'Madam' Runs an Art Gallery

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'Madam' Runs an Art Gallery

Ellen Kim Murphy is the name of the gallery she runs. It is also her name. She is the director and curator of the gallery on the hilltop of the UN Village near Hannam-dong. But Ms. Kim is more than just a gallery director. She is also an art collector, a faithful host of numerous fund-raising parties, a jazz dancer and most important, a fabulous cook. The only part she proudly admits to, however, is being a great cook.

Ms. Kim says her career started by feeding people. Her penchant for feasting led to many meetings that in turn led to all-night discussions, and soon she fell in love with art and music. It may sound a bit disappointing to those wanting to know how she became the curator and director of two very established galleries, but that's her explanation. Ms. Kim has another contemporary gallery in Santa Monica, California, that is also named after her.

Our conversation with Ms. Kim began with her gallery's public reputation. Located in one of Seoul's wealthiest neighborhoods, the gallery is often said to be "a place in which many discreet political dinner parties take place." Some have spoken even more cynically of Ms. Kim's social activities and raised strong suspicions about her clout as a gallery director. The media take part in this process by often representing her as a "Big Mama of the Political Socialites."

"Some people think I am a lobbyist," she says with laugh. She seems mildly concerned but not bitter - rather, confident of her position. "When I organize something, it's a bourgeois party. When others do it, it's a dinner party," she says. "I think it's because I look like a madam," a bar hostess, that is.

To illustrate her point, she tells a story about three visitors who recently came to the gallery.

"They probably expected the gallery director to be some thin and gorgeous woman. I guess that's the stereotypical look of a hostess in a commercial modern art gallery in Seoul. But when I showed up, I overheard one of them saying, 'Hey, she fits this place well.' " She suggests that it was an ironic comment on her "madam image."

A middle-aged voluptuous woman of average height, she has often heard mixed comments about her looks from her friends in the social scene.

Her thoughts on media gossip are fairly simple: "Sometimes it's damaging. Sometimes it's favorable."

"My gallery is different from a department store. It is not a place where you just come in, grab stuff and leave. So, I think a certain degree of snobbishness is necessary," she says. "I want the kind of gallery where effort and time are required for admission but those who make it can experience the perfect conditions to appreciate the artwork."

Located in the UN Village, the gallery is less accessible to the public than neighborhoods like Insa-dong, which is known for its proliferation of art galleries.

"It's that extra effort you make to see an artwork that makes the viewing experience worthwhile," she says. "This gallery is geographically isolated and that is significant." This is part of her promotional tactic, she explains.

"It may look like an aristocratic culture from the outside but when somebody comes in, I make sure that they feel comfortable here." For example, when a reporter from the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition arrived at the gallery, Ms. Kim had a bowl of instant noodles and over-fermented kimchi to offer.

The gallery holds only three exhibitions each year. Ms. Kim thinks the public needs time to fully appreciate an artist's works. To reduce economic risks so that the gallery can financially manage itself, she shows only verified artists.

"I look for basic things. I tend to show interest in artists who have stable concepts, are healthy-minded and fit well into the social context." She adds that she also invites the occasional outside curator if the nature of the exhibit demands an "objectivity" that her position as the director denies her. That's what happened with the "Artists in the '90s" exhibition that took place a year ago at the gallery. She invited Park Young-taek to curate the show because she believed an outsider would contribute an objective dimension.

Ms. Kim insists that she never makes compromises about what she thinks is appropriate art for a commercial gallery and reconfirms her absolute stance. She says it's the quality of the artwork that determines the failure or success of a show. It's a rare claim for the director of a commercial gallery to make anywhere and especially in Korea.

She adds that there are people who support her because they like the consistency of her selection.

"To add to the party thing," she says, "I like to consider myself a cultural evangelist to all my guests, a mediator between art and the public."

Ms. Kim says she makes changes to the interior of the gallery every month without buying fancy decorations. She thinks that expensive home accessories distract visitors from feeling comfortable during the parties. Instead, she adds a little spice by changing the flower arrangements with seasonal plants. Last fall, she replaced the flowers with persimmons.

She also chooses her dinner menus for the parties at the gallery based on seasonal mountain vegetables. She emphasizes that many of the gallery visitors are ordinary stay-at-home women and says she likes doing business with women.

"Really, I never look people up and down. I always look from the bottom to top. Believe it or not, I have been like that since I was 19," she says rather adamantly.

According to Ms. Kim, quite a few people visit just to look at the gallery space because they've read about it in magazines. With its minimalist white interior and wide view of the Han River and southern Seoul, the space is always booked for photo shoots for fashion catalogues and home decorator magazines.

Unlike general misconceptions about the place, she says it is basically open to any meetings with just a small clean-up fee.

"Everyone's welcome," she says.

So how does she know all the big shot celebrities in town? "I know them because I don't live on the street."

by Park Soo-mee

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