Devoted to a master artist, but walls are bare

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Devoted to a master artist, but walls are bare

The authorities of Yanggu district in Gangwon province are building a museum to honor a poor artist who was born there, Park Soo-keun (1914-1965). But the museum has yet to get one of Mr. Park's paintings -- it can't afford them.

Mr. Park's oil paintings are among the most expensive artworks on the local market. He mainly painted the everyday life of poor and common people, especially unsophisticated farming folk, from a contemplative view. Accordingly, he is sometimes called the "Millet of Korea," in reference to the French master who specialized in rural scenes. Though Mr. Park's works have broad appeal now -- with their simplified composition, heavy colors and distinctive atmosphere, rather like a granite surface -- they were mostly unrecognized during his lifetime.

The Yanggu government began to promote construction of the Park Soo-keun Memorial Museum in 1999. It got help from art celebrities, including Chung Tak-young, a painter and professor at Seoul National University, and Yoo Hong-joon, an art critic and professor at Myongji University.

Construction of the museum started last autumn on an 18,500-square-meter site where Mr. Park's birth house had been, with a budget of 2.1 billion won ($1.7 million). Work on the two-story building is now in its final stages.

"We will open the museum around Oct. 25," said Kwon Sung-ah, an official at the district office. "We have secured about 50 pieces of Mr. Park's drawings and woodcut prints and 150 articles left by Mr. Park, through donations and purchases. But we have yet to secure any of his oil paintings."

The Yanggu government set aside a budget of 300 million won to buy Mr. Park's works. But one of his oil paintings, "A Girl Carrying a Baby on Her Back," recently sold for 505 million won at an auction in Seoul, setting a record for highest bid for a domestic modern painting. And earlier this year, Mr. Park's "A Sitting Woman" sold for 460 million won, and his "Thatched House" fetched 480 million won.

An official at the Seoul Auction House, Yang Kyung-hee, said, "The high price of Mr. Park's paintings results from demand far exceeding supply; while there are not so many of Mr. Park's paintings on the market, the popularity of his works keeps rising higher."

The Yanggu government can only hope that someone donates one of Mr. Park's paintings, but no one has shown any sign of doing so. Yanggu did manage to borrow 10 of his oils for a special exhibition to celebration the museum's opening.

"It's regrettable that the museum now has none of Mr. Park's oil paintings," said the Myongji University professor, Mr. Yoo.

"But still, the museum has great meaning. It is the first memorial museum devoted to Mr. Park. In addition, it is not a lifeless memorial hall, but a museum that can be enjoyed by residents in the region and local artists."

by Moon So-young

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