New blood sought for old street of artists

[Glimpse of Business in Seoul 46th in the series: Samgakji Gallery Street]

May 12,2009
Customers examine paintings at a gallery in the Samgakji area in central Seoul last Friday. By Jeon Min-kyu
If Paris has Montmartre, Seoul has Samgakji - a struggling artists’ quarter nestled in front of the U.S. military base in Yongsan, Seoul.

Throughout the quarter’s seemingly decrepit alleys and rundown buildings lie the galleries and ateliers of many obscure artists and their dreams to someday find mainstream success.

The quarter, dubbed “Samgakji Gallery Street,” has long passed its 1970s heyday and is faced with fleeing artists and waning sales.

But some old artists who remain in the area still have hopes of restoring the bustling energy of the neighborhood and establishing the area as the true Montmartre of Seoul - and a niche for cultural enrichment for ordinary Koreans.

“Here, we compose paintings for ordinary people, not the richest top 1 percent who can buy famous, expensive paintings,” said Lee Jong-sung, an area painter who has worked in the neighborhood since 1975.

“Many of the paintings you can see at cafes and stores and on calendars, and even murals at hotels, offices and amusement parks across the country are ours.”

Samgakji, the intersection of Baekbeom-ro and Hangang-ro at the heart of Yongsan, borders the Eighth U.S. Army base and the War Memorial of Korea on the northeast and Korea’s Defense Ministry on the east.

More than 30 small galleries, some dozen frame shops and an unknown number of ateliers of area painters are huddled along the main road and back alleys.

Many of the paintings are landscapes and portraits. Even someone not quite art-savvy can appreciate the paintings that unapologetically copy those of famous Western and local artists.

Samgakji’s roots go back to the 1950s when Koreans who painted portraits for U.S. military officials flourished around the base, attracting a subsequent influx of frame makers, art brokers and galleries to the area.

Business boomed in the 1960s and ’70s, as Korean paintings made their way overseas, replacing Japan as the new base of mass producted paintings that can hang on the walls of ordinary people’s homes and business offices in foreign countries.

Back then, more than 2,000 painters operated in the area, churning out hundreds of paintings each week that found their way to countries in North America, Europe and the Middle East. At the time, Samgakji Gallery Street teemed with a growing number of Koreans who started to search for paintings to hang on the walls of their new apartments.

But Samgakji’s golden days were short-lived. Since the late-1980s, China has rapidly replaced Korea and Hong Kong as the new base for mass produced paintings for global markets. As the relentless flood of cheap paintings grew, some of which even copied original works by Samgakji artists, prices plunged year by year, driving artists to leave and search for other work.

Some art dealers took sample art pieces from the area’s painters, checked the response from overseas buyers and took the samples to China for mass production.

Now only about 60 painters, mostly in their 50s to 70s, remain in the area. Young artists under 40 are nearly impossible to find, said Lee.

“I’m one of the youngest among them,” said the 54-year-old. “Young people rarely come here now because they know they cannot make money here.”

As a matter of fact, Samgakji now may be a lesser-known and less-respected neighborhood in Seoul’s art scene, while Insa-dong and the posh Cheongdam area are better known for their luxurious and elegant-looking galleries that display works of the nation’s household-name artists and those from Korea’s elite art institutions.

Samgakji has been long known as a home for obscure painters outside the country’s elite art circles and those with little education from prestigious colleges, an important factor of success in Korea’s tight-knit mainstream art community.

Pedestrians pass by paintings displayed along the street at Samgakji; A portrait of Jesus catches attention at a Samgakji gallery. By Jeon Min-kyu
Many of them paint for a living. They work more like manufacturers than pure artists and rarely have the luxury to create art based on their own vision and inspiration. Such decades-long practice has earned them contempt from those in elite art circles.

“Many of the artists who won the national art competitions and became household names are from this area, but they never admit they had once worked here,” said Kim, now the chairman of the area’s artists’ association. “They are afraid of being stigmatized as part of the ‘Samgakji clan.’”

A few well-known names from the Samgakji art district include Park Soo-keun, a prominent self-taught Korean artist who died in 1965 and whose painting, “Ladies of a Marketplace,” in 2007 shattered the record for any art piece auctioned in the country.

But what makes the area vulnerable to outside criticism may also help lower barriers for ordinary Koreans to access and appreciate art. Kim Young-so, a 43-year-old housewife in Seoul, may be one of them. She recently mused at a landscape piece of a summer forest displayed at a gallery in the area.

“I don’t know much about art, but this looks really beautiful,” she said, as she slowly walked into the gallery last Friday morning with her 7-year-old daughter. Kim, who had just moved across the street, was looking for a painting to hang on the wall of her family’s new apartment. “I’ve never bought a painting except once when I bought a piece by a friend who studied oil painting in college for a whopping 1,000,000 won ($810). That was a really big stretch for me.”

“I hope this is something I can afford,” she said, giggling.

The neighborhood couldn’t be more appealing to bargain shoppers with light wallets. A typical painting about 53 centimeters long and 45.5 centimeters wide costs around 100,000 won.

To be sure, though, some price tags even go up to 6 million won.

Lee emphasized that outside Samgakji, there are no other artists whose works are closer to ordinary people’s lives. Even the murals at the nearby War Memorial were painted by the area’s artists, said Lee.

“Many of us painted the murals just to make money, and some of us may not be very proud of it. But you have a family to feed, and what you can do best is painting,” he said.

Sadly, it was not unusual for some of the painters, while working on murals for companies, state fairs and other festivals, to die from falls. These deaths were rarely mourned - or compensated - by mural contract middlemen who were either uninsured or undercapitalized.

But despite everything, the street’s artists still hope to maintain their decades-old ghetto and earn the public’s respect as a provider of affordable and easy-to-access artworks.

“In Insa-dong, or any other major art district, artists whose paintings are exhibited don’t live or work there. It’s just a place for exhibitions,” said Lee. “But in Samgakji, our studios are here and we work here. Anyone can walk into our workshops and see the artists working on their paintings.”

In a desperate effort to revive the neighborhood, Lee and other area artists have held an annual painting festival since 2006, during which old, white-haired artists took to the street with their easels, painting there and selling their works to passersby.

“It would be a shame if Seoul should lose Samgakji, one of a few places in the city where ordinary people can just walk by without worrying about prices or not knowing much about art,” said Lee. “This is where artists for ordinary people live, and Seoul will be diminished to lose such a legacy.”

By Jung Ha-won [hawon@joongang.co.kr]

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