By Lee Won Park
As the doors of the Andrew Bae Gallery opened, the crisp sound of bells disturbed the loud ambiance of the city outside.
Located in the busy gallery district on West Superior Street, this gallery carries a surprisingly comforting vibe. A soft, yet very pervasive scent of herbal tea whirled as the entrance door shut close. The light walls are pale, typical of art galleries but the room’s scattered oak pillars echo the look of a traditional Korean household.
“This gallery is 25 years exactly” said Andrew Bae, founder, owner and namesake of the Andrew Bae Gallery, gesturing fondly at the art work.
The gallery has established a reputation and works with artists and art buyers throughout the U.S., currently showing works by eight Asian artists.
“I have never met an artist before meeting their art work,” said Bae. “All of the eight artists that I showcase here, I’ve met their art before them. Their work drew me to seek the artist out.”
Bae went through a couple of careers before opening his gallery. Born in Korea, he moved to Michigan for college where he worked as a chemist until he decided that his true interests lay in “beautiful things and traveling.” He then quit his chemist job to travel around Europe and Asia, collecting and selling decorative crafts.
Why and how contemporary art captured his attention is something Bae cannot explain.
“I don’t have answers for many things,” said Bae, “Once I had that interest and curiosity, there was no going back. Moving to Chicago to collect and sell contemporary art became the next natural thing. It doesn’t pay a lot, but I never had the urge to change my career since.”
When he opened the gallery in 1990, Bae focused on prints. Soon, however, he expanded into art works of all genres.
The gallery’s eight artists work in a variety of materials, subject matter and media. When asked how he selects the art Bae simply laughs, “How do you choose your friends?”
Bae pursues art based on pure attraction. That is how he met Jungjin Lee’s art work, and then the artist herself. Born in Korea, the 53-year-old artist mixes old and new media—photographs printed on mulberry paper.
“I had encountered her art work repeatedly but never met her,” Bae said. “I finally decided to meet her in Korea. There, I finally saw her studio and where her art comes together.”
Watching Lee work heightened Bae’s appreciation for her art and the precision during its creation.
“I wrote her a ‘love letter’ on the plane-ride back to America,” he said. “And she agreed to exhibit her work here.”
In 2005 the gallery presented Lee’s work for the first time through a solo exhibition, Beyond Photography. On March 6 the gallery will show Lee’s project Unnamed Road. Unnamed Road is part of the project This Place, a collaborative photography project that explores the complexity of Israel and the West Bank. Lee was one of the select photographers to contribute to the portrayal of the region.
“It’s her most recent work,” said Bae. “She created it in 2011, but it’s still her most recent work,” testifying to the meticulousness of the artist and her work he fell in love with.
During the past 25 years, national art museums have exhibited artists Bae has featured in his gallery. But he makes no claims to promoting their careers. Tetsuya Noda, a printmaking artist that Bae featured from the opening of the gallery, received a retrospective show at the British Muesum last year. Also last year, mezzotint art works of Hamanishi Katsunori, another artist Bae has consistently presented, were shown at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I’m proud of my friends, and that their work is being recognized,” he said. “But my gallery and I had nothing to do with it.”
Although Bae doesn’t consider himself an art connoisseur, he has a philosophy on the value of art in everyday life.
“Many people think that art cannot be a part of daily life,” he said. “To them it is something high and lofty. But art is what is directly connected to daily life, just like religion is to some people. I’m not a religious man, but I enjoy the good art that I am surrounded with, and to me that is the religion of my life.”