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[Art in City] Art Spaces(4) Gwangju’s Cultural Topography Meets Its Urban History

posted 11 Mar 2022

TheArtro has drawn up three feature articles on Korea’s rich cultural infrastructure to shed light on Korea’s changing art scene. A variety of attractive spaces, art galleries, and museums are scattered throughout Seoul and host diverse art events. Yet new exhibition venues and art projects are comparatively less known and the art content is mainly focused on the exhibitions of large-scale public or private art museums and international art events. Thus, to exemplify the growing diversity of Korea’s art scene, TheArtro presents three serialized articles under the select keywords “public art”, “space” and “artwork.” The first article, “Publict Art,” introduces public art around Korea. It covers public art projects aimed at creating cultural spaces in cities and a wide variety of public art that people can encounter in everyday life. The second article, “New Spaces,” features leading art sites in the nation’s major cities—Seoul, Busan, Daegu, and Gwangju—to highlight the many art spaces that have newly emerged or remain unknown. Finally, to shed light on diverse urban aspects, the third article, “Cities in Artworks,” examines the works of artists who explore the theme of “city.” Together, these three articles seek to promote not only the relatively unknown aspects of Korea to the world, but aim to also enhance the global recognition and understanding of the nation’s burgeoning art scene. These three articles can serve as a guide to Korea’s cultural attraction for art lovers and visual arts enthusiasts visiting Korea from all over the world.

The second article focuses on the leading Korean cities for art. In addition to well-known national, public, and private art museums, new exhibition spaces have emerged. The cities featured here—Seoul, Busan, Daegu, and Gwangju—offer diverse sights and host a variety of international art events including biennales and art fairs. These spaces reflect each metropolis’s unique culture, historical context and quirks of its location. This article features the spaces that illustrate the unique traits of each city’s art area, and the events and exhibitions held there.

Gwangju’s Cultural Topography Meets Its Urban History

There is a growing interest in today’s new cultural venues. Without mentioning specific regions, the increase in the quantity and quality of cultural spaces contributes not only to cultural enjoyment, but also to changing the local landscape. Cultural spaces, particularly arts and culture festivals, art museums, and galleries, have changed and continue to change the outskirts or marginalized areas of regions. In many regions, cultural venues are emerging spontaneously, creating harmony with the existing landscapes. This applies to Gwangju City as well.

Located in the southwestern part of Korea, Gwangju is undoubtedly the cultural capital of Korea. It is a city of art and artists, famous for Heo Baek-ryeon (pen name Uijae), who established the art scene in Namdo (the Jeolla-do region) while continuing the legacy of namjonghwa, and Namdo pansori master Lim Bang-ul. The city has been hosting the internationally renowned art festival Gwangju Biennale since 1995 and the Gwangju Design Biennale since 2005, serving as a stage or demonstrating the art trends of the times. Designated as a UNESCO Creative City of Media in 2014, Gwangju hosts an international forum related to media art and the Gwangju Media Art Festival every year. Not only is it a city of arts and culture, but it also holds a symbolic position in the modern history of Korea as the center of the democratization movement. Korea’s democracy is built upon the noble sacrifices of the May 18 Democratization Movement in 1980, making Gwangju a sacred place of Korea’s democracy as well as a human rights city.

제2회 광주비엔날레(1997) 전시 관람 대기줄, 이미지 광주광역시청 제공.

Gwangju Biennale(1997), ⓒGwangju Metropolitan City

Gwangju, a city founded on the history of democratization with long cultural tradition, is divided into five administrative districts (gu) and over 90 neighborhoods (dong) where small and large cultural spaces continuously emerge, firmly establishing the city as a cultural capital. Each district has its own cultural color. First, Buk-gu is where the public and national museums and art museums are centered, including Gwangju National Museum, Gwangju History & Folk Museum, Gwangju Museum of Art, Gwangju National Science Museum, and the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall. Dong-gu, a district with many complex cultural spaces, is home to Art Street in the old downtown area, arts and culture complexes such as the Asia Culture Center and Miro Center (operated by Dong-gu District Office), and private art museums located at the foot of Mudeungsan Mountain. In Nam-gu, more and more cultural spaces are opening up around its rich modern cultural heritage. Among them, Yangnim Art Museum, LEE LEE NAM Studio, Art Polygon, and 10yground are actively involved in the local scene. Seo-gu has a mix of commercial and public organizations, including City Hall, 5.18 Memorial Park, the Ha Jung-woong Museum of Art, and Kimdaejung Convention Center. In late starter Gwangsan-gu, cultural spaces based on education, industry, and community are emerging around Gwangju Songjeong Station. This includes “Culture Regeneration Site No. 1” Sochon Art Factory, the industrial complex that was transformed into a cultural space. Recently, a number of new private and public spaces that have settled down in Dong-gu and Nam-gu are initiating diverse cultural scenes. This change is adding delicate veins, or cultural rhizomes, to the existing large branches of the cultural topography of the city. It will be interesting to explore the cultural spaces of the five districts to get a clear view of this topography.

Buk-gu’s National and Public Art Museums: Where the Biennale Takes Place

광주시립미술관 리암 갈릭 워크 라이프 이펙트, 전시 전경, 2020

Liam Gillick, The Work Life Effect, 2020, ⓒGwangju Museum of Art 2020

Gwangju’s national and public museums and art museums are gathered in Buk-gu. The first museum to open in the Honam region in 1978, Gwangju National Museum first established itself with the discovery of the Sinan underwater cultural relics. It currently possesses over 130,000 cultural artifacts, some of which are designated as National Treasures and Treasures, and aims to become a foothold on the Asian Pottery Culture Silk Road. Founded in 1987, the Gwangju History & Folk Museum collects and exhibits disappearing folk materials to discover, preserve, and pass on folk culture and heritage. The Gwangju Biennale Foundation, which hosts one of the three major art biennales in the world, and the Biennale Exhibition Hall can also be found in the Jungoe Park Culture Belt. Sprawling over an area of more than 2,300,000 square meters, Jungoe Park includes attractions nestled in nature, hiking trails, and an art museum. The Gwangju Museum of Art, which opened in 1992 as a center of local art, was greatly assisted by the donation of 212 artworks by Ha Jung-woong, a second-generation Korean resident in Japan, prompted by his spirit of mécénat (patronage). His donation was made to further the development of the arts in his homeland. The museum played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Gwangju Biennale in 1995, and it has recently hosted exhibitions of Liam Gillick and the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, going beyond the region to become a global art museum.

Dong-gu’s Cultural Spaces: From Mudeungsan Mountain to Sacred Sites of 5.18 Democratization Movement

Traditionally, Dong-gu is the center of Gwangju, and it includes the area that stretches along Geumnamno Street and Chungjangro Street to Mudeungsan Mountain. With the Asia Culture Center (ACC) at the district’s core, plus Dong-gu Office, Jeonil Building, Art Street, and Mudeungsan Mountain, which joins from near Dongmyeong-dong, Dong-gu is home to various cultural spaces including private art museums. In 2015, the ACC opened in the site where former Jeollanam-do Provincial Office and Jeollanam-do Provincial Assembly Hall existed, creating a large cultural axis in the city. The largest arts and culture facility in Asia, it is an Asian cultural platform built upon Gwangju’s spirit of democracy, human rights, and peace. Its role is to produce and disseminate globally relevant artistic and cultural content based on the creativity and diversity of Asian culture, and the building was designed by US-based Korean architect Kyu Sung Woo. The main parts of the ACC—ACC Creation, ACC Theater, ACC Children, ACC Culture Exchange, and ACC Archive & Research—are located underground, where creative activities, exhibitions, performances, festivals, and other programs are shared with the public. The center’s ground level is a green zone that functions as a park for local residents.

동구청 미로센터

Miro Center

Before the ACC opened, galleries and art supply stores were located on Dong-gu’s Art Street, where many of Gwangju’s artists have developed and presented new artworks. The street is coming back to life with the recent opening of the Miro Center. A cultural complex affiliated with Dong-gu Office, the Miro Center opened in November 2019 as a “cultural power plant for local artists.” The space conveys the theme of culture X city X regeneration and is located in a remodeled four-story building. In addition to the renovated Mudeung Gallery, the facility has a gallery, theaters, a library, studios, multipurpose rooms, and an outdoor event area, all of which have contributed to the rejuvenation of Art Street. It aims to run projects to build networks based on local resources and international art exchange. An important aspect of the Miro Center, which is highly accessible thanks to its location in between business buildings on Art Street, is that it is the locals, not an institution, that hold the key to how it is run.

동구 인문학당

Dong-gu Humanities School

동구 인문학당 내부(다실)

Dong-gu Humanities School

One of Dong-gu’s neighborhoods is Dongmyeong-dong, where the atmosphere of modern history remains at Gwangju Jungang Library and Seoseok Elementary School, the first modern-style public school in the city. The residential buildings here are also still quaintly imbued with modern and contemporary history. The opening of the ACC brought shops and restaurants to the originally quiet neighborhood, merging residential and commercial zones. Near Jungang Library stands Kim Seong-chae Old House, an old hanok (Korean traditional house) that seems to have emerged through a rip in Korea’s modern history. A fascinating structure combining modern Western and Japanese architectural styles, it stood neglected before the Dong-gu district government decided to turn it into a cultural space. With the help of artists, the house was reborn as Dong-gu Humanities School, a space that preserves the memories of the original house. Artists specializing in painting, installation art, video art, handicrafts, and design contributed to the transformation of this old hanok with a beautiful garden into a humanities-based cultural space. The space is preparing to open to the public soon.

One sidewalk from Kim Seong-chae Old House to a nearby street of cafés in Dongmyeong-dong features a very special artwork. The 110-meter-long pedestrian-only street is decorated with I Love Street, a folly by Dutch architect Winy Mass, who designed Seoullo 7017. The artist worked with the students of Seoseok Elementary School to complete the artwork as one of the major projects of Gwangju Folly, an urban regeneration effort launched in 2011. Gwangju Folly’s projects are scattered around unexpected parts of the city, creating a cultural landscape to breathe diversity into the city. Made by international artists who work with solid concepts and sharp insights, the 31 artworks that have been installed so far can be seen in the everyday scenery: on sidewalks, on concrete, in the subway, and in public restrooms.


Uijae Museum of Korean Art

To the north of Dong-gu, at the foot of Mudeungsan Mountain, stands the Uijae Museum of Korean Art, which is dedicated to the life and art of Heo Baek-ryeon (pen name Uijae), Korea’s last successor of namjonghwa. A beautiful building with a simple exterior of exposed concrete and wood, the museum was recently renovated and reopened for its 20th anniversary. The residential area near Ullim-dong is home to the Woo Jaeghil Art Museum, which displays the world of artist Woo Jaeghil, who created his own path in Korea’s modern abstract art scene. The Mudeung Museum of Contemporary Art, whose current interest is not only modern art but also ecology and the environment, is located at the entrance to Mudeungsan Mountain. Dong-gu is also home to the Bium Museum, which recaptures the lifestyles of eras past through its collection of folk materials. There is also the Eunam Museum of Art, which hosts diverse exhibitions with the purpose of communicating culturally with the public.

Nam-gu’s Cultural Spaces: Keeping the Culture of Modern History Alive

Moving from Dong-gu’s cultural spaces (ACC, Art Street, and Dongmyeong-dong) toward Yangnim-dong in Nam-gu, what we first encounter is Penguin Village, located at the Yangnim Five-Way Intersection. Recently, 23 craft studios have opened in the village, creating and selling handicrafts and offering hands-on programs for visitors. About 100 years ago, Yangnim-dong became a gateway to Western civilization when Christian missionaries settled here. They founded a girls’ school and a hospital, giving the neighborhood the name “Western Village” during the era of Japanese occupation. There are six major churches in the area, and 65 percent of the residents are Christian. Derived from Gwangju Yangnim Church, which was built in 1904, the missionary culture and Christian tradition of Yangnim-dong is still alive today. The addition of artistic influence to Yangnim-dong’s traditional missionary culture has placed it in the spotlight again. There are several museums here, including the Yangnim Art Museum run by Nam-gu Office; the Leekangha Art Museum, where visitors can take a look at the life, artistic view, and works of late artist Lee Kang-ha by period; and the Hanheewon Museum, which displays the world of Gwangju-based artist Han Hee-won.

호랑가시나무 아트폴리곤

Horanggasinamu Art Polygon

Missionary Wilson’s House, where the Gwangju missionary group in Yangnim-dong was centered, and the traditions of the missionary culture that bloomed with horanggasinamu (Chinese holly or horned holly) in Yangnim-dong inspired the cultural space Horanggasinamu Art Polygon. It is located at the end of the Yangnim-dong Missionary Cemetery, which used to be a site for open-air cremation. Built upon a multilayered history—the site has been a battlefield for righteous anti-Japanese armies, a base for Christian missionary activity in the Korean Peninsula, and an important geopolitical and military site for the United States—Art Polygon remodeled a garage (built as part of a missionary’s residence and left empty for decades) into a multipurpose space for exhibitions, performances, and humanities lectures. It drew a lot of attention as one of the venues of the 2021 Gwangju Biennale. Operating alongside Art Polygon, Horanggasy Creative Studio allows creators of literature, fine art, music, film, media art, and work of other genres to meet and complete their work through its residency program. Given that the studio, the house of missionary Won Yohan (John T. Underwood), was built in 1950, most of the buildings in the area were built around the same time and bear evidence of gradual change over the years.

십년후 그라운드


The recently opened 10yground is a cultural space that allows the modern history of Yangnim-dong to live on. A travel lounge café and complex cultural space, 10yground aims to create “a meeting site for a better tomorrow.” It grafts the memories and historical value of Eunseong Kindergarten, which was built in 1975, onto a cultural space designed for the future. 10yground works on cultural planning and offers educational, communal, publishing, and other knowledge-based services; sells food and beverages for a progressive lifestyle; and organizes extensive arts and culture programs that enrich visitors’ life experiences. It has begun to realize what Salon De Yangnim used to do—organizing cultural events and working with local communities in the neighborhood—in a cultural complex. It was spotlighted in 2020 by hosting the Yangnim Alley Biennale with Art Polygon and Lee Lee Nam Studio, and again through the 2021 Korea Art Week. The Yangnim Alley Biennale was a special event that involved businesses in the area as well as the local community. Instead of being held in a single place, it displayed artworks in galleries, coffee shops, restaurants, and empty houses around the neighborhood; 10yground was at the center of these activities. It is remembered as an event that gathered artists, business owners, and local residents in a discussion, the voluntary commitment and community spirit of which culminated in a humble, yet inclusive cultural feast.

이이남 스튜디오

Lee Lee Nam Studio

Lee Lee Nam Studio, specializing in media art, opened in in the space of modern history in Yangnim-dong area in November 2020. Its concept is to be an open space for nature and art. Media artist Lee Lee Nam, who is active both in Korea and abroad, wanted to exhibit his works in one place and provide locals a chance to view art and enjoy some downtime. The entrance opens to a café that doubles as a lounge where locals and visitors can come and relax. Artworks by Lee and the studio’s archives are on floors one to three. It has become a popular spot in Yangnim-dong, especially thanks to the open design that naturally connects the café to the gallery and the indoors to the outdoors. The studio is built on the site of the house of Rev. Arnold Peterson, who, after witnessing the horrors of the May 18 Democratization Movement, recorded them in a journal and tried to inform the world of the truth. The house was later used by a pharmaceutical company as a warehouse, then remodeled into a cultural space by Lee. He removed all traces of the building’s life as a cramped warehouse, opening the ceilings and adding floor-to-ceiling windows to link each floor to the sky and maximize the natural light. With the sky view on the ceiling and the dynamic lights of media art filling the entire space, this cultural venue adds vibrant energy to Yangnim-dong’s quiet atmosphere.

Cultural Spaces in Seo-gu: Ha Jung-woong Museum of Art and Shinsegae Gallery


Ha Jung-woong Museum of Art

The major cultural spaces in Seo-gu, where 5.18 Memorial Park, Gwangju City Hall, and the Kimdaejung Convention Center are located, are the Ha Jung-woong Museum of Art (an annex of the Gwangju Museum of Art), Mugaksa Temple’s Lotus Gallery and other exhibition spaces in the temple, and Shinsegae Gallery. Despite being located in a Buddhist temple, Lotus Book Café and Lotus Gallery display fine artworks that bring in a large number of visitors. Meanwhile, Shinsegae Gallery contributes to the development of the local art scene from various angles. It cultivates and supports artists on an ongoing basis not only by hosting notable exhibitions, but also by holding the annual Shinsegae Art Competition.

The Ha Jung-woong Museum of Art is located in the former residence of the Jeollanam-do governor. As part of an initiative to turn government institutions into public parks, the residence, built in 1982, was first transformed into Sangnok Neighborhood Park and then to a forest cultural space. From September 2006 to August 2016, it was known as Gwangju Museum of Art—Sangrok Exhibition Hall. In March 2017, it reopened as the Ha Jung-woong Museum of Art, an annex of the Gwangju Museum of Art that honors the noble spirit of Ha Jung-woong (pen name Donggang), a Korean resident in Japan who has donated a total of 2,523 artworks over time to the city of Gwangju since 1993. The museum was established to make full use of the donation, which includes works by Lee Ufan, Chun Hwa-hwang, Quac Insik, Choi Seung-hee (pictured), Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol. Through the Ha Jung-woong Museum of Art, the Gwangju Museum of Art hopes to create meaningful values that connect the Ha Jung-woong collection, which can be summarized using the themes of diaspora, human rights, and peace, with Gwangju’s identity of democracy, human rights, and peace.

Sochon Art Factory in Gwangsan-gu


Sochon Art Factory

A cultural space that is a little different from others in Gwangju can be found in Gwangsan-gu. It is Sochon Art Factory, which began as a project for the “cultural regeneration of industrial complexes and abandoned facilities” in 2014. The project redesigned the former Sochon Agricultural Industrial Complex’s General Services Office and evacuation shelters, using containers that once formed the Asia Munhwamaru, a promotion hall of the ACC , giving birth to a new kind of cultural regeneration space. As an industrial site that was converted into an important space of arts and culture, Sochon Art Factory has been dubbed “Culture Regeneration Site No. 1.” With four exhibition halls and offering diverse content including performances and humanities programs, the facility aims to communicate with the public through culture.

Comparing the five districts of Gwangju, it is evident that Dong-gu and Nam-gu not only have the most cultural spaces, but they also have more facilities that have been completed or converted through remodeling. In other words, Gwangju’s new cultural venues all have distinct senses of place and identity, but they are similar in the way many choose to renew an existing space rather than building a new structure. Gung-dong’s Miro Center in Dong-gu, a humanities space in a historical house in Dongmyeong-dong, and Nam-gu’s Art Polygon, 10yground, and Lee Lee Nam Studio are new hot spots in Gwangju, but their operating agents include (though aren’t limited to) the local municipality and others who have been actively practicing in the cultural scene for decades. Aware of the roles of a cultural space in an urban ecosystem, they are creating sites where they can coexist with the community through culture.

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Park Namhee

art critic and professor of Graduate School of Hongik University

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