold Crown and Ornaments from Goryeong -- South Korea’s 138th national treasure now owned by Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art -- is reported to have been the entrepreneur’s most loved item.

Gold Crown from Goryeong, a part of South Korea's 138th national treasure
Gold Crown from Goryeong, a part of South Korea's 138th national treasure

The founder’s adoration of antiques was handed down to his daughter-in-law, Hong Ra-hee.

Sources say that Lee Byung-chul trained Hong to develop a sharp artistic perspective to discern top-grade items from those in the second tier, by giving her a regular allowance to purchase antiques in the market.

Hong Ra-hee, the wife of Lee Byung-chul’s recently deceased third son Lee Kun-hee, is also an artist by training and by practice. She made an exhibit of tea tables at the country’s National Art Exhibition, and won awards while she was an undergraduate student at the Seoul National University’s College of Fine Arts.

While Hong’s sense of aesthetics was nurtured by her father-in-law, her husband is reported to have provided the financial support necessary to launch Samsung Group’s art initiative, which is now spearheaded by Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art.

“Art gallery representatives and art owners from all around the world started tapping Samsung after Leeum was created in 2004. Hong, the director of Leeum at the time, led the discovery and evaluation of the most valuable pieces of art for Samsung,” said an official in the art industry.

Hong is reported to have played a role in Samsung’s recent decision to donate some 23,000 pieces of art to the country’s public museums.

“We don’t want the news to spread regarding our art donation,” replied Hong in an interview with The Korea Economic Daily on Apr. 29 on Samsung Group’s art collections and its social contribution activities so far.  

Insiders note that the late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee was able to collect a vast collection of art from across cultures and time periods, largely because he had a different mindset on art from that of his father.

While Lee Byung-chul never paid more than what he thought the artwork was worth, it is reported that Lee Kun-hee never asked the price before purchasing if he saw value in the piece.

An example of Lee Kun-hee’s such generosity for top-class artists is his donation of 1,003 TVs to the video art pioneer Paik Nam-june in 1987 for his mass-scale project to celebrate the opening of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

In October 1988, Paik showcased the monumental media work -- The More, The Better -- using the Samsung-donated TVs.
 
The More, The Better by Paik Nam-june
The More, The Better by Paik Nam-june

LEEUM AT THE CORE OF SAMSUNG GROUP’S ART INITIATIVE

Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art takes its name from combining the Samsung family’s last name “Lee” and “museum.”

Designed by the world-renowned architects Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas, Leeum opened in 2004 and has been an indispensable bridge between contemporary art and the country’s wider public.

The Samsung Museum not only held private exhibitions of global art pioneers such as Matthew Barney, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, but also provided a springboard for South Korean artists to make overseas debuts.

For instance, the museum’s Art Spectrum project identified and supported next-generation artists, while its residence program in Paris and financial support for the Korean pavilion at the Venice Biennale are said to have greatly contributed to the overall growth of Korea’s art community.

Write to Shin-young Park at nyusos@hankyung.com

Daniel Cho edited this article.

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