Alternative Art & Museum Culture in South Korea

A conversation with Min-Kyoung Kim, transcript by Pablo v. Frankenberg |

I can see a lot of different art movements at the moment in South Korea. It’s just my observation and it’s how I understand the situation right now. In South Korea, there are three different groups of museums. The first group consists of government-run contemporary art museums, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (NMCA), for example or other galleries funded by the government. Second, there are private museums funded by the rich people or corporates like Hyundai, Samsung or LG. The Samsung museum which is called Leeum has more precious and special exhibitions as well as national treasures than our National Museum. It’s ridiculous. And the third group is the very young, temporary, and very experimental spaces. It comprises alternative spaces run by sometimes artists, sometimes designers, sometimes just one person who is not very rich but very enthusiastic about art.

The conditions of government museums are very poor. And sadly, the mentality in South Korea lags when it comes to art appreciation. How the government institutions plan their art projects is very poor compared to Europe or America, for example. Even in the UK – I studied in London – the government spends a lot of money for art. But here, in South Korea, they build amazingly huge buildings but there are no funds left for acquisitions. There is no support for the work of curators or for research. It‘s not about the program, it‘s all about the building. However, they are completely empty inside. And on the other hand, people are not really interested; they don‘t appreciate it. Whereas the museums run by big companies introduce big international artists to the public. They choose to exhibit and buy the artists who are promising and to have an increase in value. So sometimes I think, is it really about art or is it more about money and marketing and business? Then again, we have very strong alternative spaces. It can be in a little restaurant or a bakery. In the last two or three years, a very strong scene developed and those places became art galleries to a certain extent, somehow like in Europe. They sell coffee but they also exhibit artworks from, for example, art students. They are breaking the boundary between famous artists and not even artists, just people from the neighborhood. They are very active and assertive and they are making art closer to our daily life.

Very recently, about a year ago, something happened in the South Korean art scene. Before I talk about that I might tell you a bit about South Korean culture. In Europe, when you are twenty-years old, your parents kick you out from home and you have to make your own living, sharing a flat with friends. In South Korea we do not move out until we get married. You are living with your parents even though you are 35 or 40. It‘s a bit funny, a different culture and mentality. But that really has been changed in the last years. The young people follow more the Western culture. They move out from their parents‘ house and live together. They are searching for spaces to live and to work like in a workshop, so that they can make some money. Sometimes it becomes very artistic. I can see nowadays a lot of private, very easy, friendly, and accessible workshops, sometimes only making this little thing, this little craft. And I think this movement provides a great public accessibility to art. Be it screen print, lithography, or book binding, you can now find very casual and yet professional workshops in those young creative spaces. Anyone can easily make their own prints, postcards, calendars, books etc. People are not only consumers and purchase the readymade products, but they can create their own product. I think this allows people to be artists. It makes them creative. It encourages people to be poets, too. Art comes closer to the public. This encourages independent markets as well.

When I look around here in Seoul, I see crazy new spaces every weekend. It is a really big movement. As an artist, we can apply for exhibitions there and we can get in touch with independent curators. It‘s very fresh and at the same time a bit amateur, but it can create a very nice effect in, let‘s say, the next decade. Normally, those spaces are very temporary. For example, and I need to see more of these spaces, but one gallery I really liked, they just closed last month. They only had a contract for two years with the landlord. That is the problem: even if they do a really great job for the public, just by themselves, and contribute to the artistic world, it‘s still a private initiative. They don‘t have support from any association or organization or government. Here in South Korea, the mentality is very unfamiliar with buying works of art. That is another reason why they cannot find a way to continue to operate these spaces. When I studied in London, there were people who actually bought and sold artworks. There is a market, even though not everybody is participating in this market. It is more established, like if you buy a new coat every winter. People are very familiar with artworks around their house– their bedroom, their bathroom.

Twenty or thirty years ago, South Korea was very poor and people were only busy to survive. I still cannot believe the development that took place here from the time I was in primary school until now, it’s amazing. Now, South Korean people are obsessed with having a house and a good car. This is a very basic level. Art is not really in their lives. I don‘t want to blame anyone, it‘s just our history. That is the reason why all these private alternative spaces happen: it is a complete lack in our culture. People were busy to make more money.Now, we all have enough money, but we are still poor in terms of appreciation of contemporary art.

These alternative spaces don‘t see themselves as galleries or museums. They just say “experimental space.” And it‘s always temporary. I don‘t know so much about the connection between alternative spaces and private museums, but now, at the moment, what happens at the NMCA, is that some of the alternative private spaces formed a bigger group and they are having a show at the museum. This government institution is opening a bit to the alternative art scene. However, the company museums are different. They are doing business and they are flourishing. And they understand art in terms of marketing and money. But it is changing. Some of them are supporting young artists with residencies or solo shows in their museums once a year. Not Samsung or Hyundai, but Kumho for example [the business conglomerate Kumho Asiana Group runs, amongst other, Kumho Museum of Art and Kumho Art Hall with several programs to support young artists and musicians and to enhance accessibility to contemporary art and classical music]. They provide money, space, living expenses and also the chance for artists to have their first solo show and go abroad. They also have a studio in New York to which they are sending young artists.

Regarding the curators of company museums as well as government museums, they are usually people who worked outside of Seoul beforehand, for example in London‘s Tate Modern. Aside from the international curators working for biennales and big art museums, the South Korean curators also all have a background working in Europe or New York or Chicago. Though whenever I visit the NMCA, I‘m really disappointed by the show and the curating rather than the art on display itself. I know amazing artists with great ideas and works, but when their works are shown in an exhibition it’s upsetting how they are curated. And then I look at the background of the curators: they have worked at New Museum of Contemporary Art, Guggenheim, Tate Modern, and I do not understand why they are making this such a bad exhibition. This is still something I do not understand about the South Korean art world. I can only speculate that either officials take over the job of curators or the curators do not have enough power. Sometimes I doubt that Korean curators have a fully free position to plan shows. South Korean society is made of a strong network. In South Korea who your parents are and which area you come from is very important –even though it is a very small country. What is also important is at which university you studied and who your professor was. These little things are actually the core that shapes this society. I would very carefully say that this is also valid for the art world. There is no official training program for curators so all goes by their experiences and careers. They might get silent pressure to only follow their bosses or superiors to have a future in the job. However, I am saying that only from the outside as an artist that has never actually worked as a curator.

With my background, if I want to apply for things, it‘s just wasting my time. It is all about connections. For most of the art residencies of the government for example I do not see any list of juries. I can only guess who is deciding on who is getting the residencies: some art critics, invited professors, a cohort of politicians? I just visited a few websites of those open calls and they do not mention who the jurors are. They do not want to open their door to the general public. The change in youth culture might have an effect on this. I cannot see this now, but maybe after a decade. It has just started. When I left South Korea seven years ago, it was a completely different world. What this art movement contributes to our society we might see only in ten years. Maybe the alternative scene will disappear or it becomes a main thing.

When I was in Athens in 2014, when they had the really big financial crisis, I went to visit my friend with whom I studied in London. What happened was that all the museums and galleries, private and governmental, shut down because they hadn‘t had funds anymore. What happened was that artists themselves started to make their own shows, opened their studios, doing one day shows. I visited so many different open studios in the short time I was there. There was no one left to support artists to show their work so they just opened their studios. I think in South Korea, this phenomenon is fired by the same motivation. To get into government exhibitions or galleries is too difficult–so we make the places for opportunities by ourselves.

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Min-Kyoung Kim is a Seoul-based South Korean artist. Coming back from a two months residency in Peru in the middle of the jungle, she is looking at the recent developments of the art world in South Korea with the distance of an intensive working period abroad.