With the closing of the year 2020, the Artro presents special features to re-examine the various issues that have appeared in the Korean contemporary art scene over the past ten years from 2010. The first article “Expansion of Korean Art Spaces in the 2010s” by Jihong Baek explores the topography of the Korean art spaces that have been expanded for the past ten years. In this essay, the creation and expansion of the various spaces, from national & public museums and private museums to new art spaces, are examined. With this article we hope to have an opportunity to envision the upcoming ten years of Korean art especially in this time of uncertainty
When asked to write about the expansion of Korean art spaces in the 2010s, I initially thought about three categories: national & public, private, and new. Because each space displays vast differences in its character, orientation, and the way it progressed, the three categories can function as three perspectives from which to view the art scene in Korea.
National & Public Art Museums
I would like to start with national and public art museums that boast of huge size. As the name national or public hints, they have the most influence on the art scene because these museums influence much on policy-making or system-building. Also, they are the first places where these policies or systems are implemented. The artist’s fee, one of the most critical issues in the Korean art scene in the 2010s, was contested among those who criticized that exhibitions at national and public art museums do not generate income for the artists. As a result, national and public museums were the first place that the artist's fee was made mandatory in law.
In the 2010s, national and public art museums expanded considerably. This growth happened because both the conservative and progressive regimes promoted the expansion of cultural spaces, including art museums. The trend continues to this day.
It is not difficult to ascertain the impact of the establishment of a new national or public institution. Daegu Art Museum, which opened in 2011, had 330,000 visitors to the exhibition of 《KUSAMA YAYOI, A Dream I Dreamed》 (January 6~November 3) held in 2013, establishing itself as the regional base for art. The Museum of Contemporary Art Busan, despite its location in the outskirts of the central city, expanded the presence of the art scene of the city Busan, the second largest city in Korea with its two major exhibitions, 《Busan Biennial》 (2018) and 《Random International: Out of Control》 (August 15 2019~ January 27 2020). TheCheongju Museum of Art, opened in 2016, revitalized art in Cheongju, which has been recognized as one of the mega cities with a population of 800,000, along with the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Cheongju, opened in 2018, and Cheongju Cultural Industry Promotion Foundation, opened in 2019.
This phenomenon, from another perspective, implies that the art activities in a region with sufficient population and artists cannot be recognized until a public institution serves as their center. This is the reason that a new art museum is required in areas where there is no public art museum yet. The expansion of national and public art museums, including the establishment of the Ulsan Museum of Art, scheduled to open at the end of the year 2021, and the Chungnam Museum of Art, which is in progress with a goal of opening in 2024, is expected to continue in the 2020s.
In the 2010s, the one and only national museum of Korea, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea has experienced large-scale expansion with its new branches in Seoul and Cheongju. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea in Seoul, opened in 2013, has solved the problem of visitors’ accessibility that has been criticized since the opening of the National Museum in Gwacheon. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Cheongju, opened in 2018, has specialized in art storage and conservation. The newest facilities and various exhibitions attracted visitors. MMCA Hyundai Motor Series, which offers a stage for famous middle-aged artists such as Lee Bul,Ahn Kyuchul, Kimsooja, IM Heung-soon, Choi Jeong-hwa, Park Chan-kyong, and Haegue Yang became a representative exhibition of the museum. The Asia Project focused on Asian contemporary art, held twice in 2018 and 2020, connected the artists working in various regions. Also, Multi-Arts Project and other programs that have maximized the museum’s film facilities contributed to promoting diversity in these contemporary art museums.
TheSeoul Museum of Art, located in the capital, has also continued to expand. The Seoul Museum of Art, opened in the base in Seosomun, has expanded with the Nam-Seoul Museum of Art in 2004 and SeMA Nanji Residency in 2006. With the opening of Buk-Seoul Museum of Art in 2013, Seoul Museum of Art now have three branches. Also, the SeMA Storage (2016), Nam June Paik Memorial House (2017), and the SeMA Bunker (2018) were additionally established. Moreover, the preliminary discussion for opening archive-specialized space and photography museum has been going on from the 2010s. In this sense, a total expansion of the museum has begun. Moreover, the Seoul Museum of Art, through its program supporting emerging artists, sponsored young artist’s endeavors by funding their exhibitions outside the museum. It is not an overstatement to say that the Seoul Museum of Art in the 2010s had influence on the overall art scene in Seoul.
The contents of the exhibitions reinforced the pivotal issues of the era. 《SeMA Green Kim Ku-lim: Like You Know It All》 (July 16~October 13 2013) started the re-examination of the Avant-garde art of the 2010s, followed by 《Lee Gun-Yong in Snail’s Gallop》 (June 24~December 14 2014) at MMCA Korea and 《Project1. an/other avant-garde china-japan-korea》 (September 3~ November 30 2016) at Busan Biennial. In addition, 《Seoul Babel》 (January 29~July 6 2016) and 《Art in Society- Land of Happiness》 (May 10~July 6 2016) captured the critical movements of the era-- the alternative movement of the young contemporary artists and the refocus on Minjug art, respectively. On the other hand, The SeMA drew attention because the museum decided to direct the Seoul Mediacity Biennial that had been previously outsourced.
However, it is questionable if the physical expansion of the national and public spaces in the 2010s was accompanied by work of sufficient quality. Many institutions complained of the lack of content, manpower, and of administrative difficulties, and MMCA Korea is not an exception. Since the director Hyung-min Chung was laid off due to her association with the unfair employment process, the director position of the museum has been vacant for a year and two months. Later, the first foreigner director, Bartomeu Mari Ribas was appointed as the director. Mari, whose qualifications had been questioned before his inauguration, failed to serve consecutive terms as he, as a foreigner, showed nothing more than his lack of connections with the Korean art scene. Throughout the years, the MMCA Korea, regardless of the fames of the participating artists or the technical perfection of its exhibitions, had to be criticized for failing to provide a clear direction of the institution.
Director Yun Bummo, who took office in 2019, presented a vision of examining the Korean art history. Seemingly focusing on the “Modern and Contemporary Art” in it its title, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the museum opened the exhibition, 《Artists in Their Times: Korean Modern and Contemporary Art》 (July 21 2020~ July 31 2022). It is interesting to see if this endeavor will lead to creating more exhibitions of the modern art, which has been relatively few. The Seoul Museum of Art also has experienced a turbulence when the director Choi Hyo-jun, who took the term in office after Kim Hong-hee (2012-2017), was suspended from his position. It seems to be stabilized since the curator Baek Ji-sook, a former director of the 《Mediacity Biennale 2019》, took her term in the office.
Private Art Museums
In the 2010s, each private museum had a distinctive experience. Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, which houses national treasures, cancelled many exhibitions, including an upcoming large-scale retrospective of Whanki Kim in April since the director Hong Ra-hee resigned in March 2017. Leeum, which had offered exquisite exhibitions of the history of art and of contemporary art, created a void in the Korean art scene because they suspended many of their planned exhibitions and closed down the PLATEAU, Samsung Museum of Art, a contemporary art exhibition space run by the Samsung Cultural Foundation. It is noteworthy to see if they would fill this void with the reopening in 2021.
The Ilmin Museum of Art, located at the Gwanghwamun intersection, is also a disappointment. The Ilmin Museum of Art took an unrivaled position in the Korean art scene in the mid-2010s, responding to the activities of young artists with the exhibitions 《Unlimited Edition》, 《PERFORM》, and 《PACK》. In particular, the museum seemed to stabilize its leading position as a space for young artists’ discourse by appointing Ham Young-Jun as the chief curator, who was the director of the alternative space, Common Center. However, the museum’s position has faded as the curator Ham Young-Jun resigned for his sexual scandals.
The Amorepacific Museum of Art, which opened in 2018 in the basement of the new office building of the group Amorepacific, is also not in its full appearance. The Amorepacific Museum of Art, which has held exhibitions mostly of the traditional art, began to open exhibitions of both traditional and contemporary art after it was relocated in Yongsan. The museum has drawn much expectation to fill the void of Leeum as a rising private art museum. In the following year of the opening, the museum attracted much attention with its exhibition of the internationally acclaimed artist 《BABARA KRUGER: FOREVER》 held from June 27th to December 29th in 2019. However, the museum appears to be staggering because of the Covid-19 in the year of 2020, when it was supposed to spur various activities in the museum.
Kansong Art Museum, another private institution that owns collections of national treasures, continued its expansion. Kansong Art Museum used to open the doors to its collection only twice a year. However, it became accessible to more people by exhibiting its collections at Dongdaemun Design Plaza since 2014. In addition, they are planning to establish Daegu Kansong Museum of Art, equipped with modern exhibition facilities, near Daegu Art Museum. Each private institution is taking a breath during the time of the Covid-19. A year later, when the new art spaces are open, the private art museum sector might look completely different from today.
Among the activities of the various art spaces in Korea in the 2010s, the most interesting ones happened in alternative spaces, grouped under the name “new space”. The activities of the emerging artists who paved the new way in the art world left many traces in the Korean art scene during a short period of time.
The new space began with the 2008 financial crisis. The global economic downturn influenced the world’s culture as a whole. However, the impact was even greater in Korean art industry because the Korean art market’s 2007 boom, just before the financial crisis, was big enough to be considered as the biggest since the market’s beginning. In the market at this time, even the works of artists who had just graduated from college were sold, considered as low-price products with eventual high investment value. However, the financial crisis that came in just one year caused the sales for new artists to plunge. The art market was reorganized around famous artists’ works with the possibility of high investment return. The galleries’ activities in support of new artists naturally diminished, as did influence of alternative spaces that discovered young artists in the 2020s. Ssamzie Space was closed, and the influence of Alternative Space Loop and Art Space Pool noticeably diminished.
The young artists of the 2010s faced the reality of no place to display their works even though they continued to produce artworks after graduating from art colleges in order to become professional artists. They decided to operate exhibition spaces by themselves. In these new spaces opened all over Seoul by the artists who were born in the 1980s, all kinds of activities that were in need—creation, curating, exhibitions, seminars and more—took place. The activities happened in these spaces began to be called “new space”. When discussing the new space, the artists’ endeavors were often associated with their age—the fact that they were the new generation artists. Many of those who were active in these new spaces criticized that this association rather simplifies the distinctive characteristics of the spaces and the people who are engaged. Although it was a legitimate criticism, Although it was a legitimate criticism, with its strong association with its name, “new space” prolonged.
The movements witnessed sporadically in various places in Seoul emerged as the most critical issue in contemporary Korean art once they started to be called “new space”. The periphery movements became central in discussing Korean art from the year 2014 to 2016. Among many activities in these new spaces in 2015, 《GOODS 2015》 (Oct. 14~18), held at Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, had the most fervent energy. For this event, a total of 16 spaces were included and 36 people participated in curating, while 80 artists/groups joined the event. As a kind of new collective art fair, 《GOODS 2015》 experimented with the distribution of the artwork. Artists who present their works at new spaces inevitably faced the problem of distribution. As the title of the event suggests, each participating artist demonstrated the essence of the goods consumed in other fields such as the idol industry, animation, or games in their own way. In the end, the artists made the total of one million KRW profit, not a great reward for the participants’ efforts, but it still suggested possibility in the future.
In the following year in 2016, the exhibition 《Seoul Babel》 opened at the Seoul Museum of Art, as a monumental event in which the museum invited the activities taking place outside the system into their own museum. However, this exhibition ended up signifying the closing of the new spaces, somewhat mockingly, because in 2016, many of the new spaces, which opened with a two-year contract around 2013-2014, were closed. Moreover, the exhibition lacked seemed to have been planned carelessly, and a backlash against institutions arose. Some critics said that the activities that took place in the mid 2010s were almost evaporated.
However, the new spaces did not disappear. The curators and artists from these new spaces are now some of the most active players in major art museums, galleries, and biennials. Still, a few emerging spaces-- the 413space, Archive Spring, Post-Territory Ujeongguk, and Hapjungjigu--are still open. In addition, new spaces such as Tastehouse and Onsu-gonggan opened after 2016; many who actively participated in and outside the new spaces continue their activities as a form of “collective,” free from the burden of space management. The impact of 《GOODS 2015》, which seemed to have ended as a one-time event, impacted the artists’ art market business. 《PERFORM》 experimented with the distribution of non-material (performance) art; 《The Scrap》 explored the distribution of photography when digital images are everywhere; 《PACK》 literally packed the entire process of transporting, storing, exhibiting, and distributing artwork in a square format. All these achievements stemming from the experiences outside the institutional system indeed contributed to the expansion of the Korean art scene.
I would like to examine how those who had neither capital nor previous experience achieved these results. Three factors enabled the establishment of the new spaces.
First is Seoul’s physical deterioration. While Seoul has faced a real estate crisis in a lack of residential apartments, the rent for the uninhabited old Spaces wasaffordable for the artists. Hence, the artists opened their exhibitions in atypical locations, for example, next to factories, on second floors of shopping malls, and in residential areas. Another significant factor is that cultural funds increased in 2010. The funding sponsored by theArts Council Korea, the Arts Management Service, and the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture have provided an economic platform for artists to run heir own exhibition spaces.
Lastly, the post-Internet era provided an environment for the new spaces. Without the spread of smartphones and the establishment of the wireless internet, operating a new space would have been impossible even if spaces and funds did exist. The map applications allowed visitors to go to new places in unexpected areas, and the use of SNS made it possible to create inexpensive, effective advertising that could not have been imagined with conventional promotion methods. The news of the new exhibitions and the information about the new spaces spread on Twitter, the most widely used platform in the heyday of the new spaces. As well, feedbacks on the exhibitions were circulated on SNS.
This close connection between virtual spaces and real spaces had a great influence not only on the space management but also on the work of artists whose activities were based in the new spaces. Many of these artists, called the first-generation Digital Natives, witnessed the development of the digital devices. Post-Internet was the central theme and the background of the works produced in the 2010s. The new space was pioneered by the artists who encountered institutional and economic problems. This forefront of Korean art expanded the realm of art with the perspective of the new generation who adapted to the changes of the era.
In Welcoming the Year 2020
In the 2010s Koreans, with their memories of Japanese colonialism, civil war, and former abject poverty, became aware of Korea's greatly improved economic and cultural status. Even before Koreans became accustomed to their economic growth, a rapid increase in cultural influence had begun: K-pop with BTS and Black Pink, Korean films that captivated the international film industry in 2019 with 〈Parasite〉, and the K-dramas that started the “Korean Wave” phenomenon. Korean culture’s international status has rapidly grown.
Unfortunately, art did not grow during this change. The self-sufficient market for art has not yet formed, and the art world is still mainly supported by government sponsorship. In addition, controversy over sexual harassment and assault, and partisan conflict made many people active in the contemporary art scene feel that no progress whatsoever came through the 2010s. However, taking one step back, we see changes happening. More art spaces became available, and the ethical standards required of artists became more stringent. In the 2010’s expansion of the Korean art public sphere, problems difficult to recognize or not recognized by the art world came to the surface. As can be seen from the word “goods” that has come to the art world, various attempts to narrow the distance between the public and art are also producing results. Are there more to come in 2020 as a result of the efforts made in the 2010?
As the name of the virus suggests, with the spread of Coronavirus, the year 2020 does not seem to have started when year-end is approaching. We spend days as if the year 2019 will extend forever. Korean art spaces wait for the overwhelming catastrophe to pass. Now that the good news of vaccines and treatments is around the corner, I am ever curious about the future of Korean art.
Jihong Baek, majored in Arts and Aesthetics, worked in the monthly art magazine Misulsegye as a journalist from 2013 and as editor-in-chief from 2016. With his interest in the distribution and consumption of art as much as in the creation of art and culture, he endeavors in curating and critiquing encompassing from the fine art to the popular culture.