Art museums are struggling to promote their visionPyeongchang-dong, in northern Seoul, is a neighborhood where artists, performers, art collectors, gallery owners and the “old rich” reside, forming a cluster of arts and culture in the city. This is the Greenwich Village of Seoul, surrounded by Mounts Bukhan and Bukak, where promising artists and art aficionados alike meet in cozy cafes to discuss the latest artistic trends.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, art museums and galleries sprouted up in the neighborhood, most notably Gana Art Center, the largest art gallery in the capital. The Total Museum of Contemporary Art was the first private, non-profit fine arts museum to open in Pyeongchang-dong, in 1992.
The private museums were set up by individuals and corporations for pro-bono purposes: to allow the public to enjoy the various collections of the museum owners as well as to showcase up-and-coming artists. Hence, the art museums charge relatively low admission fees.
Jeon Yu-shin, curator of the Ungnolee Museum, says, “The private art museum owners’ objective is not to make money out of their museums. It has more to do with providing educational opportunities for the public by displaying art works through various exhibitions and publishing art catalogues.”
“We were the first to settle in [Pyeongchang-dong], and we persuaded Gana to come too,” says Noh Joon-eui, the Total Museum’s director. But, she continues, “Nowadays, most private museums set up by individuals find it hard to maintain their current conditions through just ticket sales. Just being able to keep up with the personnel expenditures is a struggle for us.”
Ticket prices are 2,000 won ($2) for adults and 1,000 won for students, but that is insuffucient to cover the cost of managing an art museum. “You can’t expect to reap profits from the art museum business,” says Ms. Noh. The museums are reluctant to charge more for admission because they fear that will drive potential visitors away, since many Koreans still consider patronizing the arts a rather elitist activity.
Because of their non-profit status, the museums are exempt from property tax, unlike art galleries, which are for-profit institutions. The museums’ operating funds typically come from admission fees and sales of catalogs. Because they are non-profit, no art sales transactions can take place in the private museums ― by law, only galleries can buy and sell art works.
Currently, there are nearly 60 private art museums in Korea, including the Savina Museum, Kim Chong Yung Museum and Kim Heungsoo Museum. The vast majority are located in Seoul.
Because many private art museums are struggling financially, some have closed down over the past five years, while others are moving outside the city. The Ungnolee Museum, for example, is moving to Daejeon later this year because the city has pledged to fund the museum.
To make ends meet, the museums have opened cafes, restaurants and gift shops adjacent to the exhibition halls. Some art museums offer educational programs in the fine arts and charge enrollment fees to the public or even hold auctions of their possessions to sustain their operations.
“The private museums that sprang up in the previous decade had more of a ‘memorial’ aspect, [such as the Kim Chong Yung Sculpture Museum] to honor a certain renowned artist. But private museums ought to play a role in discovering new talent and showing the art trends of the day,” Ms. Noh says.
In an effort to improve their situation, 34 private art museums, including the Whanki, Savina, Jebiwool and Total museums, formed the Korean Art Museum Association in January. The purpose is to organize seminars on fine art subjects and persuade the government to provide additional funding to help the struggling museums. With the public funds amassed from the sales of the Lotto lottery, the government formed the Lotto Fund last year to promote the arts and culture industry, and art museums such as Whanki and Total have received grants from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
With the establishment of the association, the government has pledged 1.8 billion won of support to private museums for their exhibitions. Also, the government will support internship programs for students who want to work at art museums by providing 600,000 won per month to selected students.
But Lim Byeong-tae, an official of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism who oversees museum policy, says, “Private art museums are non-profit, which means from the beginning they are operated by the personal funds of the individual and corporate owners.”
Private art museums such as Kumho, Art Center Nabi and Sungkok, which were founded by conglomerates such as the Kumho, SK and Ssangyong groups, do not suffer from financial woes because they have corporate backing.
“From my experience in the art museum industry, I realize that private museums really need corporate contributions in order to sustain themselves,” Ms. Noh says. “Private museum owners donate their entire life savings to a non-profit venture, and we should recognize that they are doing good for society by sharing their art works compared to the art collectors who merely hold on their art.”
“In the United States, for instance, the residents of a certain area in Manhattan, say the Upper East Side, amass contributions [from wealthy individuals] to donate to private museums. Koreans’ level of contribution to the arts is still lagging behind many Western nations,” she adds.
Ms. Noh is recognized as the de facto patron of fine arts among the arts community in Pyeongchang-dong, and also as a trailblazer of contemporary art in Korea. The Total Museum has held noteworthy exhibitions by foreign contemporary artists such as Tony Craig and Jonathan Borofsky. Works by modern architects such as Portugal’s Alvaro Siza are planned for this fall. “If it’s not avant-garde art, I don’t want to do it,” Ms. Noh says firmly. Indeed, art students or fine art experts, rather than the general public, are the largest group of visitors to the Total Museum, according to Ms. Noh.
“Instead of showing mere collections in the exhibitions that we plan, I try to provide a new vision for future artists,” she says.
In 1976, Ms. Noh and her husband, Moon Shin-gyu, an architect, first opened an art gallery selling design items, but within a year the couple decided to switch to fine arts, especially contemporary art. In 1984, they set up an outdoor sculpture museum in Jangheung, Gyeonggi province, which became the first of its kind. The ticket sales from the sculpture museum enabled them to operate the Total Museum. The museum holds four to seven exhibitions per year, mostly to promote up-and-coming avant-garde artists. On special days, the museum hosts numerous classical, jazz and modern music concerts. The museum was also the first to offer lectures in the academy within the museum on subjects such as fine arts, music, architecture, aesthetics, and American and British literature, among others.
“[Private art museums] ought to have multiple functions, providing music, architectural displays and fine arts to the general public,” Ms. Noh says. “It also should allow artists from various fields to exchange ideas.”
In the course of operating the Total Museum, Ms. Noh says she has thought of closing it down, but never about turning it into a gallery. “I’m just not cut out to be a salesperson [of art works],” Ms. Noh says, laughing. “Profitability is one thing,” she says. “But I take pride in the fact that I have led the museum as a space for avant-garde art in Korea.”
By Choi Jie-ho