People / Interview

Kang Seung-wan

posted 25 July 2012

Kang Seung-wan“On top of our existing audience base, our major concern is attracting a public that might not othemise be interested in contemporary art - or even those who don’t like contemporary art - to the museum. It’s our goal to help them view art in a way they can relate to by providing a place they can rest, enjoy excellent food, and experience cultural events. It’s not only about diversifying and upgrading our programs, but about getting people interested in the museum and contemporary art I think it’s all about becoming a friendly museum.”

Taeyoon Choi / artist
Kang Seung-wan / Director, National Museum of Art, Deoksugung / Head, Department of Development, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea After graduating with an undergraduate degree in painting from Hongik University, Kang earned a master’s in art history both at Hongik University and at Boston University. Later, she completed a Ph.D. in art history at Hongik University. Since 1990, she has worked for the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea (MOCA). She was the recipient of the Best Museum Professional Award (category of Young Museum Professionals, the Korean Museum Association) in 2008.
Kang has planned a number of important exhibitions, Louise Bourgeois: The Space of Memory (2000), Wolfgang Laib: Passageway-Overgoing (2003), Contemporary Art from Korea: Peppermint Candy (2007-08). Major papers of hers include “Modern Museums and Display” (2001), “A Study on How to Make Museum Organization More Professional,” and “A Thorough Observation of Organizational Changes at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea through the Years” (2007). After serving as the Head, Department of New Museum Planning & Construction,she is currently working as the Director of National Museum of Art, Deoksugung (while also serving as head of the Department of Development).

Becoming a Friendly Museum

On January 15, 2009, I made my way to the site of the Defense Security Command (Gimusa) even though I was sick. I was invited to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s New Year’s Greetings for Artists the day before. There had been a number of “theories” over what the site was going to be used for. As a writer for an arts magazine, there was nothing uncommon about my being invited to this event, but it was too big to miss just because I was feeling under the weather.

The event was very different from previous ones held at Deoksugung Palace Gallery, right from the rigid security check to people wearing black suits all over the place. As I was later told, the president was coming to the event. Attendees looked excited as they were greeting each other. I still remember their faces, all of whom seemed touched by the president’s announcement that the National Museum of Contemporary Art would be built here. Even I welcomed his decision with a shout of joy.

Three and a half years have passed since then. Today, the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul (or “UUL”) is preparing to open in late 2013. The renovation of existing buildings, exploration and preservation of cultural heritage sites around there, new construction, and creation of programs and operational plans for UUL are also taking place. At the center of all these efforts is Kang Seung-wan, Director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea. Until not too long ago, she was leading the construction of UUL as Head of the Department of New Museum Planning & Construction.

Recently, people overseas have been becoming more interested in Korean culture – and contemporary Korean art is no exception. Just as Koreans put famous museums on their “must-see” list when traveling overseas, foreign tourists are now showing a greater interest in contemporary Korean art. Despite this fact, foreign visitors seem inconvenienced that a “National” Museum of Art is located at the foot of a mountain in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, which is why it is nice we now have one in Seoul.

It is also encouraging because it offers a better chance for the general public to access contemporary art, which is thought to be “too difficult” for amateur art enthusiasts. Thus, it was interesting to hear about the process of how this all came about from Kang Seung-wan, who was more involved in the project than anyone else. I talked about past and future plans with Kang, who is now head of the Development Team.

“For the past several years, our biggest challenge was the construction of MOCA Seoul. Due to a lack of personnel, the Curatorial Department runs exhibitions at Desksugung and Gwacheon at the same time and I have worked as the Head of the Department of New Museum Planning & Construction while also holding the title of Director of the National Museum of Art, Deoksugung. It’s not common for a curator to lead a new museum construction project, but the decision was made to apply the operational direction and principles of the museum in a consistent way throughout the construction process. For the two years and three months I spent as the Head of the Department of New Museum Planning & Construction, between February 2010 and May 2012, there was a new challenge at every turn. I enjoyed it, but it was stressful.”

Kang has worked for more than two decades at the National Museum of Art, ever since she started there as a curator in 1990. There was a time, however, when she was an aspiring painter herself after majoring in Western painting at Hongik University.

“As a child, I won numerous awards at art competitions. People say I was talented, but I didn’t think too much about that until I began studying painting at Hongik University. It was in my third year when I started to wonder if that was really what I wanted to do. I was interested in art theory and eventually majored in art history at graduate school. I was preparing my dissertation after completing my course work when MOCA began hiring curators. That’s when I applied. I don’t think that painting, theory, and planning are mutually exclusive. Having experience in these different areas certainly helps.”

Her abundant experience in the field of art and long career surely helped her to serve as the Head of the Department of New Museum Planning & Construction. Yet there were some interesting twists behind the construction process, which started with the president’s announcement in January 2009.

“After the announcement on January 15, 2009, the master plan to construct a museum on a site that included a military hospital was finally confirmed in December 2009. The winning design for the new structure was selected in August 2010. This was only after 113 groups competed in November 2009 and a design competition was held among the final five groups. The winner was the mp_art/SIAPLAN consortium (Lead Architect: Professor Min Hyun-jun, Hongik University). This was the first step in construction. Space Program which the UUL design competition was based on, was established in May 2010 and contained details about every stage of work, from the planning to the basic design to implementation of the design. This whole process took place between the selection of the winning design and August 2011.”

“In addition to the Space Program, an Operational Program was established at the Museum around the UUL team. The result was a ‘Master Plan for the Operation of UUL (draft)’, which included details about exhibitions, education, promotion, marketing, materials, and facilities, as well as a blueprint for the overall operation of the museum. This was released in March 2012. Exploration of cultural assets was conducted for two years, from September 2009 to August 2011, as was a series of deliberations. There was a Cultural Properties Committee deliberation, another for changes in the area surrounding Gyeongbok Palace, a deliberation for construction approval from Jongno-gu, and a traffic-related deliberation. All of this was completed in April 2011. In July, engineers got to work and the actual construction started in December 2011. As of June 2012, approximately one-third of the work had been completed. The museum is scheduled to be completed in February next year and opened in late 2013.”

“So many things have happened along the way, part of which has to do with the history and politics surrounding the site. The site used to house important offices during the Joseon era, such as Gyujanggak, Saganwon, and Jongchinbu. In the 20th century, Japanese colonialists demolished all these buildings except two of the Jongchinbu structures in an attempt to delegitimize the Joseon dynasty. Later, a modern hospital was built to be used as the Kyungsung Medical College Hospital (former Seoul National University College of Medicine). It was used as Seoul National University’s teaching hospital after liberation and transferred to the Ministry of Defense in the 1970s, at which time it was used as the Defense Security Command.”

“During the exploration study of the museum site, which started in March 2010, the infrastructure of two Jongchinbu buildings, which had been moved to nearby Jeongdok Library to make tennis courts in 1981, was found to still be intact. A decision was then made to restore Jongchinbu where it used to stand. This dramatically changed the draft design of the large underground exhibition hall in the Jongchinbu buildings.”

“In addition, the former Defense Security Command building, which was moved to Gwacheon and designated a registered cultural asset in 2008, was in the process of being restored with a design capturing its original construction style that used red bricks like they did in the early 1930s. The public has been denied access to the military site for more than half a century, but now the building is being transformed into a cultural venue. It’s a very encouraging, epoch-making event.”

As she says, UUL (National Art Museum, Seoul) is located in the heart of Seoul and will house a treasure trove of contemporary Korean art. No doubt, its construction should be an encouraging event for art professionals and art enthusiasts. However, its location is just the beginning. Shouldn’t it be more important, for example, to have a set direction for where it wishes to go and the best art possible?

“To be sure, its location is great (laughs). After all, it is in Sogyeok-dong, the center of Jong-ro. Surrounded by cultural heritage sites, palaces, museums, and galleries, it’s a link between the past, present, and future of Korea. A group of buildings that range from Joseon era Jongchinbu structures to the former Defense Security Command to modern buildings all communicate with the surrounding area. Seven buildings are grouped together in a small space based on the concept of openness, shapelessness, and an archipelago-like form.”

“UUL consists of three floors and three underground floors with an area of 27,264 ㎡ and a total floor space of 52,101㎡ (without the parking lot 37,464 ㎡). The space is divided by function, including exhibition halls, a theatre, a multi-purpose hall, a materials center, seminar rooms, lecture rooms, workshop galleries, a gift shop, art book store, restaurant, cafeteria, membership lounge, family lounge, and press room.”

“Compared to Gwacheon Museum, UUL is equipped with greater cultural and educational spaces and a number of amenities, allowing it to serve as a real cultural complex in the center of the city. It will appeal to people with its indoor and outdoor exhibits and exhibition hall.”

“UUL is scheduled to open in October 2013. Located in the heart of Seoul and surrounded by tourist attractions, it hopes to draw the attention of both local and foreign visitors. With easy access from anywhere in the city, it’s not a stretch to say some people will be visiting the museum upwards of 10 times a year.”

“We are also thinking about switching up when we open and close. For instance, we might stay open later into the night for the sake of accommodating people’s different work patterns and lifestyles. We are also organizing a wide range of exhibitions, from traditional to experimental, to highlight a variety of contemporary art, as well as customized educational and cultural programs to meet the different needs of target visitors.”

With the addition of UUL, MOCA will be operating three museums, including ones in Gwacheon and Deoksu Palace. While it is Korea’s only national museum of contemporary art, its importance seems to be growing. When UUL opens, will MOCA need to coordinate certain roles? Do you have any plans to deal with this?

“We need continuous discussion inside and outside the museum on this. What we have agreed on at the moment is that Gwacheon, which has outdoor exhibition space and lots of storage space, will house museum collections, store and preserve art pieces, and serve as an art material and research center. UUL, on the other hand, with its convenient location and large number of expected visitors, will embrace future-oriented contemporary art, hold both special exhibitions and museum collection exhibitions, and be a public education center and cultural complex.”

“Deoksugung Museum doesn’t have as much space, so will be a venue to display modern Korean art through collections and specially planned exhibitions. Gwacheon’s art material and research center will operate around specialists, while UUL will serve as a materials center for the public focusing on creation and the utilization of digital content. At the same time, Gwacheon will concentrate on creative experiences for families. UUL will promote new media and government-academy collaborative programs, and Deoksugung will offer education and research programs on modern art history.”

There is now another tougher challenge awaiting Kang. After being appointed the head of the Development Department, she will have to increase the number of visitors and overseas tourists to the museum. What kind of projects does she have in mind?

“The Development Department was established in 2010 in preparation for the coming changes with the museum’s organization (incorporation). Its responsibilities include creating mid- and long-term development plans for the museum, dealing with international exchanges, promotion and marketing, and the computerization of data. In addition, developing a new audience base has been a major concern since I took over preparations for the construction of UUL and this needs to be implemented into a real project for the Development Department.”

“Our goal is attracting people who might not ordinarily be interested in contemporary art – perhaps even those who dislike contemporary art – to the museum on top of our existing audience base. It’s our goal to help them experience art by providing a place they can relax, eat and take part in cultural events. It’s not just about the direct means of dealing with art, such as the diversification and upgrade of our programs. Finally, we want people to become interested in the museum and contemporary art as a whole. If this is UUL’s strategy, Gwacheon needs a different approach to increase its audience base, one strategy of which may be utilizing its surrounding natural environment.”

“I’m currently looking over programs that include an outdoor festival and a movie contest. All the programs involve audience members as participants. This year, these programs will be held as pilot programs. The outdoor festival plans to be an annual summer festival, lasting about a month and including outdoor events every weekend in Gwacheon based on the concept involving a museum with movies, sound, food, well-being, and rest. The movie contest will offer the public a chance to participate in creative activities by presenting video work related to museum programs. The results will be shown through diverse channels like exhibitions and social networking, allowing for the more active participation of visitors.”

“The first step to attract overseas tourists to the museum is to become a friendly museum. People enjoy going to museums overseas, right? The first thing is to provide convenient facilities. We need to create and expand multi-purpose spaces such as information, education, rest, and sales areas to enhance customer convenience. At present, we’re developing an integrated logo for the three museums and a CI including signs, pictograms, and a unified color system.”

“Ultimately, how we run these places is what matters most. We need to strengthen customer service and assign people to work exclusively with foreign visitors. Of course, the museum needs to offer a wide range of useful programs, whether cultural or educational exhibitions. For short-term visitors from other countries, different programs will have to be developed in connection with existing museum programs.”

“For instance, we want to create a package program that incorporates a traditional cultural experience related to cultural assets, historic places and the hanok village near UUL with contemporary art. We’re also promoting more using new media like the Internet, SNS, and QR codes. We also have a website, we’re on Facebook, and offer a section of our monthly webzine in English.”

Many curators dream of curating the Venice Biennale. After the interview, I was suddenly curious about Gioni’s next steps. Gioni playfully said that he was able to curate both Gwangju and Venice thanks to Kassel Documenta not appointing him as the director in 2012. After Venice, he said, he will focus again on writing and curating for the New Musum Collection - an understatement and not exactly the answer one was expecting.

As we talked more, I was able to realize how much experience and knowledge Kang had about MOCA. She is a curator after all. So what, then, does exhibition planning mean to her?

“The allure of planning is to meet each new challenge and meet new people – both artists and the visitors – and get to know them better. What matters to me most about exhibitions is the notion of communication. It means a lot to me to communicate with art works, artists, and visitors. Exhibitions are where I learn something I didn’t know before, and it’s extremely valuable to share this experience with artists and museum visitors. It’s my sincere hope that planning exhibitions will allow me to help visitors – and myself – extend this experience out into the world.”

Before working on building UUL, Kang presented numerous exhibitions at MOCA. What kind of exhibitions was she working on in the past?

Louise Bourgeois: The Space of Memory (2000) and Wolfgang Laib: Passageway-Overgoin (2003) were two memorable exhibitions, as my interest in the artists led to the exploration of their works. I had a lot of fun preparing for those exhibitions.”

“I’ve also planned several exhibitions to introduce Korean art in foreign countries, including A Second Talk: Contemporary Art from Korea and Japan (2002, National Museum of Art, Osaka, Japan), LEANING FORWARD, LOOKING BACK: EIGHT CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS FROM KOREA (2003, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco). Contemporary Art from Korea: Peppermint Candy (2007-2008, Museo de Art Contemporáneo, Santiago, Chile , Museo de Art Contemporáneo, Santiago, Chile).”

“That last exhibition was acclaimed as ‘Totally new and shocking Korean art’ and selected as the ‘Best Exhibition of the Year’ by La Segunda, a Chilean paper. I spent time on planning and promoting related events and publications as well as the exhibition. It was an unforgettable experience.”

It would seem interesting things never cease happening to Kang. Is there anything else she dreams of accomplishing despite her hectic life?

“Instead of making detailed plans, I think I’m going to find something interesting that I can concentrate on while working for the MOCA. A few days ago I created a bucket list at the request of someone in the media, though it ultimately wasn’t published. Here are some of the things on the list:”

“Rent a house overlooking the Mediterranean Sea for a year (maybe longer), get together with friends I haven’t seen for a long time, appear in a movie, learn how to cook, grow wild flowers, and raise horses. I think I can make some of these things come true, right?”

Yu Tonghyun / Art Columnist

Yu Tonghyun graduated from the Department of Archaeology and Art History at Seoul National University. For around ten years, he was a reporter for the art journals Art in Culture and Monthly Art. He is currently working as an art columnist. His books include Indiana Jones and Archaeology and Fiddle Fiddle: Taking Pictures with a DSLR Camera. He has also co-authored Magical Mystery Tour and A Guide to Art Walks in Seoul. He was co-translator of the Korean version of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Archaeology. He also co-planned the exhibitions Sculpture Spoken Here and Retro, and staged the solo exhibition Art Journalist Y's Hard Deadlines.

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