Good gray central bank shows off art collection

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Good gray central bank shows off art collection

The Bank of Korea, apart from issuing currency and administering monetary policy, is also a collector of art. In its possession is a treasure of some 1,300 Korean paintings of the mid-20th century.

The central bank has regularly bought works of art -- mainly paintings -- since its foundation in 1950, and often lends them to exhibitions. Responding to requests by artists that the bank give the public more chances to see its collection, the bank recently opened a small gallery at its head office in Sogong-dong, Seoul. An exhibition called "Korean Modern Landscape" will run there until Sept. 8.

The exhibition consists of 22 landscapes by 19 artists. Most of them are among Korea's most important artists from the last century, including the "Four Masters" of modern paintings in the Korean traditional style: Huh Baek-ryeon, Lee Sang-beom, Byun Kwan-shik and Roh Soo-hyeon.

"The purchase of paintings by the central bank was a great help to domestic artists, especially in the 1950s and the 1960s," says Kim You-sook, the director of the exhibition and an official at OpenArt, an online art information provider. "At that time, Korea's economic and cultural conditions were poor. Even buying and selling works of art was rare."

Still, the bank never was an active patron for artists. "Because our bank runs on a government budget, in other words, on taxes, it cannot collect works of art as freely as ordinary companies do," says Kim Yong-ju, the central bank official in charge of art purchases. "Our bank has bought paintings with the formal purpose of decorating its offices, though it has also intended to support artists as a secondary result."

Actually, many of the paintings in the "Korean Modern Landscape" exhibition had been hung on the walls of the central bank's halls, rooms and stairways. For example, an oil painting at the bank's head office building, made by Park Sang-ok in 1959, had been in the grand room of the Monetary Policy Committee.

The paintings acquired by the bank over the years are mostly academic and conformist, points out Kim Sun-hee, the deputy director of the bank's planning bureau, who is in charge of the gallery. The bank mainly bought paintings that won prizes in national exhibitions, she says.

"The central bank and other public institutions in the 1950s and 1960s wanted to support the local arts but did not have full knowledge of art or an informed aesthetic sense, due to a lack of expert advice," Ms. Kim says. "Accordingly, they regarded national exhibition prizes as a main standard for choosing paintings."

Paintings that were too revolutionary for their periods but are now praised and popular were never considered ?such as those of Kim Whan-ki and Park Soo-keun, according to Ms. Kim.

Still, the bank did buy works from artists who were young and unknown at the time and later developed into leading figures of Korean modern art, and the value of those paintings has soared. Among them is a landscape by Kwon Ok-yeon; among his paintings here in South Korea, this is the earliest and the only one that represents his original style. Older paintings of his exist in North Korea, which he left just before the Korean War.

These days, the bank buys three or four paintings a year. "We have spent about 38 million won ($32,000) on paintings over the last three years," says the official in charge of art purchases, Mr. Kim. "Now that there are many public institutions specializing in art promotion and many corporate patrons of artists, we don't need to be as active in purchasing works of art."

During the annual parliamentary inspections of government administration, some lawmakers criticize the bank for spending too much on paintings, he says.

But now that the bank's gallery is open to the public, the bank will make efforts to buy valuable art to maintain the gallery in the long run, Mr. Kim said. "We may get regular advice from outside curators to help us select works of art to invest in," he says.

The gallery will continue organizing special exhibitions, based on varying themes, after the "Korean Modern Landscape" exhibition closes. "Next we will provide a show of paintings that focus on human figures, including portraits," Ms. Kim said.

by Moon So-young

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