Research Log | Observations on the Korean Art Scene in 2008

Indefinite Closing down of Art Spaces by the Samsung...
Adieu, Ssamzie!: The End of the Ssamzie Space Era...
The Political Interference in the Art Scene...
“Art Changes the World” or “The World Changes...

The Korean art scene was hectic and eventful in 2008. There were three international art biennales in Korea, namely Gwanju Biennale, Busan Biennale and Seoul Media Biennale. Under the direction of Okwui Enwezor, the 7th Gwanju Biennale eventually sailed through the scandal of Shin Jeong-ah, who was appointed as artistic co-director and later exposed as having long since fabricated her academic records...

On 8th October 2008, Nam June Paik Art Center launched its inaugural biennale-scale exhibition ‘Now Jump!’ with a budget of six million US dollars and support from the Gyeonggi Cultural Foundation as well as the Gyeonggi Province government. In the same month, Platform 2008 started its three-year exhibition in the Sagan-dong area, mainly located in the Artsonje Center and the building of the old Seoul Station.

Local art institute, the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), located in a city on the outskirts of Seoul called Gwacheon has been always an issue not just because of the quality of the exhibitions but also the accessibility of the museum. It now plans to establish an annex in the heart of Seoul next to the Kyungbok Palace. The new location is said to be significant to the Korean art scene because of its much better accessibility and it is expected to bring about a synergic effect for the people.
With regard to commercial galleries, Kim Daljin Art Research & Consulting announced their annual statistics of new galleries in Korea. According to the research, there has been a staggering increase in new galleries in recent years with an international and domestic boom in the art market. In 2007, 74 out of the 107 galleries set up nationwide were in Seoul. Although the economic downturn in the second half of 2008 struck almost every sector, including the arts, the number of new galleries in Seoul was on the rise with 93 out of the total 143 new gallery openings across the country. 

With that in mind you may think the Korean art scene was in an upbeat mood last year. Underneath the surface, however, the local art scene is currently filled with depression and confusion, with postponements or cancellations of exhibitions by internationally renowned artists, scandals affecting corporate support of the arts, political interference in government art institutions, dismissal of numerous employees from art spaces and galleries and plummeting sales at various art fairs.  

Indefinite Closing down of Art Spaces by the Samsung Foundation

The Samsung Foundation is currently showing a determination to suspend all the forthcoming exhibition projects at the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art and the Roding Gallery, after the rumour of the Samsung family’s back-door purchase of numerous private works of art with what is believed to be the family’s slush fund. Though the family was not found to be guilty due to insufficient evidence, Samsung sacked the director, Hong Ra Hee, stopped buying works of art for their collection and dismissed two thirds of its employees, including the chief curator. For local art lovers, it is a great loss to miss out on the opportunity of high-quality exhibitions such as ‘Art Spectrum’, which was going to be a long-term exhibition project for local young artists. Before closing down, the museum showed a Roy Lichtenstein retrospective exhibition. Thanks to the extensive press coverage the Korean public might now have some knowledge of the artist and his work, particularly Happy Tears (there were even parodies of Happy Tears by the local people!). Finally, the two exhibition spaces run by Samsung in the centre of Seoul are temporarily closed and have ceased displaying their permanent collection until further notice.  

Adieu, Ssamzie!: The End of the Ssamzie Space Era

On the evening of 23rd March 2009, Ssamzie Space was packed with visitors & artists photographing every corner of the gallery as if they were trying to document what might soon become their memories. That was the last week of the Ssamzie Space. The final open studio exhibition lasted for about a week before the official closing of the space, leaving behind an unforgettable ten-year history.

Founded as a non-profit alternative space by the Ssamzie Corporation in 1998, the relocation to its new premises, near to the Hongik University, offered a breakthrough for the space. As a complex of artist studios, exhibition space and a musical performance hall, Ssamzie Space was a hip and lively place filled with a vibrant and relaxed atmosphere. Over the last ten years, it became one of the most noteworthy places, along with other alternative spaces such as Pool, Loop and Sarubia. Out of all its programmes, the Ssamzie residency programme was the most popular with young artists, as many of them regarded the programme as the gateway to fame. Park Chan-Kyung, Chang Younghae, Ham Kyung Ah, Yoo Seoungho, Jung Yeondoo, Sasa[44] – you name it, almost all recently established artists have participated in the programme. For young Korean artists it meant more than just a free studio; it was also a pioneer of alternative spaces in Korea. In addition, Ssamzie was devoted to publishing documentation, archiving portfolios, organizing productive workshops and exchange exhibitions.

Unfortunately, the space cannot be sustained due to the Ssamzie Corporation’s financial situation. In the autumn of 2008 the director, Kim Hong-hee, sent out a mass email saying that Ssamzie should have suggested a new paradigm for an alternative space when many other public art institutes also began taking on the role of alternative spaces. In the same email, she also announced the closure of the space.

Like the Samsung spaces, Sungkok Art Museum’s financial scandal was also under investigation. Shin Jeong-ah, the curator of the museum, was being investigated for her corporate fundraising procedures.   

The Political Interference in the Art Scene 
1. The dismissal of heads from MOCA & Arts Council Korea

The field of art & culture is supposed to be the most liberal sector but, in reality, it has become a battlefield of politicians. 

Last November, the current ruling party led by Lee Myung Bak dismissed the directors of the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Arts Council Korea. The truth is that these two heads were appointed by the previous ruling party, now the opposition party, and during their designation they expressed political views against Lee‘s party. Instead of negotiating with its opponents, Lee’s party pointed an accusing finger at the two directors for minor faults. Firstly, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism dismissed the director of MOCA, Yoon-Soo Kim, for his illegal purchase of a work by Marcel Duchamp; one month later, the director of the Arts Council Korea, Beck Jee Sook (former director of Insa Art Space), was dismissed. Such incidences not only affected the normal operations of the two organizations’ well-planned exhibitions, but also the fact that politicians were starting to interfere in the art scene caused great concern for many local art lovers. 

Bae Soon-hoon, the ex-chairman of Daewoo Electronics and former Information Minister, was eventually appointed as the new director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art. He is the first chief of the state-run museum to have no background in art. The revamp of the Arko Arts Center and the Arts Council Korea continues, yet they are being run with rather aggressive policies. People are not surprised by such change and they expect the two institutions may still need to undergo a longer period of uncertainty and further change. 

2. Sudden downfall of Insa Art Space – the most exciting yet the least authoritative sector in the Arts Council Korea

Since 2000 Insa Art space (IAS) had been a subsidiary of the Arko Art Center. Although Arko Art Center is managed by the Arts Council Korea, ISA used to enjoy considerable autonomy in the running of the space and in their variety of programmes, ranging from development programmes for young emerging artists, international exhibitions and workshops, to projects closely tied to social issues. They also undertook long-term research and projects to support their exhibitions, for example the recent two-year project ‘Museum as Hub’ in collaboration with the New Museum of Art in New York.

Nevertheless, when the Arko Art Center and Arts Council Korea were under the ordeal of political investigation, the fate of IAS was like a candle in the wind. Not long ago, people who ratified ISA’s contribution to the art scene were well aware of the possibility of IAS being absorbed into the Arko Art Center, although they tried not to be too pessimistic until the last minute. Now all the former employees and the archive from IAS have been transferred to Arko, the mother organization, and the exciting and inspiring characteristics of ISA can no longer be found.

“Art Changes the World” or “The World Changes Art”?

The eventful year of 2008 was, for many people, a year to reflect on the relationship between art and institutionalization – what makes the art scene change is not necessarily the economic recession but the intervention of politics in Korean society. Kyoung-yun Ho, editor of Art in Culture, believes the Arts Council Korea’s strapline – “Art changes the world” is nonsense. To Kyoung-yun Ho, the present situation is exactly the other way around – “The world changes Art.” These days, whenever art lovers gather together, they either ask each other whether there are still any good exhibitions coming up, or exchange unofficial news about the unsettling art scene. When people in the art world have always wanted and tried very hard to interact with people and to make them understand, the recent unsettling readjustment of the scene becomes of public concern.   

This essay was written in early May and therefore it did not address the new movement-- ‘Free the Imagination’, a multi-lingual online petition started in early June to object to the new policies of Arts Council Korea.


Wed, 1 Jul 2009

Relevant content

AAA Project Space, Archiving Materials
Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Ideas is AAA's New Online Journal

Asia Art Archive publishes new essays, interviews, and curated journeys through the research collections

In light of the current COVID-19 situation, AAA Library will remain temporarily closed till 5 February.