Beyond Recurring Traumas and a New Scar: Notes on the Impoverished Public Art Infrastructure in Korea

Beyond Recurring Traumas and a New Scar: notes on the impoverished public art infrastructure in Korea
Heejin Kim bio

Kim Heejin calls for renewed attention to the importance of good infrastructure and art institutions in Korea.


Image: Arko Art Center of the Arts Council Korea.
Image: Arko Art Center of the Arts Council Korea.


After a series of unsuccessful policies and unpopular political campaigns since its inauguration in February 2008, president Lee Myung-bak’s neo-conservative Government finally uncovered its cultural policy seven months later. Unfortunately, however, it was not a cultural policy; it was just a series of hasty, crude actions.

The people of Korea had not anticipated something as official as public hearings or open discussions which, to be honest, are still only conventional administrative set-ups and political gestures in Korea. Despite the surface appearance of materialistic affluence and technology-driven daily lives, people still need to be educated about democracy and the need to fight for it in Korea. Foreigners may be surprised to learn that Korea only succeeded in electing a civilian president by direct democracy in 1992, after the four-decade long military dictatorship. Ordinary Korean civilians have only had passports issued and been free to travel since 1983, when the country was strategically equipping itself for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. So, who would expect so much from the conservative Government, whose first FTA policy stirred people’s wild protest from the outset? However, the people of Korea remained patient and waited for the new conservative Government to enrich and complement, instead of negate and erase, Korea's cultural inheritance from the 1990s.


Image: Insa Art Space, 2F Archive, before its move to Arko Art Center.
Image: Insa Art Space, 2F Archive, before its move to Arko Art Center.

For Koreans, the '90s are remembered for the rise of the public, the public as a collective entity of diverse social subjectivities. It was the moment when ordinary civilians finally began to be treated as a subject of sovereignty, no more a mere object. Regardless of the difference in one’s perspectives and analyses, Korea was agitated with diverse expectations and multiple suggestions. When president Kim Dae-joong declared “the sunshine policy” in 1994, the first formal open-up policy to North Korea, Koreans’ expectations reached a climax, not necessarily for the actual reunification of two Koreas, but more for a collective conviction that we were finally approaching an open society along with other countries. There had been the Minjung (People's Art) movement in the 1980s, the first democratic cultural movement in contemporary cultural politics, but because it was dealing with immediate socio-political local urgencies, it undeniably had a heavy bias towards didactic enlightenment and ideological authenticity. Not many key figures of the movement, including civilians, were ready for the next battle with an even more fearsome enemy – the market economy.

For this reason, the first two progressive governments of Korea played a losing game with the local traditional riches throughout the ’90s. The power of commercial galleries increased, overshadowing the de-colonizing cultural discourses of the ’80s. State and city art museums that had already been controlled by politics for too long remained silent and continued to serve the gallery scene where a strong historical connection between political power, academic authority and money has ruled since the colonial era. For those local artists who didn’t have such connections, it was a dead end. Ironically, a breakthrough coincided with the IMF crisis and national bankruptcy in 1999. Taking advantage of the domino effect of bankruptcy amongst commercial galleries, local artists and independent curators started to form humble, autonomous public platforms for emerging local artists, forgotten Korean masters and, most importantly, post-colonial art discourses. This is generally termed as the “alternative art scene” pioneered by Alternative Space Pool, Space LOOP, Project Space Sarubia, Ssamzie Space, and the belated, but the only one with secured governmental assets, Insa Art Space. The alternative art movement of the ’90s in Korea, therefore, can be described as the second wave of the democratic movement in local cultural politics, led by the post-’80s generation who created a practical form of intrusion into an infrastructure and system which was dominated by the mainstream art world. Naturally, Minjung Art, which is one of historical references for the alternative art scene, came to take a strong position in the Korean contemporary art scene in the early 2000s. There followed some internal debate on the question of institutionalization amongst the alternative art scene itself and this led to a profound re-examination of how to sustain opacity and autonomy of the cultural infrastructure within the context of local history, the market and globalization. It was at this point that the Lee Government started to take action.


Image: Lee Byung-ho, vacuum packed boy, 2003, featured in ‘City_net Asia 2009’, Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul.
Image: Lee Byung-ho, vacuum packed boy, 2003, featured in ‘City_net Asia 2009’, Seoul Museum of Art, Seoul.

In November 2008, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism ousted Kim Yun-su, President of the National Museum of Contemporary Art for his “improper” acquisitions process of the museum collection. The Ministry then fired Kim Jeong-heon, Chairman of the Arts Council of Korea (Arko), the national public federal foundation for cultural support, by questioning his responsibility for “inefficient” management of funds. Before treading rough-shod over these two giant public art institutions and sacking two historical gurus of the de-colonizing art movement of 1980s Korea, this new administration had already swept away the heads of the Korea Tourism Organization, the Korea Broadcast Advertising Corporation and Seoul Arts Centre. After a short pause in their ‘slash and burn’ policy, the Ministry then hit Korea’s National University of the Arts, established by a previous progressive President in 1992, by firing its dean, Hwang Ji-woo, a prominent contemporary poet and art critic. Even after firing its Chairman, the Ministry continued harsh political investigations into Arko for four months and pressed the organization either to close or to transform its smallest facility, Insa Art Space (IAS). Having investigated the multifaceted activities of IAS as an exhibition space, a production agent, a discursive site and R&D archive, auditors judged it to be simply “unprofitable”. Conservative art critics hailed the activities as “leftist” and “seriously deviating from a ‘right’ track of art by superimposing particular subjective curatorial views onto a public institution”.

I would rather not waste time and energy here defending the IAS against their shamefully narrow-minded assumption that anything discursive, participatory, interdisciplinary, collaborative, research-based and community-oriented is “leftist” and whether the global concerns about neo-liberalism, neo-imperialism, and nationalism are particularly “subjective political concerns”. Not all of the cultural producers in Korea agreed on the notions and values that the IAS had fostered. It is true that there were many arguments, criticisms and temporary cutbacks, but of more fundamental significance is the position IAS filled on the institutional map of the Korean contemporary art scene. IAS at least actively engaged itself in the task to mediate and compliment the important infrastructural roles and interests that were ignored or disregarded by state/city museums, private museums, alternative spaces, commercial galleries and art schools. It struggled to visualize the rise of multitudinous local creative subjectivities; make a balanced concern for locality and inter-regional interconnectivity; articulate the value of cultural producers’ immaterial labour and their creative capital as a way to encourage self-sustenance of artists in a new world order; provoke an urgent need to reform methods of cultural support corresponding to evolving modes of artwork conception and production; and, lastly, to stimulate the productivity of art institutions that are self-locked in political constraints and evasive self institutionalization. Regardless of its infrastructural significance, IAS was ordered by the Ministry to be transformed back to a neutral container of exhibitions selected from open-call competition and it was absorbed into its sister institution, the Arko Art Center (AAC). IAS’s periodical and other publications, after being evaluated as their “most unpleasant” activity, were cancelled; their “usable items” such as their contemporary art archive, their programme for emerging Korean artists, their international exchange programmes and video artwork distribution were absorbed by the AAC. IAS’s budget was significantly reduced and taken on by the AAC. The physical IAS building remained in the same location simply because the lease had not yet expired. When the lease term is over in February 2011, the premises of IAS will disappear.


Image: Opening Ceremony, ‘Beginning of New Era’ (22 October–6 December 2009), National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul. Courtesy of Yonhap News Agency and National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul.
Image: Opening Ceremony, ‘Beginning of New Era’ (22 October–6 December 2009), National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul. Courtesy of Yonhap News Agency and National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul.

The arts and cultural community in Korea began to rise up against the Government’s traumatic interference with ideological censorship and financial threat. As a belated justification for their actions, the Ministry suddenly spread, by word of mouth, a shallow and short-sighted guide to its cultural policy. By way of an excuse, the global economic crisis and commercial trends were used as a rationale for the reconfiguration of cultural institutions. Every cultural agency financed by the Government would be evaluated on their economical efficiency and restructured for maximum profit. Cultural ‘supporting’ agencies, in particular, should revert to their original role of neutral grant endower, instead of trying to be innovative initiatives, and any extension of granted endowment would only be considered if the project in question were deemed to be profitable. Grants would be evaluated on the project’s scale, number of beneficiaries, paid admissions, and frequency of media coverage. The major governmental incentives would be focused on “multidisciplinary performing arts”, because this is “the latest trend and blue chip” genre in the cultural industries, as far as the current Cultural Minister (who used to be a TV soap opera drama actor) is concerned.
The criteria for the organizational restructuring of public art institutions, that was so obviously being billed as ideological, is now suddenly being camouflaged as “business-minded management efficiency”. On the surface the rationale was based on economics, but the actual schemes were designed for a shift in political power. The mischievous double trick of using economical threat and ideological censorship has been repeatedly played by political powers in histories all over the world, but the recent unsophisticated, mindless, even non-productive schemes led by the current Lee Government in Korea so vividly remind us that Korea has reverted back to the 1970s era of totalitarian dictatorship, but this time armed only with money and no brains at all.

And, at the end of 2009, when several non-professional politicians have almost completed the ideological cleansing under a “no vision” cultural policy, what is left in this wasteland? The politics of traumatic antagonism and subsequent reactionist policy have distorted the autonomous historical unfolding of art and culture; sectarianism in art is intensified; any concerns about cultural policy, infrastructure of art and art institutions in Korea are branded as an attempt to politicize art; the rise of grassroots civil subjectivities in the history of the past ten years is negated and erased from the collective memory; state and city budgets find no place to go and are poured into numerous festivals, award winning competitions, constructions of artist residencies and performing art theatres (more accurately, exclusively for drama and musicals) instead of being “efficiently managed” – more than US$1,380,000 was spent on one single festival which ran for only sixteen days outside of Seoul; and the Seoul Art Space, the public foundation funded by the municipal Government of Seoul, runs an excessive seven artist residencies in the centre of Seoul. By contrast, the once proliferated discourses and experiments in the alternative art scene have dried up from the lack of funding.


The abrupt merging of IAS and AAC has turned out to be a critical blow to both institutions that were initially conceived for different missions and different target audiences. While the bigger body is at a loss with two strands of programming, the Government this time strangles the AAC with a threat that it can only survive if it transforms itself into a performing arts centre. After oppressive negotiations between Arko and the Government, AAC survived by accepting a humiliating condition that it would turn all exhibitions into open call competition from 2010. In the Government’s desire to centralize all cultural activities and produce a single centre for the Korean contemporary art scene, the National Museum of Contemporary Art is forced to produce special exhibitions after a very short period of preparation of only a few months. Amid the recurring traumas of political antagonism between left and right and a new scar made by unqualified business-friendly politicians, the art community of Korea is entrenched with the sense of rage, disappointment, anxiety, fear, uncertainty, exhaustion, despair, and helplessness. Some of the more quick-witted young cultural practitioners are busy adopting survival tactics.

An unfortunate drain on promising minds could happen and has happened for a long time in history. Perhaps this might be the best time for Korea to recognize the significance of infrastructure and good institutions in art. Discussions around the catastrophic changes to the infrastructure of public art institutions and a serious critique of art institutions and curatorship should take place; small yet specialized institutions should stimulate monster institutions; informal yet substantial networks among practitioners should be continued; intensity of public education programmes and staff training programmes shouldn’t be compromised; the quality of art shouldn’t be negotiated for the sake of admissions; art historians should bring their agendas up to date, to engage with issues of infrastructure, system and institutional criticism; local art press should also speak up; collectors and sponsors should consider the public aspect of their individual visions in relation to infrastructural growth; and curators should find alternative, non-governmental funding sources and use diverse international networks for leverage to sustain the autonomy of art from political interference. Otherwise who, other than arts professionals, should care about art?


This article is an updated version of my own writing ‘Unforgettable Setback by the No Name: Speculations on the IAS crisis’ that I contributed to Spaces of Art published by ARTSPACE, Sydney in November 2009. 

Heejin Kim is a former curator of Insa Art Space (IAS) and Arko Art Center (AAC) of the Arts Council Korea where she has favoured research-based, dialogical art practices of diverse forms that actively engage artists, local communities, and the public. Most recently, Kim curated ‘Unconquered: Critical Visions from South Korea’ at the Museo Tamayo Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City; ‘John Bock: 2 handbags in a pickle’ at IAS/AAC, Seoul; ‘Dongducheon : A Walk to Remember, A Walk to Envision’ at the New Museum, NY/IAS, Seoul. Kim has recently been appointed Director of Alternative Space Pool in Seoul.



KIM Heejin, 김희진

Tue, 1 Dec 2009
Art Writing East Asia Diaaalogue

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